On January 21, a group of women from my congregation traveled to Augusta, Maine, for our nearest “sister march” to the Women’s March in Washington, DC. Too sick with a cold to join them for the march itself, I gathered with them anyway in our church parking lot to send them off with a prayer and blessing. I ended my spontaneous prayer with a hope that whatever else the day would be, it would also be fun. Then I spent the rest of the day wishing I hadn’t said that.
Opportunities for such self-doubt aren’t rare for me, as I was not formed in a tradition of spontaneous prayer and so often wish I could have said something better than the words that came out. But this time, my questioning blossomed into full-fledged self-criticism when I encountered a Facebook post later that day. It was from a pastor and person of color I know only through social media and mutual friends, but whose frequent and unflinching reality checks for white liberals like me are always needed and appreciated. Her post reminded me, “Protesting is not a parade. Do not treat it as such”—even as my heart was lifting over the many photos of pink hats and joyful solidarity that appeared on my newsfeed, looking a lot like, well, parades.
Now I felt downright convicted, having suggested that the day could be anything other than life-and-death serious—just as women’s health care, civil rights, and environmental destruction are, yes, deadly serious. And the less privilege you have, the more deadly they can be.
So perhaps I should just write off my misspoken prayer as a clear marker of my own privilege. At the same time, it raises deeper questions about the place of joy in resistance and, more broadly, in faith—questions with which I have struggled for much longer than a few weeks.
Joy and resistance first came together for me decades ago as a college student, when I read Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy. (Spoiler alert: Tashi, the protagonist, is definitely not having a good time, and the book is not exactly a “fun” read, as it deals with the topic of female genital mutilation.) At the end of the novel, Tashi encounters a deeply problematic stereotype of happy and carefree black people: “(T)hey possess the secret of joy, which is why they can survive the suffering and humiliation inflicted upon them.” Tashi is confused: If black people possess the secret of joy, then what is it? At the end, her companions reveal that the secret of joy is resistance.
Over the years I had forgotten the details of the book, including the ending. Was it “Resistance is the secret of joy,” or “Joy is the secret of resistance”? I reread the book last week, because I’ve been revisiting powerful stories of resistance, looking for antidotes to my growing despair over the state of our country. Resistance may be the secret of joy, as Walker says, but perhaps there is also some truth in the other: Joy can sustain resistance over time. It’s what makes you want to show up for the next protest, and the one after that.
At times in my life I have been downright suspicious of anything related to joy. As a young adult pondering what my vocation might become, I was convinced that whatever God wanted for me, it did not include having any kind of good time. Sure that I was invited to compassion and “usefulness” and called to do God’s work with my hands, it didn’t occur to me to consider any of it potentially joyful. (That last part comes directly from the motto of my denomination, “God’s work, our hands.” “What about God’s play?” I once heard someone ask. That would never have occurred to me.)
Years later, as a campus minister helping students with their own vocation discernment, I found myself in a very different theological context—this time at a Jesuit university, surrounded by educators and campus ministers steeped in Ignatian tradition. The program with which I served invited students to consider “Three Key Questions” as they discerned their calling. The first one pretty much blew my Lutheran mind: “What gives you joy?” Working through that question over and over with students, staff, and faculty alike opened up the possibility that maybe what God wanted for me was not limited to usefulness … that maybe joy could actually sustain me in whatever my vocation turned out to be.
The problem with expecting faith to bring joy is that it’s so easy to end up with an emotional version of the prosperity gospel: Jesus is supposed to make you happy, so if your life isn’t great, you must not be a very good Christian. Martin Luther called that a “theology of glory” in that it focuses on the triumph of post-resurrection life and ignores the reality of suffering and struggle. It skips right to the happily-ever-after without acknowledging God’s hidden presence in the most difficult parts of the story.
In contrast, the Lutherans who formed me as a Christian taught Luther’s theology of the cross, which says that God transforms suffering and uses it to bring new life. While God does not seek our suffering or condone it, a “theology of the cross” focuses on the ways in which God is with us through our suffering and suggests that we come to know God more deeply during such times. A theology of the cross rejects superficial happiness, pointing us toward the richer joys that emerge in times of trouble. But a suspicion of joy in general can be an unfortunate outcome of focusing exclusively on the cross.
What helped with students, and what I need now, is a distinction between a deep and true joy that connects with God’s own joy, and the kind of facile pleasure or fun that American culture trains consumers to seek. (Including consumers of experiences such as protest-parades.) True joy encompasses enduring satisfaction, a sense of belonging, a feeling of being in the right place at the right time, of being fully ourselves in relation to God and all creation. All of those qualities are possible to experience even in pain, difficulty, and struggle; one doesn’t have to read far into the Bible to find people praising God with joy in such circumstances.
Attending to our constant connection to a divine source of joy makes it possible to encounter authentic joy even in the most desperate of conditions. That kind of authentic joy is counter-cultural, because it doesn’t depend on superficially joyful circumstances. For so many people around the world, including women and men marching for justice, circumstances provide plenty of reasons to be angry, frustrated, frightened, and so on. Those reasons cannot and should not be minimized or glossed over; indeed, in them we see the suffering of the cross in our own time. At the same time, we catch sight of God’s hidden presence there and the hope of God’s resurrection life yet to emerge.
Resistance certainly holds the possibilities of satisfaction, a sense of belonging while being fully ourselves, and a feeling of being in the right place at the right time. One might say that, like chicken and egg, joy is both required for resistance and emerges from it. The activist and writer Rebecca Solnit, whose Hope in the Dark is a great resource for those of us committed to resistance, puts it this way: “Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism. And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated, and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of insurrection.” One might even say, then, that joy is the secret of resistance.
So I will continue to pray for all of us finding ways to resist the “forces that defy God” and “the powers of this world that rebel against God,” to borrow words from our Lutheran baptismal liturgy. I pray that in our resistance, we encounter God—whose love for the world is seen most clearly in the cross—and discover in that encounter more joy than we can imagine.