Social Justice

Subversive Joy (And a W. J. Jennings Video!)

Image: “The Risen Lord” by He Qi

In this last week’s sermon, I talked about joy, and not just any joy; I mean a subversive joy that unmasks and overcomes the powers of capitalism, racism, militarism, economic exploitation, materialism, etc. that thrive on despair and division (this is a theme I took up more extensively in last year’s Easter sermon). It attacks the white guilt that leads to defensiveness and inaction that flees from the despair and guilt prompted by years of abuse and exploitation. It is a joy that drives communities together for action to do something about these oppressive realities and the exploitation we are complicit in. Kingdom joy, joy in the Holy Spirit, is joy that binds us together not to escape despair, but as a practice of the kingdom that fights against despair and injustice.

Joy is a practice and disposition that enables us to move from crippling guilt and despair into action. The forces of economic, political, and military violence and oppression tell us to despair. We are told to have anxiety, to hate others that are not like us and who are taking what is “rightfully ours,” to desire those things that we don’t have, to fear for our safety (and engage in offensive wars) because of enemies hundreds and thousands of miles from home, to worry if we have “enough” and to ignore those that clearly do not have enough. Hopelessness is what prevents us from empowering the poor around us, if only because the task seems so… well… hopeless. Fear is what keep us from reimagining our relations to our wealth.

But the joy of God’s kingdom, joy in the Holy Spirit, is not to ignore injustice; rather, this joy is the product and practice of our life in God’s kingdom, embracing new economic, political, social, and peace-making practices, re-writing our engagement in the joy of God’s victory in the resurrection. Joy should spur us to rethink and remake our engagement with the world and each other. It should call us to question the economic practices or the policies of displacement of native peoples and people of color that many of us have benefited from. Joy is the practice and possibility of new shared life.

Like the rich ruler who was sad at Jesus’s desire that he sell everything (Luke 18), we can get caught in despair – despair that prevents us from action and worry about the cares of the world – but Jesus reminds us of the lily and the sparrow, which can be such a tough lesson for sounding so much like a children’s story. Of course sadness and despair are many times beyond our control. God is with us in those times, the God made known in Jesus who cried in his forsakenness on the cross, but as communities we should be spaces where people can both lament and come to live into and experience this sort of subversive joy. How can we create these spaces? To bring real joy that involves combating the despair and division of the world in real economic, social, and political practices? We may not be there yet, we may never be totally there, but joy is a power and practice that enables us to move beyond oppressive and toxic despair and guilt to doing something about it.

So we see in Luke 18 that Jesus seems to give us no bonus points for our guilt and despair at our lack of ability to live into the kingdom. Rather, we are simply told to do it. Perhaps sometimes we get caught up in thinking lofty ideas and big words that sound like action but are still just words. Joy in the Spirit is the practice together of living into new life. It is not simply a feeling. Perhaps as James might say, joy without works is dead; and joy can be a work of the kingdom that sees new possibilities and drives us past despair, which is a tool of this world to divide, depress, and stifle the real movement of God’s kingdom.

How will you enact joy? How will you enact the practices of God’s kingdom? Joy may not be first, but it can be the result of life lived in true community that learns to reassess its relation to wealth and violence, practicing Jubilee economics and mutual aid and care together.

I also cited in my sermon Willie James Jennings, and Jennings has a wonderful discussion of this sort of “subversive” joy with Miroslav Volf. This video is well worth a watch:

Contact Info

Pasadena Mennonite Church
Meeting at Pasadena Church of the Brethren
1041 North Altadena Drive
Pasadena CA 91107

Sunday Services begin with fellowship at 10:00am —
Worship begins at 10:30am