Clap your hands, all you peoples;
shout to God with loud songs of joy.
Psalm 47:1 (NRSV)
Joy and the Weight of the World
Today, I don’t feel joyful. It seems the weight of the world is smothering me. Not only does the news distress me, but so does my reading material. This time, it’s Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, a book about his career as a defense attorney for disenfranchised and economically-disadvantaged death row prisoners.
He tells the stories of young men whose trials were a sham, with invented evidence and juries purposely selected to be unfriendly toward them. Throughout our country, a fearful and angry white population has demanded criminals be punished harshly, so a mostly black and Latino community suffer, whether or not they have truly committed a crime. The white men in power — the correctional officers, policemen, and judges — that Stevenson profiles do not seem to understand what justice really means, nor be able to see humanity in a dark face, nor to understand mercy, unless, perhaps, it is for one of their own. Especially troublesome is the plight of teenagers tried as adults and sentenced to life in hellish conditions that not even monsters deserve. This book is filled with some victory, and a lot of failure, struggle, desperation, and death. Some days I can’t bear to read his words.
In his stories of misery and horror, where is the joy?
God is Good
As a chaplain, I have the honor of hearing heart-rending, shameful, devastatingly lonely stories. Sometimes the pain of a patient’s past leaves her bitter and sullen. At other times, even in the face of great loss, physical illness, death, murder, and fear, patients say to me, “God is good.” No matter what terrors and tortures they experience, they hold onto this: “God is good.”
Is that joy?
I don’t know. When I think of joy, the first thing that occurs to me is the beauty of nature. Yet unlike the God who is good, nature doesn’t care if we feel lonely or empty or frightened. No matter what’s going on in our lives, clouds still gather in the sky and then pass, the sun still rises and spreads itself across the earth, and a lover’s face is just as soft and harp music just as beautiful. Time carries us forward from one event to the next. Thoughts arise, then float away, like cottonwood blown on a breeze.
Yet our emotions are no less changeable. When depressed, we may think all we feel is sad. Perhaps for a moment or a day or a week that is true. If we look closely, though, we will also see boredom, fear, confusion, anxiety, giddiness, numbness, happiness, and hope. Look closer still, and we see joy.
Under every strand of misery and worry lies joy. Joy is not happiness. It’s not bliss. Rather, joy is that connection with something greater than ourselves, whether it is the god that guided Abraham, Moses, and Esther, the god found in the colors and sounds of the natural world, or the god within each of us.
Coping with the News
The news these days devastates anyone who cares about human rights, compassion, and the generosity of heart, spirit, and pocketbook. The Trump administration seems determined to move us toward a brutal, totalitarian police state so that nothing can threaten the primacy of their control. Though in the end, they are unlikely to succeed, in the meantime, many of us will suffer and some will die. Where is the joy in this?
In May of 2016, the New York Times published an interview with Jimmy Carter. Before Trump was even elected, the former president and Baptist activist warned us that racists were becoming more vocal. Although concerned about this up-swelling of anger, he also realized that public rants and bullying mean we can no longer pretend we’ve “resolved the race issue adequately.”  We are forced to acknowledge the truth.
When racism, sexism, classism, and all the other isms were subtle and insidious or spoken behind closed doors, we could ignore them. Now we must respond.
Unfortunately, those of us who fear this loud animosity are not just responding, we are reacting. Trapped in our own anxieties and resentments, we scream, cry, and shake our fists. This may be necessary. Certainly, we need to say “no” to cruelty, neglect, abuse, and thuggery.
The Joy of Reconciliation
Yet can we not also address the bigger picture? Can we, perhaps, resolve the race issue? Reconcile?
I like to think so. Perhaps in a hundred years my great-grandchildren will look back at this time and say, “Yes, that’s when it all started to change.” For in times of hopelessness and ugliness, is opportunity. We can tell the truth, name the sin, honor the torment, acknowledge our own culpability, and let forgiveness spread like balm across our wounds. South Africa did it; Germany did it.
Of course, that doesn’t mean there’s no hatred or resentment in those countries. Of course there is. Some people will always feel disenfranchised, no matter how much power they have. But at least for this moment, they remember the shame, and they remember the joy of reconciliation, restoration, and redemption.
Yes, joy. When we know the despair of loneliness and loss, we can also know joy.
We All Struggle to Some Degree or Other
Most people on earth struggle to survive. They work tirelessly, feel hungry more days than not, and have good reason to fear violence. Struggle has been the human condition for at least as long as we have been growing crops and corralling animals for food. In the United States, we have enjoyed decades of relative ease, comfort, and material wealth. Life’s pretty good for most of us in this country. Yet this has not brought us joy.
So what do we do now? After all, if we weren’t joyful when things were good, how the heck are we supposed to feel joyful when they’re so bad?
The theologian, James H. Cone, in his book The Spirituals and the Blues, explores the power of African American music. Within the words and melodies of the blues and spirituals lie the misery and suffering of an oppressed people. Yet because they have survived threats and brutality, because they haven’t been destroyed by hatred, they can celebrate life in a deeper, richer way. Cone writes that “for black people, existence is a form of celebration. It is joy, love, and sex. It is hugging, kissing, and feeling.” He points out that unless we’ve faced the pain of oppression and the despair of struggle, we can’t truly appreciate life. Ever since humans have been human, we’ve figured out how to live joyfully in spite of hardship, or if Cone is right, because of hardship.
Joy Found in Love
Cone relates this kind of joyful claiming of life to black embodiment. He suggests that white culture, at least in the Western world, divides body from spirit, divine from human, and acts as if the sacred weren’t present in everything we see and hear and touch.
“White oppressors,” he explains, “do not know how to come to terms with the essential spiritual function of the human body.” Yet when we realize “the body is sacred,” then we can use our bodies, as well as our minds and words and feelings, to express our love. And in the expression of love is joy. 
Perhaps in the end it comes down to this, that we find joy in love. Thus what we love, and what loves us, is our joy. Unfortunately, this isn’t always healthy. If, for instance, we love guns or oil or heroin or the Confederate flag or rape or bullying, our joy will be twisted, lonely, vapid, and it will never satisfy. That kind of love, and the superficial joy it brings, will fade and leave us hollow.
That is not true joy. It might be happiness, but I don’t think so. I think that kind of joy, that kind of love, is really a desperate longing for a dopamine rush, for the fantasy that we’re strong, powerful, and better than everyone else. In that kind of love, there’s no joy, just addiction.
But Love of What?
So what love will bring us joy?
The love of things alive brings us joy. When we love that which can die or be taken from us, and when we love it without trying to hold onto it, then we understand the love that brings joy. We understand the tenuousness of life and therefore relish it.
Yet even so, we can’t experience joy unless we can live be rooted fully in the here and now. Why are white confederates or unemployed steel workers or dry drunks so angry and resentful? Because they’re caught up in the past. They can’t release their story.
Many of us live in the past. Our resentments and bitterness come from clinging to a story about how unworthy we are, how much we’ve been wronged, and how life has failed us. But life fails everyone. If we’re reeling from some trauma that won’t let us go, perhaps we have little control over our fears and outbursts. Still, we can engage in treatment, do therapy, learn tapping, find God, do something that allows us to heal.
Letting Go of Our Stories
Some people don’t want to heal, because then they have to let go of the story that they’re special, that they’re victims, that they’re blameless, that the world is hell. On the other hand, some people refuse healing because they don’t think they deserve to be happy. Maybe they believe all the voices that tell them they’re worthless. Or maybe they believe they shouldn’t have survived when someone they loved died, so they cling to their pain and misery as if to make up for what they should have done, yet couldn’t, as if in this way they would make it right for the ones who died in their stead.
We have so many reasons not to allow joy into our hearts. So many good, honorable reasons. We cling to past stories, we fear the future, we try to hold onto what we have, and protect ourselves from loss. As if we could keep the worst from happening, we make plans, control children, lock doors and hearts. Usually whether we guard against it or not, the worst never appears, yet sometimes awful things do occur. Though reasonable precautions do help, being miserable and afraid won’t keep bad things away. We can make a difference in the world by working for justice and love, yet there are no guarantees. We can only try, and hope, and persevere.
Joy in How We See the World
Regardless of whether we cling to the past or try to change a future we haven’t seen, joy requires a different way of looking at the world. Instead of clinging to stories of past or future, we need to pay attention to the present. We must also feel our pain and happiness and fear and loneliness and boredom and pleasure. We must be with and in our bodies, minds, and experiences.
In the midst of all the terrible things that are happening in the world, there is joy. Whether we clap our hands and shout for joy to God or to love or to nature or to life itself, we can know joy in this moment, in this place, with this sorrow and this body. Like God, joy never hides from us; we hide from it. Let us all strive and agitate to make the world a better place, but mostly, let us love and let us know joy.
- Goodstein, Lauri, “Jimmy Carter, Seeing Resurgence of Racism, Plans Baptist Conference for Unity,” New York Times, May 23, 2016, accessed June 1, 2017.
- Cone, James H., The Spirituals and the Blues, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991, 114.