Justice and Joy

This was first published in my newsletter earlier this year.

In the days after Rep. John Lewis passed away, among the many tributes and remembrances, I stumbled onto this short video of the congressman dancing. He’s standing in what I assume were his offices when Pharrell Williams’ Happy begins playing. As people in the background encourage him on, the civil rights icon gets down. “Nothing can bring me down,” he says, smiling as the footage ends.

There’s something special about seeing a man who gave his life to the fight for equality, at tremendous cost to himself, acting so playfully. We know Rep. Lewis was committed to justice but it seems we should also remember his joy.

I’ve been thinking about joy lately as I spend time with white Christians who are beginning their racial justice journeys. These fellow-pilgrims are often experiencing a lot of things as they open their eyes to racism: guilt, shame, anger, and, above all, a passion to make a difference. There is an underlying earnestness to all of this, a desire to get it right.

What’s often missing, though, is any tangible sense of joy. We enter this journey toward justice with a sense of responsibility and a desire to make things right. And to these noble intentions we often bring our bleak dispositions, as though the seriousness of the work precludes us from enjoyment.

I remember when I first noticed this dreary tendency in myself. Some pastor friends had invited me to join them to make a video calling Chicago churches to respond to a recent spate of police brutality. Our assignment was heavy and I arrived at my friend’s church in what I assumed was the appropriate frame of mind. But then something strange happened. Between each take, as the cameraman fiddled with his gear, these Black pastors would begin telling stories and jokes. Their laughter filled up the small office we were standing in. And then it would be time for another take and we would quiet down, remember our lines, and wade back into the troubled waters.

On the drive home I thought about these pastors who could stare into the face of injustice one moment and cut up with each other the next. I realized that I had experienced an emotional capacity that is rare among white people. My friends’ laughter didn’t mean they were insensitive or oblivious to injustice. Rather, they had a joy that was strong enough to stand toe-to-toe with wickedness. Their laughter revealed a faith stronger than my own, a faith that allowed them the playfulness that characterizes those who understand the difference between God’s responsibilities and our own.

In Scripture we often find justice and joy holding hands. “When justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers.” (Proverbs 21:15) It is understood that those who give themselves to God’s priorities will also experience the joy that only God can give.

Rep. Lewis embodied this. A few years ago he posted the above image on Twitter and wrote, “Even though I was arrested, I smiled bc I was on the right side of history. Think about that! He’d been beaten, attacked, arrested and could still smile into his jailer’s camera. This is why joy is so important to the work of justice. For one thing, it is evidence of God’s presence with us. The power of God is always greater than the power of our circumstances, no matter how wicked they may be. But joy is also a compass. Like Rep. Lewis, we can board freedom buses headed into danger or cross bridges leading to dangerous confrontations without losing our way or turning back. Joy points the way through hazy lies, warped assumptions, and dehumanizing institutions.

Rep. Lewis was fond of calling us into good trouble. Let’s make it joyful too.

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