Today is Gaudete Sunday: the third week of Advent, the Sunday of Joy. If we take a look at the readings as a whole we find that joy is not the only major theme.
Justice shares the stage alongside joy in today’s scriptures, especially when considering John the Baptist’s directives as the crowds ask him “what should we do?” His response? Basically, he says, “practice justice.” If you have more than enough clothing and food, share it. If you find yourself in work that involves committing financial fraud or extortion, do not participate. Don’t allow greed to prescribe your actions, rather, do what justice requires. This seems to be how John the Baptist believes folks should act in anticipation of the Messiah.
Why is justice being given a spotlight on Gaudete Sunday? It seems there is an important correlation to consider between joy and justice.
If we take a lesson from the saints of justice in the Christian tradition, we learn that a life lived in pursuit of justice is definitely a life taken over by risk. Risk of injury, risk of failure, risk of losing everything, including friends, family and status. And more often than not, risk gives way to real, profound, actual loss. Justice-seekers of history have been persecuted and even murdered for defending justice on many various fronts. Think of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Jesus.
So is it worth it? Does justice lead to joy? Does true joy yield justice?
In many cases, the folks who carry the banner of justice in the Christian tradition articulate an experience of joy that parallels the journey of justice.
Peace activist/Theologian/Poet Dorothee Sölle describes her involvement in the peace movement in Germany in the 1980s and recounts many conversations she had with people who felt they had woken up to life as a result of active resistance. For many whom she struggled beside, this new quality of life emerged despite the fact that activism cost dearly. Sölle describes joy as “life to the full.” And she maintains that life to the full can only be experienced when we have emptied ourselves of the things conventional wisdom tells us to hoard, such as status, wealth, material things. Instead, we should adopt a spirit of openness and vulnerability. This way, our arms can be free from clutter, and open towards the neighbor. Openness takes on specific meaning for Sölle: it is an active openness, one which manifests itself as personal vulnerability, but one that also attempts to make one’s community more open as well. This kind of openness is directed toward society’s outcasts, and dismantles the systems that constructs borders between the “worthy” and the “unworthy,” between “us” and “them.” Openness is a pathway to justice. And it also asks us to risk all that we hold on to so tightly. But this radical letting go can also bring deep joy, according to Sölle.*
Reflecting on the relationship between joy and justice brings me to ponder my own experiences. I can honestly say that when my life is centered on justice, I experience joy. I have experienced a lot of other frustrating and painful things as well on the justice journey. But an overall sense of joy has encompassed my life. When I lack joy, I find that my first question is, am I focused on justice?
I don’t want to understate how risky and difficult it is to center one’s life on the struggle for economic, political, environmental justice. It costs. And it has cost many their own lives. Given this sobering reality, I don’t want to pretend that I am not protected by privilege on many levels. Please take this into account when reading this reflection and weighing my claims!
As 2018 draws to a close and Advent continues, we might reflect upon moments when we as a society were collectively open to our neighbors, and when we closed them off. Tear gassing children, women and men at the border was definitely a moment of violently closing out our safety-seeking neighbors. We need to reckon with this reality, because it continues to claim lives every day.
And yet, people of good faith are showing openness to one another every day as well. What about the moments when your community showed openness? Leave a comment on this blog and share with us how you and your community opened your arms in just action in 2018…
* If you are intersted in reading more, see Window of Vulnerability: A Political Spirituality (1990).