Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The "Long Joy" of Martin Luther King Jr.

Today I've been reading an article posted at the online Books and Culture by Alan Jacobs. Jacobs is the Wheaton English professor who wrote the wonderful biography of C.S. Lewis called The Narnian, which made my personal "best of" book list for last year. It's a marvelous book and Jacobs is always worth reading.

This article, entitled "The Politics of Long Joy" is the first of what promises to be a regular (and if this first is any indication, excellent) column. Jacobs is calling the column "Rumours of Glory," a name he takes from the Bruce Cockburn song of the same name.

Part of the point of Jacob's article, very much worth reading, is the importance of obedience, our conformity to God's will, our lasting trust in God who is in charge of events and outcomes that we cannot control ourselves. Jacobs unpacks for us the phrase "the politics of long joy" which he explains was coined by Stanley Fish in his studies of Milton's Paradise Lost. Without going into the entire reference/explanation, let me just mention that Fish coined the phrase following a scene where Milton has the archangel Michael rebuke Adam for mis-judging a vision. Adam thinks the vision speaks of joy, when in reality the beauty and pleasure of the vision is only a surface pleasure. If Adam had discerned to the heart of the vision, he would have seen that it was not in conformity with God's will. Adam is judging by appearances rather than the deeper realities (which admittedly can be hard for we human beings to discern). Milton then explains that Adam, hearing Michael's words, is "of short joy bereft."

Jacobs goes on to say:

"Of short joy bereft: for the joy which comes from judging according to appearances and immediate circumstances, according to what we now like to call "outcomes," is always short. Only the joy of conforming our will to God's is long.

Most important of all, Fish goes on to say, 'It cannot be too much emphasized that the politics of being -- the politics of long joy -- is not quietism. Its relative indifferences to outcomes is not an unconcern with the way things go in the world, but a recognition that the turns of fortune and history are not in man's control and that all one can be responsible for is the firmness of one's resolve.' Milton says of the loyal angels fighting against Satan's forces that 'each on himself relied' as though 'only in his arm the moment lay/Of victory.' Or, in Fish's summary 'each acts as if the fate of the world is in his hands, while knowing full well it isn't.'"

Bear with me...I know I am quoting third-hand (Jacobs says that Fish says that Milton says!) but I really think this whole reflection is worth our rumination. I know I often feel caught between the necessity of action, the desire to "do something" in a given situation (especially a situation where there is a wrong to right or an injustice to address) and my own limitations. I know any action I am likely to take will be partial and imperfect at best, perhaps effective, perhaps not, and I also know that in the long-run, the outcome does not (thankfully) rest with me. This is true of smaller, more local and specific ongoing endeavors (the teaching of my daughter, my own spiritual disciplines) as well. I can plant seeds, I can speak a word in season, I can attempt to do what I think needs to be done, I can listen to God and seek to obey what he is calling me to do. Sometimes I will "succeed" and sometimes I will "fail" (seemingly fail, or really fail) but always the final results are really and truly out of my hands.

Does this excuse me from activity? It shouldn't. But I'm sure I have days, as all Christians must, when we can use the notion of trusting in God's sovereignty over final outcomes as a lame excuse for not putting forth effort and energy. We forget perhaps that God calls us to act (though sometimes also to wait and to watch) and that God calls us to pestering, nagging prayer, and that God calls us to sometimes do bold and courageous and even strange looking things in the journey of obedience. I guess the extremes we can fall into, as sinful human beings, are the extremes of empty activism -- an activism that we engage in a desperate, frantic attempt to fix things and make things better, an activism where we begin to think that the outcome *does* depend on us -- and what Jacob calls "quietism" but which I sometimes think more of as fatalism or apathy. "God will take care of things" is not a phrase which should allow us then to sit back and dis-engage from the very things that God may be doing in this world. Perhaps, amazingly, he may even do a few of them through us.

I kept reading Jacobs through the lens of Martin Luther King Jr.'s life. We just commemorated his legacy yesterday, and I spent part of the day reviewing a video D. and I watched this weekend, called The Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.. It was an amazing profile of King's life and work. Hearing the things he said, and watching his strong and consistent resolve, brought tears to my eyes. I told D. that I noticed something as the video progressed through the 13 years of King's leadership in the civil rights movement. As you watched him grow older, you also watched him grow as a leader, as a man of faith. You could see the expression of shock, perhaps even a little bit of fear, on the young King's face when he was arrested and jailed. But as you watched him, firm in his resolve, always active, and and clearly trusting in God for any and all outcomes, you could see his serenity grow. In his final speech "I Have Been to the Mountaintop," given the day before he died, he radiates peace. He exemplifies that "long joy" that Jacob talks of here. He knew that nothing ultimately depended on him ("I may not get there with you" he said to the gathered crowd, when speaking of the promised land of peace and solidarity he had so long envisioned, but he assured them that one day they would get there whether he was the one leading them in or not.) And yet he worked tirelessly for years, doing all he could, working as if it depended on him, trusting and knowing that it did not. That is why he could say, and clearly mean it, that the threats to his life didn't really matter, that he had no fear of any man. He had discovered the resting activity of long joy, the joy of "long obedience in the same direction."

"It's God's work," Sr. Lucille used to say to me, when I worked for her at Cabrini Mission Corps. And she believed it. Lucille is another shining example of someone who works harder than almost anyone I know the do the things God calls her to, to make a difference in the lives of others. And yet she knows, deep down, that the "results," the "outcomes," in the end belong to God. It always made her able to weather seeming success and seeming failure or hardship with equanimity and peace.

She rests in the long joy. Martin Luther King Jr. rested in that. I want to learn to rest in that too.


Erin said...

Another wonderful reflection. I need to learn how to rest in it, too...

Beth said...

Isn't it a lovely phrase? "The long joy" is going to be a keeper idea for me, I think...

Glad you liked it too. May we both learn to rest in it!