By Gregory Thompson
One of the most important and yet least understood aspects of the work of justice is the painful emotional complexity that it entails. Most of my own reflections on the work of justice, for example, tend to focus on the impact that it can have on our cultural life; on the ways that this work might transform the varied institutions of our common life. And this is, in its own way, true. After all, one of the central points of the struggle for justice is the healing of the broken material structures that harm us and our neighbors. But it is also true that the work of justice impacts not simply our communal life, but also our inner lives. And this impact is often tumultuous.
On one hand, to work for justice is to commit ourselves to a life of inner pain. This is because the pursuit of justice requires us to look honestly at our world and at the suffering that is present. It requires us to look at the greed, malice, violence, and deceit that mark our communities. It requires us to look at the abuse, ignorance, poverty, and death that these vices breed. And it requires us to look at the intractable ways that all these realities persist—in every community of the world—year after groaning year. The emotional impact of these things on those who behold them is inevitable: grief, anger, helplessness, depression, cynicism, scorn, and—perhaps above all—utter exhaustion.
This is, in a sense, exactly as it should be. To behold the sorrows of the world without those sorrows taking flesh within us is a form of abandonment of that world. Indeed, it is the willing embrace of this pain that, perhaps as much as anything else, marks us as the people of the incarnate and crucified Jesus, the God who weeps. In this respect, our pain—even as it threatens to undo us—is a fundamental and inescapable part of the Christian pursuit of justice.
But it is not the only part. For, on the other hand, to work for justice is to open ourselves to the possibility of inner joy. It is, even amid the darkness of the world, to place ourselves in the path of inexhaustible light. Why? Because where pain is, God is. The Scriptures teach us that God is present with the poor, the outcast, and the forsaken. That God hears their cry, dries their tears, and tends their wounds. That God takes up their cause, casts down their oppressors, and will, in time, seat the forsaken at the Feast of the Lamb. This means that to move more deeply into the darkness of the world is, counterintuitively, also to move more deeply into the light of God’s presence. And this, for the Christian, is a source of indescribable joy.
This too is exactly how it should be. To behold the loving presence of God, even in the midst of sorrow, is to glimpse the mystery of redemption itself. It is to know, in a world of estrangement, the embrace of God. It is to receive, in a world of emptiness, the fullness of God. It is to taste, in a world of cruelty, the tears of God. And it is to experience, in a world of death, a foretaste of the resurrection of God. This is the secret and sustaining joy of the Christian life; a joy that—every bit as much as pain—lies at the heart of the work of justice.
Because of this, one of the most important aspects of the work of embracing the work of justice is the work of nurturing inner lives capable of embracing both realities: pain and joy, darkness and light. To embrace pain without this joy is to condemn ourselves to lives of anxious toil and destructive despair. And yet to embrace joy without also embracing pain is to condemn ourselves to cruel indifference and our neighbors to ongoing grief. Our call, rather, is to live the dappled existence of faithfulness; to cultivate—through practices lived in community—inner lives that willingly embrace both the real pain and the true joy that work of justice entails.