The force of joy in the work of liberation

By Rev. Anna Blaedel

Through this last year’s intense unfoldings, I’ve come to think about liberation as survival plus joy. Liberation = Survival + Joy. In order to get free, to live free, to practice freedom, to enflesh collective liberation, we need to create conditions conducive to survival, and we need to cultivate and nurture joy.

I confess, it is a hard time to write about joy. It is a hard time to write about joy because for so many right now survival is, and feels, so precarious. The floodgates of racist, state-sanctioned violence are flung wide open, and the fervor of fascism is rising. Murderous white men, armed to the teeth, many with badges, some without, are waging open war on Black beloveds. Militarized police, federal officers, ICE agents, and private, for-profit security companies are using old, ongoing tactics, disappearing, deporting, or detaining people. White supremacists are terrorizing Black, brown, and Indigenous beloveds with immunity, affirmed and encouraged by the President, all the way down. And. A pandemic is still raging, highlighting the deadly consequences of vast and increasing inequality in our healthcare, education, and economic systems, as well as revealing what’s at stake when corrupt, greedy, and inept people occupy positions of power while taking no responsibility for the public they claim to serve. And, climate change is exacerbating the terrifying power of (un)natural disasters. Wildfires are consuming California, an unpredictable force of flame, smoke, and ash. Hurricanes are pummeling places still traumatized from previous storms. In my own state, a derecho swept through, 140 mph winds toppling old tree canopies and tearing off roofs and downing powerlines with no real warning at all.

Here and there and everywhere, people who were already hurting, already scared, already struggling to survive are facing wave after wave of grief, loss, despair. It is a hard time for me to write about joy because I am terrified for the safety, health, and well-being of strangers and beloveds flung far and wide, and those nearest and dearest to me, and yes, even myself, too. I confess, it is a hard time to write about joy.

And. Black feminism has long claimed joy as a force of survival, a political force, an enlivening energy, a practice of living and persisting when evil forces in the world want you dead, deadened, and gone.

“Resistance,” wrote Alice Walker, “is the secret to joy.”

Our collective survival depends on resisting entrenched patterns of supremacy and abolishing institutions of deadly dominance. Resistance and abolition are practices of joy. Imagining and enfleshing shared life otherwise is a means of survival and a practice of joy.

Mia McKenzie claims resistance as the secret of queer joy. “Resistance,” she writes, “comes in many, many forms. It comes in the throwing of bricks, but not only in the throwing of bricks. It comes, most often, in quieter, less media-worthy ways…We all knew that loving each other as hard as we could was how we survived in a world that wanted to kill us, and that made our love an act of defiance.” Survival. Joy. Liberation.

This week, I connected with college students (online) for our first weekly gathering of the semester. I was so moved with joy, seeing their faces, even in little screen squares. We began with Sweet Honey in the Rock singing Ysaye M Barnwell’s “Would You Harbor Me?” We grounded ourselves, and our semester, in our dream, our vision, our commitment of being harbor for each other, of finding harbor, of being harbor for others. “Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you? Would you harbor a heretic, convict, or spy? An exile or a refugee? A fugitive or a slave?” These cannot remain rhetorical questions. We asked each other, How is it with your soul? These students are passionate, and they are tired. They are eager to learn, and they are scared. They are doing good, hard, needed work in the world, and they are struggling to find rest. They are seeking Spirit, and “good trouble,” and restful quiet, and a more livable world. What will it take to harbor each other? Our collective life depends upon it. Survival. Joy. Liberation.

“Joy,” writes Shailja Patel, “is good. And joy that need not be gated and walled against the pain of others is a surpassing good.”

Joy that “need not be gated and walled against the pain of others.”
Tender joy. Resistant joy. Disruptive joy. Quiet joy. Fierce joy.
The joy of putting your hands in the dirt. The joy of a bursting, ripe tomato still warm from the sun.
The joy of each breath, drawn and exhaled.
The joy of collecting in the streets, visioning and enfleshing a livable world.
The joy of saying Yes, fully. The joy of saying No, bravely.
The joy of creating.
The joy of practicing new patterns of relating.
Collective joy, our collective liberation.

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Rev. Anna Blaedel is theologian-in-residence at enfleshed. They bring an attentiveness to the intersections of academic, activist, and ecclesial engagement. Anna nourishes students through campus ministry for the University of Iowa Wesley Center and is enrolled in a PhD program in Theological and Philosophical Studies at Drew University’s Graduate Division.

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