Divine Dissatisfaction Part 2: Joy as the Realization of the Beloved Community
O. Fernandez, New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer / Public domain
In part one of this article, Divine Dissatisfaction: Loving Rage and the Imagination of a Better World, I argued that an important aspect of Martin Luther King Jr.’s theology—what he calls divine dissatisfaction—can be better understood if connected with the concept of rage. Rage, in this context, I define as a refusal to operate within the status quo bounds of rationality, a refusal that is brought on by a spirit-infused vision of the Beloved Community. That is, rage allows us to imagine a different world—what King calls the Beloved Community—despite the fact that the Beloved Community seems impractical, irrational, or even impossible based on what has come to be accepted as common sense or status quo. At the end of part one, I connected rage with love, because love was the guiding principle of King’s theology. However, to get a full picture of divine dissatisfaction, we must also examine joy.
I now turn to prophetic joy in King’s theology, for in addition to love, rage cannot be separated from joy. What, though, does prophetic joy add to divine dissatisfaction that is not present in rage, and how is it connected to rage? I will begin by addressing what joy adds to rage in understanding divine dissatisfaction, and then examine how the two are connected. Here I turn to M. Shawn Copeland’s work, Enfleshing Freedom, and her claim that through the practice of communal solidarity the bodies of oppressed people—in her work specifically the bodies of Black women—become sites of divine revelation. However, what is the content of this revelation? That is, what is being revealed through the bodies of Black women, and what does it mean for our understanding of humanity?
Womanists like Copeland reject the commodification and demonization of their bodies, and the Enlightenment claim that the epitome of humanity is a self-sufficient white male. Instead, drawing on Alice Walker’s definition of “Womanist,” Womanists love themselves, other women, and sometimes individual men, and are “committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female.”1 In a Womanist fashion, then, Copeland is willing to accept the category of human only if Black women in community are seen as the embodiment of humanity. For, it is Black women engaged in the practice of communal solidarity that most thoroughly deconstruct the murderous, dismembering myth of Enlightenment humanity.2 So, what is revealed through the divine revelation of the bodies of Black women is a fuller understanding of what it means to be human. This holistic, unifying revelation is in turn a sign of the eucharist, in that it participates in the sacramental unity effected by the eucharist. Just as the eucharist knits together many grains in the bread, many grapes in the cup, and the entirety of the mystical body of Christ, the practice of solidarity unites persons’ bodies together in Christ. Connecting this back to rage, then, the rejection of that which defames humanity through the practice of solidarity is rage, and the sacramental unity brought about via the divine revelation effected by this practice of solidarity is joy. Joy is most basically the restoration of our full connection to God and the restoration of right relationship with neighbor. Joy is that connection to the divine that leads one to be divinely dissatisfied with the broken world as it currently exists and in turn creates a new world, a new world that is, in fact, just the restoration of the old to its natural state.3
Having examined Copeland’s theology of the divine revelation of humanity via the bodies of Black women, I argue that in King’s theology the Beloved Community acts similarly as a site of divine revelation. We have already seen in part one that in the communities of the oppressed this divine revelation, via the spirit, manifested as rage that rejects the injustice of the status quo and begins to imagine a new future. This rage points to a new future, but does not begin to constructively make it a reality. Though rage can envision and make way for a better world, it is joy that stitches this new world together. And joy is found in community, specifically those communities that approximate the Beloved Community. Through the Spirit, prophetic joy enables the community to experience some portion of God’s kingdom, i.e. the Beloved Community, before its full realization. So, to return to my previous question (“What does prophetic joy add to divine dissatisfaction that is not present in rage?”), I respond that joy adds the uniting of our bodies, the possibility of knitting all humanity together to form the Beloved Community. By way of conclusion, this article will explore a particular source of joy in King’s theology, namely the spirituals and freedom songs.
The Spirituals as the Creation of the Beloved Community
To say that the spirituals are joyful is not to say that they avoid the evil and absurdity of life. King, for example, often quoted the second verse of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which contains the lines “We have come over a way that with tears has been watered / We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.” Yet even such a macabre line speaks to the enduring presence of the community, and these lines are followed by the affirmation that “Out from the gloomy past, Till now we stand at last / Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.” Out of this gloomy past comes the light of the community in which one can take joy. Perhaps the best example of sorrow giving way to joy in the spirituals is the communal cry “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows my sorrow / Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, glory hallelujah.” At the end of and even within trouble in the spirituals, there is always a glory hallelujah, there is always joy.4
King speaks to this ability of the spirituals to bring joy out of sorrow and suffering in a sermon that is worth quoting at length,
Centuries ago Jeremiah raised a question, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” He raised it because he saw the good people suffering so often and the evil people prospering. Centuries later our slave foreparents came along. And they too saw the injustices of life, and had nothing to look forward to morning after morning but the rawhide whip of the overseer, long rows of cotton in the sizzling heat. But they did an amazing thing. They looked back across the centuries and they took Jeremiah’s question mark and straightened it into an exclamation point. And they could sing, “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.5
In the spirituals, King’s enslaved ancestors found the strength to carry on, and unite themselves to one another in community. Through the spirituals, they formed a new way of imagining the world, and they lived out this new imaginary in their song, dance, and communal worship of God. In singing the spirituals, a process which involved their whole body and soul, enslaved persons were making real a piece of the Beloved Community on earth. When King and his fellow freedom fighters sang these songs, they too were performing the Beloved Community, and through their joy realizing the Beloved Community in the midst of oppression.6
Additionally, the joyful union enacted via the spirituals was not bound by time. Rather, in the spirituals, those in the Black Church tradition enter into a sense of sacred time. The spirituals make the past present once again, bringing the past and present community together in unison. King carries with him a sense of sacred time wherein not only were he and his fellow civil rights workers re-enacting the Exodus story, when they sang “Go down Moses, Tell ole Pharoah, Let my people go,” they brought God’s past liberation of the Israelites into their present struggle. Additionally, the many millions gone in the middle passage and under the lash were made present once again in this space of sacred time. Thus, the community was strengthened because spirits are lifted, and also because their numbers were bolstered. Like Elisha, those in sacred time can see what others cannot, namely that “the mountain is full of God’s horses and chariots of fire,”7 that God’s saints outnumber the enemy and will be victorious. And, inasmuch as the coming completion of the Beloved Community is made present through the joy of the spirituals, it is not only past and present that are unified, but past, present, and future.
Thus, in these ways, the joy present in the spirituals speaks to divine dissatisfaction, because they enable a unification of the community—past, present, and future—and invite God’s divine revelation to speak to both the injustice of the present and bring about the already but not yet realization of the Beloved Community. The spirituals joyfully bring together that which has been pulled apart, whether by sin or the ravages of time, giving one a taste of what is to be true when Christ returns again to make all things new. And, once one has had that taste of future glory, one cannot be satisfied with pale imitations. King, in community, had seen the Promised Land, had experienced some small part of the joy that is to come, and this left him forever divinely dissatisfied with the status quo, always pushing for the fullness of God’s redemption in history.
In conclusion, divine dissatisfaction is a central feature of King’s theology, and it contains both rage and joy. Rage is a refusal to operate within the status quo bounds of rationality, a refusal that is brought on by a spirit-infused vision of the Beloved Community, and joy enables those seeking justice in community to experience some aspect of the fullness of the Beloved Community, and make it present in the here and now. Rage rejects the status quo of injustice and begins to imagine a new future, and joy brings us into that future and realizes it. United in divine dissatisfaction, rage and joy look forward to King’s hope that one day we will be able to alter the lyrics to one of his favorite freedom songs, “We Shall Overcome,” and sing “with a cosmic past tense, ‘We have overcome! We have overcome! Deep in my heart, I did believe we would overcome.’”8
(2) I say this because the Enlightenment view of humanity literally led to the murder and dismemberment of countless native people and those deemed “less than,” but also because it has led to the psychological dismemberment of those who do not fit the ideal of humanity. The devastating effects of the Enlightenment view of humanity is a topic Copeland addresses in more detail in Enfleshing Freedom.
(3) Natural, because we and the rest of creation were created good and in full communion with God and one another. Our separation from God and neighbor is, according the Christian story, an aberration, something unnatural that God is in the process of redeeming.
(4) For more on this, see James Cone’s excellent work, The Spirituals and the Blues.
(5) Martin Luther King Jr., “Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool,” King Institute, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/why-jesus-called-man-fool-sermon-delivered-mount-pisgah-missionary-baptist
(6) For more resources on the role of songs in the civil rights movement, see Songs and the Civil Rights Movement
(7) 2 Kings 6:17, ESV, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+Kings+6%3A8-23&version=ESV
(8) Martin Luther King Jr., “‘Where Do We Go From Here?,’ Address Delivered at the Eleventh Annual SCLC Convention,” King Institute, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/where-do-we-go-here-address-delivered-eleventh-annual-sclc-convention