We come to Scripture with anticipation. We come with an openness to learn and to be challenged. We also come with assumptions informed by our experiences, both empowering and debilitating. I approach Galatians 5:22-23 with hope, openness and my cultural background. I bring my assumptions and experiences to the fruit of the Spirit that the Apostle Paul names as joy.
Images of joy
Living in India for two-thirds of my life, I grew up with three images of joy.
First, as a nation, India celebrates two significant events annually: Independence Day and Republic Day. The former marks the birth of modern India, with the departure of the British colonial administration. We also celebrate Republic Day, marking the drafting of a Constitution by a team of legal experts led by Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. On these days, as a child, I celebrated two days away from school, but as a nation, we celebrated freedom, the federation of states and constitutionally guaranteed rights.
These two joyful events remind me of our colonial past. We celebrate our joy with a spectacular display of our military might, with soldiers marching, a parade of lethal missiles and war games. As a child, I listened to the live radio commentary describing the troops and their prowess, the weapons and their capabilities and even the weapons in warehouses waiting to be deployed against an imaginary enemy. We were taught to exult in our weaponry and find macho joy in them.
Second, I grew up a Dalit, at the edges of Indian society. In a society stratified by the caste system, my community is the lowest. We are never alone. Other indigenous groups (Adivasis) and Anglo-Indians join us. We Dalits engage in menial labor and therefore are treated as defiled. Those engaged in nontraditional occupations are considered rebels and therefore are doubly defiled.
My ancestors were denied access to literacy lest we gain or create subversive knowledge and challenge the power systems. Some of us managed to acquire literacy. We worked for landlords, sowing in their lands, watering their crops, gathering their harvest and storing it in their barns, alienated from the fruits of our labor. Some of my cousins scavenge their dirty neighborhoods and therefore are considered dirty. A few own small plots of land, a right granted to us by an alien power a century ago. Our bodies are untouchable but are not immune from being raped. We Dalits are a defeated nation, humiliated daily and at every level.
Yet we still celebrated life. Our joy expressed itself in the rhythms of a drum (dappu) and the accompanying dance (chindu). We danced in protest and with hope, but never with violence. We rejoiced, indignant but hopeful. This joy helped us survive the millennia-long slavery. It fueled our resistance. Needless to add, the dominant castes complained and the British colonizers outlawed this expression of subversive joy.
Third, I grew up a Christian, specifically as a preacher’s kid. As a child, I joined other children in singing and reciting biblical verses, as was customary in the Christian communities. The chorus, “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart!” remains fresh in my memory. There is something about the lyrics and tune that make it indelible. We improvised the tune, much to annoy our adult teachers. We danced, but rather carefully lest we offend the pious sentiments of congregation members. The joy in the song is an interior affection confined to our hearts — but could be contagious when shared with others.
Work of the Spirit
Reading Galatians, I encounter a federation of defeated nations located in Galatia, a Roman colony. Some of them were indigenous and others migrated before or during the Roman occupation. They were defeated, divided, ranked and controlled — a time-tested colonial strategy. The colonizer graded the defeated populations on the basis of their descent (as Jews and gentiles) and on their social status and gender (3:28). The colonizer created rivalries among the defeated, lest they unite and resist. Colonial war games taught the controlled communities to accept their defeat and glorify the victor. The imperialists created an aesthetic that promoted an unbridled lust for power, deified savagery and instilled in the victim an unabashed craving to victimize others. They depicted the victims as those deserving to be penalized by the self-proclaimed god, Caesar. The statues in the city vilified some social groups, warned the potential rebels and ratified the status quo.
Christians in Galatia were not immune to this “different” (1:6) gospel; imperial gospels can be “bewitching.” Although defeated and humiliated, the Galatians imitated and internalized the very norms and practices of which they were victims. In this context, at the beginning of the fifth chapter, Paul declares that “for freedom Christ has set us free” (5:1a). He encourages the community to “stand firm” and “not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (5:1b) and describes the symptoms of the imperial rot as the “works of the flesh” (5:19-21), naming a few: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, emperor-worship, sorcery, hatred, hostilities, fear of the other, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, murder, drunkenness and irresponsible reveling. It seems that the colonized communities had become accustomed to these “obvious” symptoms of the imperial environment.
Earlier in the epistle, Paul presents a Christ who was crucified, establishing a bond of solidarity with the conquered communities in the city. He introduces Christ as the crucified Lord, a countercultural power center in a world in which Caesar the crucifier was the “lord of all.” Paul presents himself as someone crucified with Christ (2:19). Once a ravager but born anew in Christ, Paul has become like a mother suffering the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed anew in the Galatians (4:19).
This is where the Spirit is at work — in this formation. And how is the work of the Spirit demonstrated? Paul names a few manifestations: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (5:22-23).
Paul dexterously contrasts the works of the flesh or symptoms of the imperial culture with the fruit of the Spirit, a subversive countercurrent. The works of the flesh are self-gratifying and power-accumulating. On the other hand, the fruit of the Spirit is communitarian and power-sharing, more relational than personal. The fruit of the Spirit builds the community, disrupts the dividing walls that the dominators build. Love, not legal status, builds the community. Joy, not denial, fuels resilience in the community in the face of dehumanizing realities of life. Gentleness, not arrogance, fosters reconciliation.
Writing to another colonized community in Philippi during his incarceration, Paul gathers his resilient courage and encourages it to rejoice in order to resist the debilitating powers (Philippians 4:4). On both occasions, joy is coupled with gentleness, two critical ingredients of resilience. Resistance and grace go hand in hand.
Joy during calamity
It may sound odd to hear of joy amid a triple pandemic, just as it might have sounded odd for the Galatians to hear of joy. Yes, it’s a triple pandemic.
First, we are in the middle of a public health crisis. It has left more than 102 million infected with possible lasting implications on their health. More than 2.5 million families or communities are grieving the death of loved ones courtesy of COVID-19. We in the United States have lost over half a million people. The world’s nations have tasted defeat, although to varying degrees. We have found a vaccine but the end is not in sight yet.
Second, this health crisis has ripped open wounds caused by centuries-old transnational racial injustices. It has revealed in daylight the structural violence in our societies, whether in India or the United States. Denied access to healthcare and the right to vote, our Black siblings have protested. Brutally and relentlessly violated in every sphere of society, they have pleaded for the right to life, while a broad coalition of other communities has joined them in the Black Lives Matter movement. Meanwhile, the white supremacist regime in power deployed imperial guards to silence the movement, using the bewitching gospel to justify their supremacy. Have we found a vaccine for this 400-year-old social epidemic? Are we seeking one?
Third, COVID-19 has exposed the economic inequalities in our societies. While millionaires milked millions out of the government relief packages and took advantage of the changing market needs, millions of Americans have lost their jobs or closed their small businesses. The elected leaders neither have had the political will nor a plan to address the issues of unemployment and hunger. Despite the protections provided by the federal and state governments, numerous families have faced evictions and found themselves homeless. When will we strive for a remedy to our economic inequities?
Joy is wherever the Spirit is. It is present where and when Christ is being formed within communities and individuals. Where is joy amid this triple pandemic?
In my work with incarcerated individuals, I have often listened for the sites and moments of joy in their lives as they have discussed humiliation, defeat and bondage. Joy surfaces when individuals look beyond their self-interests and personal challenges to encourage others to face yet another difficult day without basic dignity. It overflows as they listen to each other. It thrives on the basketball court while dribbling the ball and exchanging a smile. It is visible in the random gestures through which individuals affirm the human dignity of other people.
During the triple pandemic year, I have witnessed joy in acts of solidarity across religious and racial differences. For example, our Sikh neighbors around the world have intensified their hospitality through their langars (community kitchens). Like others, Sikhs have faced economic hardships, but they have not allowed challenges to diminish their hospitality or their generosity, which has no walls either racial or religious. Millions have smelled and experienced the aura of joy in their gurudwaras and on streets where their generosity has dismantled dividing walls and their hospitality has defeated hunger.
In the thick of racial tensions, we have watched joy at work when folks from different racial and religious backgrounds and of diverse age groups have joined the nationwide protests against the systemic injustices in American society. George Floyd’s cry to “breathe” has reverberated across the country and brought a broad coalition of peaceful protesters. Led by our Black siblings, these groups have affirmed the basic human dignity of every disenfranchised individual. They have refused to be bewitched by the supremacist gospel that said their lives did not matter. Through their advocacy and protest, they have not only fought for human rights but have also sought to restore humanity in the victor. Don’t these movements, moments, spaces and coalitions of solidarity – these moments of resistance, resilience and reconciliation – reveal joy, the fruit of the Spirit?
James Taneti is a minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He directs the Syngman Rhee Global Mission Center for Christian Education at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.