A Brief for the Defense

On her Sunday morning blog, Diana Butler Bass shared the following poem by Jack Gilbert entitled “A Brief for the Defense.”

Sorrow everywhere.
Slaughter everywhere.
If babies are not starving someplace,
they are starving somewhere else.
With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants.
Otherwise, the mornings before summer dawn would not be made so fine.
The Bengal tiger would not be fashioned so miraculously well.
The poor women at the fountain are laughing together
between the suffering they have known
and the awfulness in their future,
smiling and laughing while somebody in the village is very sick.
There is laughter every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight.
We can do without pleasure, but not delight.
Not enjoyment.
We must have the stubbornness
to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.
To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship anchored
late at night in the tiny port looking over to the sleeping island:
the waterfront is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence
as a rowboat comes slowly out and then goes back
is truly worth all the years of sorrow that are to come.
--"A Brief for the Defense”
by Jack Gilbert (1925–2012)

While Gilbert’s poem might not appeal to everyone, especially those who would rather not have the vivid images of suffering it evokes stick to them. However, I find it to be a call for resistance so many need these days.  The vivid images of suffering I see or read in the news stick to me.  It is this stickiness that causes me to wonder if the experience of “delight” or “gladness” is a betrayal of the suffering around me.  Is it dismissive or insensitive to experience joy when others are experiencing such pain?  Jesus didn’t think so.

Consider the exchange he has with his disciples found in Matthew 26: 6-11.  At the beginning of the chapter, we read Jesus is trying to prepare his disciples for his impending death.  The chief priest and elders were assembled at the palace of the high priest Caiaphas scheming about how to have Jesus arrested and killed. Yet, Jesus even with the knowledge of the suffering that is to come, takes delight in the act of kindness shown to him by an unnamed woman with an “alabaster jar” who anoints his head with the oil of expensive perfume.

The disciples’ response to her extravagant gift was indignation. Condemning it as a waste of a resource that could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor.  Overhearing their complaints and judgments Jesus says to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”—Matthew 26: 10-11, NRSV

 Pulled out of the context of the story, a message that “you always have the poor with you” seems problematic at best. Yet what if Jesus’ response to the disciples was much like what the poet Jack Gilbert offers.  Perhaps it is a reminder of the importance to risk delight.  To resist being overcome by the sadness and despair of the world that will always be with us.  What if our delight in seeing the beauty and joy God has created is an acknowledgement that beauty and joy is always with us too??  What if we, as many have suggested, choose joy as the greatest act of resistance? What if we could be stubborn enough to accept “our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world”?

Dear friends, it is certainly worth trying.
Blessings, Rev. Shana Johnson, ISC Conference Minister