A Long Defeat

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses… For when I am weak, I am strong. – 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 (NIV)

Often the work of justice seems like pushing the same boulder up the same hill. An air of futility haunts everything we do. As Paul Farmer said of his work in Haiti, we’re fighting “a long defeat.”

Yes, the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice. But all gains are fragile and reversible. The vast, tenacious mystery of evil won’t yield to us politely just because we’re right and good. Our power and virtue are limited.

Acknowledging this isn’t pessimism. The long defeat isn’t defeatism. It’s the necessary foundation for ministry that is truly God’s.

For unless we know our weakness and futility, we start believing that the world’s betterment hinges on us, that we are savior and heroes. Unless we accept our inability, even our most principled efforts become just one more arrogant attempt to force a vision on the world. Unless we relinquish the solace of outcomes, when we see trifling results, the work turns bitter and leaves us soul-fatigued and bitter, too.

But in embracing a long defeat, we find what John Shea calls “the long courage” to fight another day, and another, anyway. For when you really know that you can’t win, you really start believing that Love can.

“… Give me, Broken Lord, the long courage
for compromised truths, small justices, partial peaces.
Keep my soul in my teeth, hold me in hope, and teach me to fight
the way farmers with hoes defeat armies
and rolled up manuscripts survive wars.”
(John Shea, “Prayer for the Long Haul,” The Hour of the Unexpected)

About the Author
Mary Luti is a long time seminary educator and pastor, author of Teresa of Avila’s Way and numerous articles, and founding member of The Daughters of Abraham, a national network of interfaith women’s book groups.