Have a Happy Day (Lk. 23:28)

by William Willimon

Dr. Willimon, a Century editor at large, is minister to the university and professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 19-26, 1986, p. 287. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


For someone to be simultaneously atheistic and optimistic strikes us as the dumbest of all possible attitudes. How can we have it both ways except through the most exaggerated effort at ignorance? For roosters, optimism comes easily.

Jesus, turning to them said, "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children" [Luke 23:28].

When asked to rate their happiness level, the Irish turn out to be just about the happiest people in the Western world. The Republic of Ireland tops the happiness list, with the people of Northern Ireland (surprise) a close second. Happy Ireland is followed by Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark and, at number six, the U.S.A. Among the most unhappy Westerners are the Spanish and West Germans; among all nationalities, the Japanese are very unhappy and at the bottom are the reportedly miserable Italians.

Although researchers are reluctant to specify what contributes to happiness, one factor seems to be whether or not the nation has recently lost a war. Thus we find the Japanese, West Germans and Italians at the bottom feeling bad. South African whites are near the top of the happiness scale. Evidently, a little violence at home doesn’t make these folk too blue.

Affluence also seems to contribute to overall life satisfaction. When asked to rate their satisfaction with life as a whole, the Danes, Swedes, Swiss and Norwegians were high. But money alone doesn’t produce happiness. Although the Irish earn only about a third of the per capita income of Americans, they manage to be a good deal happier. And they are positively delirious when compared to the Germans, even though individual Germans are almost three times wealthier. Affluence hasn’t brought the Japanese much happiness. They rank low with the Greeks, even though they earn more than twice as much per capita.

Some have theorized that the more religious a people, the happier they are -- the staunchly Catholic Irish and the equally staunch Afrikaner Protestants, for instance. But as we walk our final steps in the Lenten journey toward Golgotha, it’s difficult to know how much happiness could be produced if we were just a bit more Christian.

In his "Homage to Clio," W. H. Auden expresses contempt for the happiness of a crowing rooster. Hearing "A cock pronouncing himself himself/though all his sons had been castrated and eaten," Auden says, "I was glad I could be unhappy." The rooster manages to be so gleeful in the morning because his brain is the size of a pea. With gleeful people walking about the streets of Johannesburg or stumbling merrily over the ruins of Belfast, I, like Auden, am glad that it is still possible to be unhappy.

A friend of mine, a pastoral counselor, theorizes that depression is "an ecclesiogenic illness." The church, with its infernal challenges of the disparities between what is and what ought to be, is the source of people’s depression. Presumably, without the church, we should all be as happy as Auden’s rooster, crowing delightedly over our barnyard, even though our children are being served on somebody’s else’s table.

Fidel Castro recently declared in an interview that "everyone in Cuba is happy" and, in a speech last year in Managua, that "revolutionaries must always be optimistic." With everyone ordered to be happy in the new Cuba and gleeful revolutionaries in Nicaragua, it should be great, at last, to have the stuffy old church out of the way so that it no longer can smear ashes on our foreheads on Wednesday or make us trudge up a hill behind a Jew on Friday.

"Leave happiness to the animals," counsels Austin Warren. "If a poet gets too happy, his poetry won’t be any good." The one real atheist whom I know tells me that being rid of the poetry of religion is like having a great burden lifted off his shoulders. The prospect of no guilt, no sin, no disparities, and no one and nothing to violate is quite appealing, one must admit.

But I simply don’t understand how atheism leads to happiness. As a Christian, one feels a kinship only with atheists who are pessimistic, like Sartre. With no transcendence and with things as they are, there is little left except bleak pessimism. For someone to be simultaneously atheistic and optimistic strikes us as the dumbest of all possible attitudes. Contrary to Marx, how can one have it both ways except through the most exaggerated effort at ignorance? For roosters, optimism comes easily.

A few years ago, the priest at a North Carolina Catholic church placed his usual array of Lenten crosses, draped all in black for Good Friday, out in front of his little church. Soon Father Ed received a call from the North Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce: "Look preacher, we’ve been getting complaints about those crosses out in your churchyard. Now inside the church, who cares? But out front, where everybody can see them, they are offensive. The retired people here don’t like them -- find them depressing. The tourists will not like it either. It will be bad for business. People come down here to get happy, not depressed."

Maybe Marx was right after all.