Wednesday, December 12, 2012

On Righteous Anger

Whenever good Christians want to justify a temper tantrum, they usually cite the example of Jesus overturning the vendors' tables in the temple. The problem is, I'm not sure Jesus was actually angry here. I think Jesus was making a calculated political statement, challenging religious authorities in a way that led to his execution. The fact that Jesus never acted out of anger, that he was always in control, was evidenced in the way he faced the ordeal of his crucifixion and death.

Of course many Christian theologians wrestle with depictions of God's wrath in the Old Testament. I personally see descriptions of God's wrath in the Bible as reflections of our own anxieties and inclinations. Perhaps God presents a wrathful face to us in order to break through to us. Or - and this how I prefer to see it - perhaps through the distortive filters of our own wrath and our inability to abide God's presence, we see God's loving face as wrathful.

I believe this, because if we look at the image of God presented in scripture we see it becoming progressively more loving. We see God's love shining through in the prophetic utterances of Isaiah. And we see it perfectly expressed in the life of Jesus.

So to those who want to use the Bible to justify modern-day religious zealotry or wrath against those we disagree with, I say, why should we regress? The Scriptures are a record of our history with God. That doesn't mean we need to relive the darkest aspects of that history. The Scriptures can be a Rorschach, in which we see ourselves as much as we see God's will. We can only understand the true meaning of the Scriptures through the Spirit, which always speaks to us in the language of peace and love. That says something about the Author of supposedly wrathful scripture.

So is anger a sin? I'm inclined to say no. If it is, we shouldn't emphasize that. It is certainly not a sin in the ordinary sense of a natural reaction to some hurt or wrong.

Perhaps we can distinguish between anger as a normal human feeling, and anger as a mode of acting in the world. Anger, as I understand it, plays an important role in any healthy grieving process. In a social sense, anger is important as an indicator of where hurt and injustice are.

But I would still argue that it is not helpful to act out of anger. If there is sin in anger, it is there. We should pay attention to anger, we should be aware of it, but we should not let it dominate us. When we let anger rule our emotions, we become incapable of hearing or seeing clearly. Effective communication becomes impossible because we hear everything through the filter of our anger. Instead of hearing what people are actually saying, we hear what our pain and what past bad experience incline us to expect. That in turn closes us off, and shuts us down precisely at the moment in communication when we need to be opening up.

Anger causes us to see adversaries and opponents where they are not. It causes us to act rashly, and lash out in ways that hurt even those who are our friends, allies and loved ones. The beautiful, terrible thing about anger is that the most natural response it provokes is anger, which in turn feeds the original anger, creating a seemingly never ending cycle.

I call this beautiful, because anger has a quality that allows us only effectively to control it in ourselves. Whenever we try to hush other's anger, whenever we try to point out to others that they are angry, it only provokes more anger on their part. So the most effective response to anger on the part of those of us who wish to dissipate it is to control it in ourselves, and allow it to run its course in others. Anger, In other words, requires a unique discipline of us that focuses us deeply inward.

One great fear that I frequently hear expressed by activists is that suppressing anger makes us ineffective in standing up to injustice. I agree that we should not suppress anger. Suppressing is a form of denial. It is a purely negative act. We should, rather, tame our anger or bridle it. Taming our anger involves acknowledging it, not denying its validity, but holding it in check so that we can evaluate all our options.

That inward taming of anger has the benefit of producing a unique quality in us especially valued by activists: determination. Determination is the blessing of feeling and experiencing anger, but not allowing it to dominate us. That blessing of determination is what grants us the strength and feeds the ingenuity to seek justice, peace and love.

That inward taming of anger has another benefit of producing unique qualities in those we interact with: calm and empathy. When we interact with others in a disciplined way, others will mirror back to us those qualities that we project. Anger produces anger. Calm produces calm. Listening makes space for listening.

Taming anger gives us, in other words, the tools we need to address the sources of injustice and hurt that produce anger in the first place.

So is there such a thing as righteous anger? If there is, it is solely the province of God, a mystery that belongs only to the Source of all creation and wisdom. If we follow in the footsteps of Christ, we will not traffic in it.

8 comments:

Duck said...

Absolutely stunning post, John. Your insights and wisdom amaze me. I especially appreciate the timeliness of your post today. Thank you.

Sending love, good energy, and a happy night your way. Duck

Trev said...

Amen. This is another especially good (and they're all so good!) post.

I really like your analysis of God's anger as a reflection of historical perceptions of God and how people have progressed over time. That's a very powerful idea, I think.

J G-W said...

Thanks, Duck! It is SO good hearing from you! Please let's chat off line via email some time soon... Use the new email address that's posted on my blogger profile! I've given up on my old Earthlink email... too much junk email, and doesn't play nicely with my fancy iPhone.

Trev, thanks. SO many people have wrestled with that Old Testament "wrathful God," for literally thousands of years! I was surprised to learn, for instance, that Jews living in the time of Christ also had a difficult time reconciling some of the wrathful imagery of God that appears in parts of the Old Testament with the more merciful, loving images of God that emerge in the prophetic writings. We know that ancient Jews wrestled with this because of writings that have been preserved from the centuries close to when Christ lived.

Certainly the life of Christ himself was an answer to the question, Should we view God as primarily wrathful or primarily loving! The fact that in "the Lord's prayer" he addresses Heavenly Father as "abba," the Jewish equivalent of "papa" or "dad" says something about his sense of the loving intimacy God regards us with...

I cannot claim as original the notion I've shared about images of a wrathful God originating in our own sinful natures... I've stolen it from others who have wrestled deeply with this scriptural/theological problem.

Arlo said...

John, the more I read from you, the bigger you grow in my estimation. You are a good soul.

Anonymous said...

Theologians speak of God's wrath as his opus alienum (alien work) and his mercy and love as his opus proprium (proper work). God is love, yet one could not say that God is wrath. In other words, love is a fundamental and eternal attribute of God, while wrath is no more than an outworking of God's character in response to sin.

In God's great mercy, God became Man for us to suffer on our behalf His own wrath upon Himself for us.

J G-W said...

Anonymous - (Jeff?) beautiful, helpful way to approach it. Thank you.

Every Christian has to find some way to make sense of God's wrath, in light of what we know of his nature...

Anonymous said...


Good guess...yes, it was Jeff.

Looks like you can recognize Lutheran theology when you see it, but I'm not the only Lutheran that reads your blog, am I?

J G-W said...

I hope not! :-)