I know how to be angry.
I have these well-worn neurological paths that snap to attention at the slightest twinge of resistance or inconvenience, and I grew up in a culture, like many of my European-descent Midwestern compatriots, that allowed few expressions of emotion other than the gold-standard Anger. If mastery requires 10,000 hours of repetition and practice, then I am an anger master twice over.
There is something really satisfying about an explosion of anger, if I’m honest with myself. It can feel powerful, and even effective in the right situation. I know we’ve all had those violent outbursts targeted at a couch cushion or pillow that offered a little outlet for some deep emotional turmoil. I’ve seen countless peers on the highway intensely gripping the steering-wheel and releasing what, at least from behind the glass of my window, looks to be a primal and gut-emerging scream.
Anger is a valid and often healthy emotional response to events and actions in our world and in our personal lives. It’s there for a reason. But, like most of our emotional responses, it is not intended to be the emotional operator for every scenario. Its healthy expression exists within an ecology of other emotional responses.
So, what happens when anger becomes a kind of default emotional response? What happens to us? What happens to our communities? For those of us committed to the work, what happens to our movements and reforms?
I think these are questions that we should be reflecting on in our churches and our movement spaces at this very moment, because in my opinion, anger has become the default emotional orientation for many of us. And left to its own devices it will consume and corrupt and destroy our efforts to build healthy and just communities.
This came up for me again as I listened to the Gospel reading from this last Sunday:
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” Matthew 5:21-22
Here Jesus equates anger with murder! We might be tempted to think that Jesus goes a little too far in this regard. Clearly our anger is not resulting in the physical and violent death of our neighbor, is it? Should we really be judged as harshly for an emotional reaction as we would be for taking the life of another person?
Jesus clearly seems to think that there is a relationship between our anger and at least the potential for that anger to destroy our neighbor. And more concretely, I think Jesus is articulating something that we all know to be true; that our anger, even when it doesn’t latch on to a target outside of ourselves, effectively impedes our ability to be neighbor and to experience neighboring from others.
Our neighbor might as well be dead if our anger is the primary emotional reaction to the world around us.
It is this kind of destructiveness that causes me so much concern in our churches and movement spaces. Social transformation of any kind relies on our trust and affection for one another. We are only as strong as our relationships, and anger is and has been infecting and corrupting those relationships with abandon.
As I mentioned earlier, anger has its appropriate application, and I think in our spaces of transformation, anger is rightly exercised in response to injustice and oppression. We are right to be angry about the erasure of the poor in the US. We are right to be angry at those people and policies that put children in cages at the border. We are right to be angry when unarmed Black men and women are killed by law enforcement. Righteous anger is a good and holy response to the sin of this world.
But there exists a conspiracy, between ourselves and our institutions, to manipulate our righteous anger and to destroy any possibility for the practices of health and compassion that transform righteous anger into solidarity.
Political organizations, and increasingly churches, know what a good motivator anger can be, and they know how to leverage the anger of others for their own gain. I have spent more of my time since 2016 in fits of rage than in the rest of my years combined. I’ve heard from pulpits, capitol steps, meetings, phone banks, and door knockers that anger is the only way out, and honestly, if I have to sit through one more speech from some organizer telling me all the things I need to be angry about and all the people I need to be angry with I’m going to lose it.
This anger that we keep churning up, far too often, is not righteous. It’s not aimed at injustice or oppression, rather, its aimed at our neighbor. Not only that, but we’ve been so conditioned to believe that anger is the only way out of the mess we find ourselves in, that we’re actively seeking it out. We hideout on Twitter and Facebook just waiting for something to aim our vitriol at. And then we sit back, feeling like we’ve done the good work of social transformation by destroying the very possibility of neighborliness.
I know that in this moment it can be really hard to discern who our neighbors are and who has warranted the focus of our anger, but if we don’t wrest the wheel away from anger and those who would manipulate it, we are bound to crash and burn, and our movements along with us.
Jesus’ reminder is that anger walks a fine line. But it always, always, represents a crack in our relationship to our neighbor. That isn’t something to celebrate. It’s not something to seek out like sport. Its profoundly painful. Our anger, even when appropriate and righteous, stands between our neighbor and ourselves. It requires our attentive love to heal, whether through confession, repentance, and forgiveness, or through the heartbreaking end to a relationship.
Despite (or maybe because of) my own proclivities towards anger, I cannot buy into the notion that our rage will carry us into the world as it should be. I am convinced that only our healthy and joyful relationships can do that.
Rather than seeking anger, seek your neighbor. Look through the political and social blood-sport and see the human beings that we are separating ourselves from. Jesus says, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister” Matt 5:23-24.
Our communities and our movements must be rooted in one another, more than our anger, for the gifts of this new world to be realized. We can’t build a world of peace and justice through the violence of our anger and the destruction of our neighbor.
I for one, am tired of feeling angry. I want to feel hope instead. And hope comes only with trust, connection, and love. That’s where I plan to put my energy. I hope you’ll join me there.