Eliot Church of Newton “Responding with Anger”
As some of you know, at the end of June, my boyfriend Joe and I returned from nearly five weeks of traveling across the country. There is a litany of reasons why that trip was a wonderful adventure, one reason being that we could unplug from the world. Imagine five weeks of no headlines, no media stories of the latest tragedy, no reactionary facebook posts, no hostile twitter comments. While we were away, the shootings in Orlando happened, and while we heard the news, we were sheltered from much of the downpour of media coverage of it.
Coming back to Boston was like entering a waterfall of reality. Mass shootings, ISIS attacks, Black Lives Matter protests all over the country, and investigations into Clinton’s emails. What for us had been beautiful vistas, many nights sleeping under the stars, encounters with wildlife, and long trains rides over the countryside transformed into the chaos of our country and our world. Quite frankly my reaction was one of deep irritation. Peace became conflict. Beauty became brutality. Relaxation became agitation. It was a rude transition from one world to the next, and honestly, it made me angry. I was mad that the world was disrupting my serenity. I was mad that so many people are experiencing suffering. I was mad that we as people, as Americans, don’t seem smart enough to rise above our problems time and time again. And I was mad that I felt more or less powerless to stop the tornado that is the current chaos.
But I wasn’t the only one angry. It seemed as if the whole world had blown up in anger. Not that this was anything new. Yet one swift check through the headlines might make a person think that all that exists out there is anger, and the ugly kind at that. The media today seems to highlight the worst kind of our anger—a media system that favors the dramatic and bombastic and makes our politics play out like the most brutal of a football game: you’re either on one team or the other and you tackle each other until one side wins. The media has become a tool used for finger pointing and hate. Our anger today is spiteful, hateful, tribal, and violent.
Anger is a complicated and often confusing emotion that, in its ugly forms, expresses itself into unproductive extremes. On the one end you have those who lash out violently with their anger perhaps unconsciously unleashing a consuming emotion or perhaps intentionally using it as a tool for harm. The other extreme are those who feel the anger but hold it in and let it fester slowly inside, perhaps because they think anger is wrong or they are afraid to express it. Assuming that this is the spectrum upon which anger lies, one might think that there is no place for anger at all or that there is no healthy expression of it.
Yet we need anger. We could barely go on without it because anger is a motivator that has a unique role in our lives. As Bede Jarret says, “The world needs anger. The world often continues to allow evil because it isn’t angry enough.” James Russel Lowell says, “Usually when people are sad, they don’t do anything. They just cry over their condition. But when they get angry, they bring about a change.” Anger is a passion and a fire. It’s the thing that gives you the confidence you might not otherwise have to raise your voice and take action. Anger is dignity that refuses to be compromised. And truly, there are reasons to be angry. People are suffering, people are dying, the world is being polluted—and what is particularly maddening—we have the physical, political, and cultural tools to change it, and we fail to use them. The world is far from perfect, and anger is the fire in our bellies that enables us to name problems and search for solutions.
So, it’s true, anger is an ambivalent thing. It can be reckless or it can be productive, and there is not necessarily a clear line to distinguish the two. I think Aristotle’s quote is so particularly brilliant for this reason. “Anybody can become angry—that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way—that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.” The trouble with anger, which Aristotle so kindly points out, is that anger in and of itself is not useful or beneficial. It must be paired with wisdom to be expressed in such a way that it is productive, effective, powerful, and positive. Cultivating this wisdom is a challenge, especially in our moments of rage, but it provides us with an incredible opportunity to harness our anger for productive ends.
One thing that I think people miss about anger—probably due to the violent and vitriolic way it gets played out in the public sphere—is that deep and genuine anger often comes from a place of love. We often get angry when we care for something or someone and what we care about is threatened or treated poorly. In our anger, we are often called to protect or advocate on behalf of the well-being of that thing or person. It is our anger based in love that enables us to react when a child is bullied, a landscape is bulldozed, a city is bombed, or a cherished value is violated. Our anger is that meter that informs us when things are wrong, when they should be better and they are not. Our anger is a cry for a better world.
Jesus exhibits this anger from love when he turns the tables at the Temple as we see in Mark. This act of turning the tables is one of the only times that Jesus reveals and acts upon his anger. So significant are his actions that it is recorded in all four gospels. Scholarly analysis disagrees precisely the motive behind Jesus’ actions, but the scripture itself reveals the extent to which Jesus is displeased with the happenings of the Temple. He is so bothered by the money changing and the selling of sacrifices that he claims that the Temple is being turned into a den of robbers. Out of deep love for the Temple and how the Temple is to be used, Jesus angrily challenges the priests, a challenge that inspires their retaliation leading to his death. Given that Jesus teaches about forgiveness and loving one’s neighbor throughout his ministry, Jesus’ actions at the Temple are an anomaly. He leaves his anger for the moment that matters most. In his action of turning the tables, Jesus demands better of the people around him, he demands a better way.
Our anger, even in its most ugly expression, is a cry for a better world. And as such, I argue that our anger is not something to fear, but to listen to more deeply. We must tune our ears and our hearts to the ways in which people are fighting for that which they love. When our anger rises up, we must ask ourselves, “what is it that I care about that feels so threatened or violated?” And imagine a world in which we asked that of others who express their anger. Imagine a world in which we listened for the pain and the hopes and the desires of Trump supporters or Black Lives Matter protesters or police officers or even people joining ISIS. What might we learn about them if we were to really listen to their anger instead of dismissing them, fearing them, or reacting with hostility? We might not agree with them, and we certainly cannot condone the violence, but how might the conversation change if we respond with listening, knowing that behind the anger there is love and anguish?
Anger is a tough emotion because it’s powerful, passionate, and can lead us to do ugly things. But it is also a gift. It offers us an opportunity to understand ourselves and others at a deeper level—if we truly practice careful listening. We have the potential to transform anger for the purposes of peace, love, and righteousness.
We should not ignore our anger or shy away from it. Nor should we condemn it. And we certainly can’t let it get the best of us and use it as a way to lash out. Instead, our anger calls for us to listen more deeply to the heartfelt desires and fears of ourselves and of others so that we may harness it with wisdom. Anger is a cry for a better world.
A groan comes from deep in our bodies
From our bowels we must groan.
There is no moan to fully express the ache
No cry to fully convey the sorrow.
At the root where we are all together
You can hear the groaning
From our bowels, you can hear the groaning.
With every travesty we hurt.
With every bomb, we hear the hurt.
Not just from those who die
But also from those who kill.
There is no evil.
Let our groans rise up
Expose the ill that poisons us
Let our most primal selves weep
Over the breach we have committed
To each other, to ourselves,
To the fabric that connects us.
Let our groans be ones of healing
Let our wails be for peace
Let our mourning be of love
Let our cries be of hope
From our bowels let us live.
Let us live for each other.
Let us live for a better way.
Let us live for a better world.