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Anger That Works

Since Mitch McConnell silenced Elizabeth Warren in the Senate, the words he used to justify his action have become a social media byword for principled resistance. “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” The words—or the shorthand “she persisted”—accompanied pictures of renowned female leaders ranging from Rosa Parks to Queen Elizabeth I.

As it turns out, the Gospel appointed for this Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary features Jesus talking about anger. He has clearly in mind a specific kind of anger: contempt for another person. And so, I wrote a brief piece about that sort of anger and about God’s transforming love.

My aim was to make clear that dehumanizing another person—and especially a group of persons—ends in violence toward others but also a kind of spiritual self-immolation.

The only problem is that I hadn’t kept firmly in mind the context that informs many of my readers. A powerful man had silenced a powerful woman for speaking the truth. Tellingly, male senators have spoken in analogous terms in the past with no censure.

This is where I get to say how grateful I am for my readers. Several of you pointed out (some publicly and some privately) that anger is not always a bad thing. Without anger, resistance against abuse and injustice would give way to submission. The kindest among you realized that I didn’t really have this in mind and encouraged me to clarify. Thank you!

So here’s a step in that direction.

Anger comes in a variety of forms. Some diminish us every time.

Reactivity—a sort of knee-jerk striking out when we’re injured or afraid—is lizard-brain stuff. Its operating principle is: You hurt me I hurt you worse.

Habitual resentment eats away at us from the inside. Just ask any recovering alcoholic or addict where nursing their resentments has gotten them. “Relapse” is probably the first word many of them will say.

By contrast, righteous indignation is the mark of a virtuous person. This sort of anger is not like the contempt I mentioned above and in the previous post. Righteous indignation targets injustice and fuels our ability to persist in what appears to be the long game of making this world a better place.

The prophets embodied this kind of holy anger when criticizing Israel for its neglect, oppression, and abuse of the poor. Jesus himself spoke prophetically.

But here is the challenge that Jesus’ example sets at least for me. He was able not denounce injustice and hold the unjust accountable without once losing sight of the dignity of every human being. Even those human beings forgetful of the dignity of others.

Paradoxically, Jesus’ mission was to restore the dignity of each human individual and all of human common life. Nothing degrades our human dignity like our refusal to recognize it in each other. Even when we’re fighting for the human dignity of the oppressed and marginalized.

At times it’s a stretch for me to recognize the dignity of predatory religious hypocrites, self-promoting leaders, smug white supremacists, and the greedy. In other words, self-righteousness sometimes threatens to accompany my righteous indignation. Maybe you’ve found a similar dynamic in your own soul.

This is not to say that we should surrender in our insistence upon justice for all. There is much work to do to repair the torn fabric of the world. Instead, I urge us to remember that Jesus sets us not only to that work, but also to the inner work of our souls.

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