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Beyond Anger

Polls tell us that a lot of people are angry these days. Habitually, set on steady-boil angry.

We’re not talking about a measured righteous indignation at injustice or the momentary blood pressure spikes at life’s little indignities and frustrations. No, the research reveals a persistent, irritable resentment.

Intuitive bystanders like me sense it as something menacing in the grocery aisle, in line at the post office, on the commute to work, in crowds of strangers. It’s an aggression just under some other person’s skin.

If you’ve spent any time around this kind of simmering anger—maybe in the family or at work—you know what it’s like to have to walk on eggshells. Or to be constantly prepared to be at each others’ throats.

The anger infecting our community does more than unsettle our inner lives. It erodes the bonds that hold us together as a society.

If we want a world worth living in, we’re going to have to do something. And I believe that Jesus shows us the basic principle for getting a grip on our own anger and for dealing with other people’s projectile grumpiness.

Jesus starts with a posture of solidarity and compassion. He’s one of us. So he knows in his marrow that people are going to be, well, people. And that’s a good if sometimes trying thing.

To borrow the title from Kate Bowler’s latest book, there’s no cure for being human. In this case, Jesus is clear that people are going to get angry.

Each of us will feel our blood boil at some point. And odds are better than even that we’ll all be on the receiving end of somebody else’s temper eventually.

But contrary to what you may have heard, Jesus did not devise a “Just Say No” campaign for stamping out anger once and for all. Anger, you see, is not a sin to be avoided. It’s a human emotion. What is good or bad, virtuous or sinful about anger comes down to how we navigate it. Not that we feel it.

Neuropsychologists tell us that anger is a natural and even necessary emotion. It starts in our sympathetic, that is to say, in our involuntary nervous system. When faced with a perceived threat we automatically go into the fight-flight-freeze mode in order to survive.

Like I said, it’s a human thing.

Gregory the Great (540-604) listed seven root vices that give rise to all the immoral behavior on this planet. You may have heard that he put anger on that list.

But actually Gregory’s original Latin for this sin should be rendered as “wrath,” or even better, as “rage.” He has in mind what happens when normal, natural anger spins out of control.

To get his point, consider that “rage” and “rabies” share the same linguistic roots.

On analogy with rabies, rage is like a deadly and contagious disease. Powerful emotions sweep away a person that we have known and leaves in their place an impulsively aggressive, potentially violent creature. And perhaps worse, wrath’s bite passes along the illness to its victims. Rage can produce rage in others.

So, being human and all, Jesus faced exactly the same challenge we do on an everyday basis: dealing with our own anger in a healthy way and responding constructively to the angry people who cross our path.

And whether he’s handling his own inner stuff or navigating the turbulence of other people’s fury, Jesus draws on one basic principle: Remember who you are and what your life is about.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s look at one of Jesus’s early conflict stories. (see Luke 4:21-30)

Jesus preached in his hometown synagogue. His neighbors were thrilled. At least, initially. But in an instant, the crowd turned violently against him.

As Luke put it, “All in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.”

What set them off was Jesus’s core message: God’s love is for everybody. No exceptions. Nobody’s religion or moral rectitude or country of origin gives them an inside track. God loves because God loves.

In response to their violent rage, Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” In other words, he embodied his principle for engaging an enraged, hurting, confused, oppressed, perilous world.

He went on his way. His way. He remembered who he was and what his life was all about.

At his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus had heard who he truly is: the beloved. And the only way to be true to that identity is to love. And so, no matter what the world dished out, Jesus responded as the beloved. As the one who loves what God loves how God loves it.

By loving, Jesus refused—and we can refuse—to amplify and spread the rage that shatters hearts and breaks bodies. Instead, our love acts as leaven, as that small, often imperceptible element that prevents the mass of dough from simply collapsing in on itself. That prevents coercion and violence from being the defining word for all things human.

Navigating our own anger and healing a world infected by rage begins with remembering who we are and what our life is all about. We are the beloved. And love is what we are all about.

Let’s remember who we are.

Ash Wednesday will be here on March 2. Here are some suggestions for book study:

My two most recent books are Looking for God in Messy Places and A Resurrection Shaped Life. Both have study guides and work well for groups and individual study. (Click either title to learn more or grab a copy)

Click here to see another list at Planning for Lent.

Additionally, here are some more titles that you might find rich and rewarding.

Michael Curry, Love is the Way

Anne Lamott, Dusk, Night, Dawn

Brian McLaren, Faith after Doubt

Kate Bowler, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved

Henri Nouwen, The Selfless Way of Christ

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