Case Narrative

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 – Psalm 15 – James 1:17-27 – Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

You must understand this, my beloved:let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness[1].

 If ever there were a scripture passage for the days in which we live, this would be it. If ever we needed the spiritual remedy that these verses offer, the time would be now. It seems to me that anger threatens to tear us apart and devour us, in our communities, in our nation, and in the world, if we do not do something about it, and soon.

Perhaps it is because video is so much more readily available now, on television, YouTube, and social media – every day, it seems, we have access to racist rants, grocery store scuffles, road rage, angry white supremacists marching in the streets, politicians denouncing one another, and more. But it has always been there, here, among us, wherever human beings bump up against one another and their needs – or perceived needs – come into conflict. Anger is natural, the scientists and psychologists tell us. When we perceive a threat to our safety or the safety of someone we love, when an irritant becomes just too strong to be ignored, the reptile part of our brain springs into action to deal with the problem. Adrenaline surges into our body; our heartbeat increases.

And the part of our brain that governs reason, memory, and calm analysis – well, that goes into hibernation for a while, until action is taken and the threat has been neutralized. When we are angry, we are less able to consider the consequences of our actions – we lash out in ways that we might not otherwise do if we were thinking clearly. The ancient Christian fathers and mothers, especially in the desert monastic communities, knew the perils of anger. Evagrius of Pontus, who lived in the late 4th century, called anger “the most fierce passion.” He wrote,

[Anger] is defined as a boiling and stirring up of wrath against one who has given injury – or is thought to have done so. It constantly irritates the soul and above all at the time of prayer it seizes the mind and flashes the picture of the offensive person before one’s eyes. Then there comes a time when it persists longer, is transformed into indignation, stirs up alarming experiences by night. This is succeeded by a general debility of the body, malnutrition with its attendant pallor, and the illusion of being attacked by poisonous wild beasts.[2]

Vivid, but pretty accurate, wouldn’t you say? I especially love the poisonous wild beasts part. Evagrius was a good psychologist as well as a theologian. We know that unmanaged anger takes its toll on our bodies over time – increasing anxiety, high blood pressure, stomach problems. Not to mention the toll it takes on those around us. Spousal and child abuse, bullying, and harassment are only some of the tragic effects of anger that has gone unchecked.

The admonition in the letter of James to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger is a wise one – essentially the first century equivalent of “count to ten.” The way to deal with anger is not, contrary to conventional wisdom, to vent, but to breathe, slow down, take time to consider the deeper cause of our distress, and find ways to deal with the issue calmly and respectfully. Evagrius, too, had suggestions. He wrote, Do not give yourself over to your angry thoughts so as to fight in your mind with the one who has vexed you…[it] darkens the soul.[3] It darkens the soul. My own experience with anger tells me this is most certainly true.

But there is such a thing as righteous, holy anger, right? Anger that propels us to work for justice, that shows us when something isn’t as it should be, that’s okay, isn’t it? We should be angry when immigrant children are separated from families, when spouses are abused, when systemic racism leaves young black men dead in the streets and eviscerates whole communities. One of my favorite blessings, which Jeff sometimes uses here and which I have used many times at other parishes, is the Franciscan blessing that says, May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people. Anger at these things signals our understanding of God’s love for the world and our alignment with God’s work of healing the world’s pain.

So yes, there is such a thing as righteous, holy anger. But here’s a question: How can we tell if our anger is righteous, or unrighteous? What is the difference in the way these two kinds of anger feel? What is the signal within us that our anger is justified and therefore holy?

I watch a lot of detective dramas – mostly British. One of the most common plot devices is that initially someone is arrested for a crime who, it turns out, is innocent. Often, as the suspect is brought in or out of the police station or the courthouse, a mob of angry citizens swarms the suspect. These people are furious, their faces distorted with anger – they scream, point, even spit on this person who they are certain has committed a terrible crime and must be brought to justice. In their minds, this is a holy wrath, completely justified. In reality, however, they are persecuting an innocent victim.

In the moment, this rage against someone who is falsely accused feels exactly the same as anger against a “real” criminal. Our anger is incapable of knowing whether we are righteous or not, because our ability to sort out what is true and what is not has been, in the moment, shoved out of the way, just like a playground bully shoves another child into the dirt. Righteous anger and unrighteous anger feel exactly the same when we are in the middle of them. Anger by itself cares nothing for justice – it cares only for vengeance.

There is a reason why half a century ago the civil rights movement worked so hard to train its members in nonviolence – because they knew, firsthand, how anger does not discriminate between those who “deserve” punishment and those who do not. How it distorts our vision and corrodes the soul. How, as the author of the letter of James reminds us: Your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Anger is natural. It may even be justified. But it is also a mirror that distorts what we see reflected back to us. When we look and live through the lens of anger, we are cut loose from God, and from our true identity.

So how do we stay anchored in our true identity? Into what mirror shall we look to remember what we are like, and who we are meant to be? As Christians, we turn to the face of Jesus, who is the Word of God Incarnate. Perhaps we fix our eyes on an icon of Christ, who gazes back at us with solemn and strong love. We read and meditate on stories in the gospels, asking Jesus to be present with us and in us. Perhaps we practice contemplative prayer, releasing our troubled thoughts with every breath. Or we chant the Jesus Prayer – Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

We confess our sins and receive forgiveness. We take Christ’s Body and Blood into our own bodies and receive the unmerited grace of God. And we know ourselves and all the world loved, absolutely and abundantly. This, as the letter of James puts it, is the implanted Word that has the power to save our souls. This is where we find the righteousness of God, now and always.

 

[1] James 1:19-20

[2] Evagrius Ponticus, The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer. Cistercian Publications, 1972, p.18.

[3] Praktikos, p. 22.

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