The Problem of Less than Righteous Anger

Today’s gospel of Christ’s cleansing of the Temple (John 2.13–25) always makes my heart sink a little. It is not so much that the message of the signs tends to be overlooked in favour of the upsetting of the money-changers’ tables as that many choose to see in it a justification of their own anger. To identify one’s own anger with that of Christ seems to me at best questionable and at worst blasphemous. Just think for a moment what made His anger righteous:

  • full knowledge of grave wrong
  • the right and duty to correct
  • appropriate action

How does our own anger measure up to that?

We often assume full knowledge when it might be more accurate to say we have partial knowledge, enhanced by speculation on our part. That doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t be angry, but it does mean we should proceed with caution, aware that we may not be judging matters as we ought. Then, as to our right and duty to correct, we may need to reflect a little. There is no doubt that we must act when we see a wrong being done or some evil being perpetrated, but where does the emotion of anger come into it? What are the limits, the parameters within which our anger is justifiable? The third point, appropriate action, is often, in practice, the most difficult. Words tend to run away with us when we are angry, hostile gestures come too easily. We end up insulting or condemning the other. Shouldn’t we be asking ourselves whether destructive anger of this kind can ever really be righteous?

The problem, of course, is in the emotion which takes over and clouds our vision even as it stirs us up. St Benedict has quite a lot to say about anger, urging us never to act in anger or nurse a grudge; never to feign peace or swear falsely, but always to speak the truth, heart and tongue. (RB 4.22–28) He is drawing on a much older tradition which identifies anger as one of the principal ‘thoughts’ that can lead us into sin. Cassian is particularly readable on the subject. In chapter 8 of the Institutes (one of the books specifically recommended by St Benedict), he not only analyses the causes of anger and the ways in which it manifests itself, he also emphasizes the importance of controlling it if we are to be at peace. That doesn’t mean repression, it means choosing an appropriate way of controlling the energy anger releases in us and directing it to improving the wrong or evil situation.

Sometimes one sees in Social Media intense and destructive anger at work, or one is aware that someone is displaying disproportionate or misplaced anger (think road rage, for example). One of the gifts that monastic life has to offer the world is the realisation that anger doesn’t have to run away with us or be destructive. Very few of the monks or nuns I know would ever claim to exercise righteous anger. There is always a hesitation, an awareness that God’s view may be different from ours. That doesn’t mean we don’t get angry or say or do things we ought not to do, but I think it does ensure that we remain open to the possibility that we may be wrong, and that we have a duty to set right whatever we can. St Benedict, like so many before him, advocated always making peace with anyone we’ve had a difference with before sunset. That takes humility and courage, but one cannot pray with a raging heart. Anger squeezes God out, especially when it is less than righteous; and there’s the rub.

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Angry Twitter, Angry World

St Jerome

St Jerome, whose feast we celebrate today, has a not entirely unjustified reputation for being a bit of a curmudgeon, though I think myself it has been unfairly exaggerated. I wonder what he would have made of Social Media? There are days when both Twitter and Facebook, for example, are awash with bile and one has to fight down the urge to say, ‘If you really did have the solution to the world’s problems, we’d all be beating a path to your door; the fact that nobody is should tell you something!’ The problem with Social Media, as we all know, is that it is instant. If we had to sit down and ink our words on parchment or chisel them on stone, we might allow ourselves a moment’s reflection. That is why, in my old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy way, I always urge people to pray before they look at their smartphones or log onto the internet. Being conscious of what we are doing is important if we are not to waste our energy and our opportunity.

As you might expect, St Benedict has a lot to say that is pertinent. His chapter on humility, which we are in the process of reading over the next few days, urges restraint in speech and action so that we are fully conscious of what we are about. We don’t drift into holiness, so to say; we have to make an effort. Anger is one of the passions early monastic writers marked out as being a major barrier to holiness of life. It takes over, controls us, places a red mist before the eyes so that we don’t see or hear clearly. St Jerome’s letters to St Augustine often contain passages in which he acknowledges what a struggle he had to contain his anger and check his tendency to sarcasm. He had, of course, the virtue of his fault: he was courageous. The cowardice that masquerades as charity was never for him! The difficulty for us is discerning when our anger is merely anger, and when it is a necessary and righteous means of achieving a good end — and I have to say, if my own experience is anything to go by, anger is usually just anger, with nothing righteous about it at all.

Today, I’d like to suggest two things: that we pray for Gaza, where Jerome lived some of his life; and we pray for all who use Social Media, that we may build up rather than destroy. Angry Twitter, angry world? The connection is not as distant as we might hope. Perhaps we could ask the prayers of St Jerome to help us.

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Gun Crime and Anger

In recent days we have seen two more appalling gun crimes, in Washington D.C. and Austria. They, of course, are shootings that hit the headlines. Many others rate no more than a brief paragraph in the local newspaper (where that still exists) or go unrecorded because they are ‘lost’ in a bigger conflict such as Syria or the Democratic Republic of Congo. We read, register the obligatory shock and horror and then move on, hopefully with prayer for all concerned; but unless we are in some way personally involved, our response tends to be no more than that.  (I know there are people campaigning to change things, from stricter gun control to more generous support for ex-servicemen and women, but I am speaking generally, for a purpose.) What few of us ever seem to address are the roots of violence in ourselves or others.

One of the paradoxes of being passionate for peace, for example, is that we can become just as violent as those who advocate war. Our desire to defend the defenceless can make us aggressors, too. When I raised doubts about President Obama’s initial advocacy of some form of military intervention in Syria, I received a handful of emails accusing me of lacking compassion for the Syrian people. The violence of the language used made me want to retaliate and highlighted how difficult it can be to break the circle. That is one reason why, in the monastic tradition, mastering the passions is so important. Anger is a passion from which we need to be freed, otherwise it can destroy. There is a place — a much smaller place than many will admit — for righteous anger, but I think myself that only the truly pure in heart are capable of such. Most of us just get angry, and our anger is anything but pure-hearted. Again, most of us would probably (not certainly) never use a gun, but we use words, looks and gestures to wound others. Even our silences can be hurtful. The anger inside has a way of showing itself outside, no matter how much gloss we try to put on it.

Perhaps one response to the killings in America and Austria would be to look into our hearts and acknowledge the violence that lurks there. Then ask the Lord for mercy, for he alone can purify the intentions of our hearts.

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Screaming v Listening

Some days I wonder how the human race has managed to survive so long when there seems to be such an immense amount of anger and hatred inside even the most mild-mannered of people. Yesterday I was the reluctant eavesdropper of a conversation about Edward Snowden. ‘Whistleblower’ to one and ‘traitor’ to the other, the conversation generated more heat than light. Indeed, at one point I wondered whether I’d need a tungsten boiler suit to protect myself, so fiery was the debate becoming. It was at that point that I realised neither was actually listening to the other. There was no dialogue, only the statement of opinion; and given that neither appeared to be any more ‘in the know’ than any other consumer of internet/broadcast news, I think ‘opinion’ is the correct word to use. It was an argument without real substance which appeared to leave both men cross and out of sorts.

It also left me wondering how often I act in the same way. Those things I care about, that engage my passions so to say, may be precisely the ones about which I need to do more listening to others. Screaming at someone, whether metaphorically or literally, may be an indicator of how deeply something is felt, but it isn’t an argument and does nothing to advance understanding or agreement. Perhaps we are screaming at each other too much these days. As my mother used often to remind me, God gave us one mouth but two ears. He must have meant something  by that.

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Why is Everyone so Angry?

I often ask myself why everyone is so angry. Read the comments section of any online newspaper and you’ll find as much bile and invective as thoughtful argument. The media themselves certainly don’t help, always looking for the victim impact statement whenever there is a tragedy or pouncing on people while they are still in a state of shock and unbelief. (As an aside, did reporters really need to interview those children caught up in the terrible events at Sandy Hook Elementary School yesterday, or am I being ludicrously squeamish?) We have made tragedy into a spectacle and anger is, apparently, a legitimate response to any imperfect situation and a marker of our own righteousness. We get angry in order to feel good.

The trouble is, anger doesn’t get us anywhere and it doesn’t make us feel good for very long. It just intensifies the misery and compounds the negativity. When Jacintha Saldhana died, the Australian presenters responsible for the hoax telephone call received death threats from people who had no connection with Mrs Saldhana or her family. What was going on there? The presenters behaved foolishly, then compounded their folly by parading their regret for all the world to see; but who were those people who felt they had the right to punish others for what they had done? Did their anger help Mrs Saldhana’s family? No. It made a deeply sad situation even sadder. When the pope started tweeting, many used the opportunity to fill his twitterstream with dismissive and hostile remarks. Accusing the pope of bigotry or reviling him personally for the sins of his co-religionists may not sound very bad, but anyone who has been on the receiving end of false accusations knows how wounding they can be, and not only to oneself. Did berating the pope achieve anything? No. It merely made some people give up on Twitter altogether.

Yesterday, on Facebook, people misidentified the killer at Sandy Hook and started a campaign against someone completely innocent. Was that simply a collective howl of pain, feelings of revulsion and horror needing an outlet which in blind fury lashed out, or was there something uglier and more sinister at work? I don’t know, but it did nothing to assuage the grief of the bereaved or make the world a safer place to be. Instead, it made one person and his family feel very vulnerable indeed.

I think anger of the kind I am talking about is very often an inverse form of what it is ostensibly condemning, and it is deeply worrying. Regular readers know I am a great admirer of René Girard and have been profoundly influenced by some of his reflections on the nature of violence and the Christian response thereto. Passing the poison on has to stop, and it has to stop with us. Yes, we need to address situations that are wrong, but knee-jerk reactions are rarely the best even if they provide some temporary relief to our feelings.

Isaiah has a beautiful image for what the coming reign of God will achieve in our lives. He speaks of doing away with the clenched fist and the wicked word (Isaiah 58). That is precisely what our prayer during Advent aims at: a transformation of heart and mind that will allow Jesus our Messiah to unfurl our fists and open our hands to receive the gifts he wishes to give us. Sometimes those gifts are painful and costly, but he knows our pain and shares it with us. That is what the Incarnation means. This morning, in Newtown, Connecticut, people do not need our anger. They need our prayer.

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Lacrimae Rerum

Death moves us to tears. The tragic murders in the Jewish school at Toulouse have a particular poignancy because the victims were so young and defenceless. No amount of security, no amount of forethought is adequate protection against human malice. So, there is ‘mourning and weeping in Ramah and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children because they are no more’ and the rest of us feel helpless in the face of such horror. Tears express what we  cannot put into words.

Feeling helpless is not the same as being helpless. There are two things all of us can do, no matter where we live or what our age. First, we can pray: for those who have died, those who grieve, those who are trying to find the perpetrator, for the murderer himself. Prayer invites God into situations where he seems absent, makes it possible for him to change hearts and minds, allows change to occur. Second, we can examine our own conduct. Violence begins inside. In most of us the angry word, the unkind thought never go beyond that, but we are deluding ourselves if we think that we are ‘incapable’ of doing violence to another. As we pray for the teacher and children killed in Toulouse, and the three soldiers killed the week before, let us also pray for ourselves, for pure and compassionate hearts.

As always, I should love to know what you think.

*Lacrimae rerum: The quotation is from Vergil, Aeneid 1. 462, ‘sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt’ (These are the tears of things and mortal things [i.e.sufferings] touch the mind), spoken by Aeneas as he gazes at a mural depicting the Trojan War. Vergil’s warrior hero is overcome by thoughts of the futility of war.

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