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.