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.