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Jun  2016 14
Anger and a Methodist Stove

What do Trump supporters, Sanders supporters, Confederate flag advocates, and Black Lives Matters participants and allies have in common? Anger.

Perhaps it has always been the case that there is a lot of anger in the U.S. But this round of presidential campaigning, public displays of painfully different ideas regarding justice and injustice, and seemingly incommensurable ideals of what “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” mean highlight the fact that many, many Americans are angry.

Now, perhaps just reading the examples of angry collectives I cite above raises your temperature, for we tend to judge who has a right to be angry. “Well, THIS group has something to be angry about, really! That OTHER group has no right to be angry because (fill in the blank with your reason).”

Okay. We are, of course, free to judge who has a right to be angry. Based on our own interests and values, every day we differentiate between righteous or justifiable anger and the other sort. But the truth is every person thinks their anger is justified and righteous!

So, judging the right of anyone to be angry in the court of public opinion is not likely to do anything but expose and activate the fault lines in the social landscape.

The late Jeff Smith, who was public television’s “Frugal Gourmet,” used to quip about “a Methodist stove: it gets hot when it wants to rather than when it should.” We all have that opinion about someone else’s moral formation and anger. 

Anger arises when we experience or when people we care about experience injustice, abuse, indignity, deprivation, or disrespect. Given the fact that all of us get angry, and all of us start with the assumption that my anger is justified, what do we—as citizens of the same nation, or as co-religionists—do with all that anger?

I’m not sure. There is so much of it, and grounded in such different moral viewpoints.

Anger is a powerful energy that can be used for good or for ill.

Publicly, in news and social media sources, stories ranging from road rage to mass shootings tell of the destructive power of anger. Destructive anger has a lot of friends:

  • Hate
  • Violence
  • Abuse
  • Despair
  • Fear
  • Death
  • Oppression
  • Suppression
  • Resentment.

Such anger is corrosive and acidic, both to persons and communities. Anger in persons who don’t know how to use it for good can damage themselves: high blood pressure, inflammation, depression, suicide.

And take the anger flowing from the indignity-pricked reptilian brain, engage the so-called “higher functioning center” of the brain to function as a justifying defense attorney, put an assault rifle in the person’s hands, and we know the hellacious results for others. Again and again, we know the results.

Anger can also be a positive energy. Anger can be energy for constructive change. Anger for justice, to claim one’s dignity, to effect self-determination. Anger provides the energy to rebuild lives damaged by destructive anger.

In my circles, many people say there needs to be more anger in public. There can be no peace without justice, and there can be no reconciliation without truth and repentance. I can agree with that perspective, if the anger is used for good. Which, of course, begs the question of “whose good.”

How do we use anger for good rather than for evil, and avoid acting like “Methodist stoves?” I think this matter deserves much more attention within religious communities, and I’ll say a few words about my own Christian community.

As is often the case about the Bible, the Bible per se does not speak with one voice about anger. There are multiple perspectives.

In the Bible, God gets angry (think Golden Calf and the subsequent slaughter of idolaters, with God using Moses as an instrument of hot anger, as just one of MANY occasions for Divine Wrath; Exodus 32:19-35).

In contrast, “God is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 145:8, and other places). Jesus was angry on several occasions, e.g., Mark 11:15 (and following) overturning the money-changers’ tables.

Seldom in the Bible are human beings angry and commended for their anger. In other words, while God may have “righteous anger,” for the most part, and apart from Jesus, there are very few instances of a “regular” person commended for righteous anger. In Proverbs and numerous places within the New Testament letters peace, rather than anger, is counseled.

I think we Christians need to dig deeper into the better uses of anger.

Personally, I am attracted to two texts with which I wrestle, each of which acknowledges anger and then gives counsel regarding what to do with anger (rather than texts which only advise or command against anger).

One text is Ephesians 4:26: “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” I understand that counsel when there is an interpersonal issue that should be addressed and resolved (the equivalent of the marriage advice “don’t go to bed angry”). But how does the Ephesians text apply when addressing issues and systems?

The other text is Genesis 4:6-7. God has chosen Abel’s offering and rejected Cain’s. Cain is “very angry,” presumably because the action seems unfair, undeserving, or arbitrary to Cain. God says to Cain: “Why are you angry…? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at your door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Being angry without sinning—where are we trained to master that practice?

How shall we, who claim to be Christian, use anger constructively and transformationally, rather than (and using mixed metaphors) to be consumed with and subject others to the anger of the lizard brain and a Methodist stove?

The answer could have a positive effect on the community–corrosive anger cycle in which the U.S., and not a few religious communities, seems to be trapped. 

Note: In reading before writing, I found an article, entitled “Who Gets to Be Angry?” I also found a reference to a book, which I’ve ordered but not yet read, Joseph Strand and Leigh Devine, Outsmarting Anger.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips President
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