Jun  2016 21
Love, Anger, and Christian Practice

I’m going to take another run at last week’s topic, Christianity and anger. This week, I want to try to yoke anger and love.

From the reactions I received last week, and judging from the normal reactions to my blog posts that I did not receive, I suspect some people were thinking “In reality you would prefer that no one gets angry.”

Admittedly, at times I fear anger, because anger is powerful, unpredictable if we act based on anger alone, and potentially destructive. But I am not saying “don’t be angry,” “you have no right to your anger,” or “anger is bad.”

I am trying to reflect on the relationship between anger and Christian faith because anger is a powerful energy, I’d like to see that energy used for good, nearly everyone in the U.S. seems to be really angry about something these days, we Americans are evidently really bad at using anger constructively. I am deeply concerned that Christian communities are losing a tremendous opportunity to train persons in what might be a profound practice that would have transformative personal and social effects: the practice of yoking anger to love.

Let’s acknowledge that, in practice, the topic of “anger” is about as problematic for Christians as is “sex” or “money.”

Some Christians think being a Christian means always being nice, and being angry is a mark of failure.

Some kinds of Christians think they know exactly what angers God. They become pumped up with righteous anger and feel justified using that anger as chosen instruments of God’s wrath.

Some Christians strive for peace and equanimity in all matters, as they live out the values of the Sermon on the Mount as found in Matthew 5-7.

Some Christians believe anger and love are incompatible. Some are more angry than loving, and some have figured out how to use their anger in the service of love.

I’d like to become, and I’d like to be part of a community, that trains its members in how to use anger in the service of love.

Training to use anger in the service of love is no small order. Anger is one of the six basic human emotions (with the others being fear, happiness, disgust, surprise, and sadness) identified by scientists who have studied facial expressions worldwide (note that love, compassion, and empathy are not in the list of basic human emotions; these behaviors are apparently something other than emotions).

Anger is an incredibly powerful emotion that ranges in intensity from irritation to rage; it is interesting that both love and rage can be qualified by the word “blind.”

When we get angry, a chemical soup from our limbic system floods our brains. From the time that soup is released, it is a minimum of 20 minutes until that soup has mostly cleared from our brains.

Have you ever tried to tell someone, “Don’t be angry?” Or “You don’t have anything to be angry about because...?" If so, how effective was your injunction? Not very.

But anger is not just about the soup. When we say we are (and, I am speaking personally) outraged:

  • over another mass murder,
  • over the availability of a kind of gun no civilian should own,
  • over politicians who use a heinous event before knowing the facts simply to stoke fear and prejudice,
  • over state lawmakers who give away state resources for short-term gain while contributing to grinding poverty and environmental disasters,
  • over public schools starving for bare minimum resources,
  • over subtle and overt expressions of racism,
  • and over the promise of another presidential election season where the theatrical will eclipse the substantive—when we say we are outraged by such matters, what are we saying?

Our brains can’t swim in the chemical anger soup all the time AND still allow us to be functional, social human beings (indeed, a danger of constant anger is the corrosive effect on the body, both physical bodies and the social body).

After the soup dissipates, what of anger is left? Anger must be both the intense feeling and something that transcends the duration of the feeling, something like a memory plus embers.

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas likes to phrase theological questions about Christian community something like this: “What kind of community does the church need to be in order to show how anger can be used in the service of love?”

While there are many point where I disagree with Dr. Hauerwas, I appreciate his extensive writings aimed at helping Christians be the ecclesia, the called out community, a community that has something different to offer a culture from what a culture would otherwise have.

In regard to the topic of anger, Christians have numerous texts regarding who God is that should affect how we think about and practice anger, texts such as:

"God is love" (1 John 4:8)

"Perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18)

"We love because God first loved us" (1 John 4:19)

"Love your enemies" (Luke 6:35)

"Love God and love your neighbor as yourself" (paraphrase of Mark 12:30-31 and elsewhere).

For those Christians reading this blog, I ask: have you been trained in how to connect anger to love? I’d appreciate reading your experience, if you have. I have not had such training. Most congregations are not as skilled as would be healthy in dealing with conflict, nor with anger, and they have not trained their members to yoke anger and love.

For my part, I imagine the strategy for connecting anger and love would include the following exercises (my thanks to Daniel Goleman’s work regarding emotional intelligence, and to Brene Brown in the book Rising Strong, for several of the ideas below):

  • Attend to the anger. Feel it, own it, don’t be possessed by it and don’t disown it.
  • Investigate it, inquire into it. Become curious about it. In this way, you can also gain perspective on the anger and the story you are telling yourself. You’ll know better the root of what makes you angry.
  • Ask “What is the appropriate loving use of my/our anger?” Said differently, “Envision what the world would be like if the injustice that evoked my/our anger was rectified. How would the world be better and for whom would it be better?”
  • If appropriate, act.

In society, we train police and soldiers in how to avoid being controlled by anger when they are in the field, so they will be more likely to act in a constructive way.

When perpetrators of domestic abuse enter therapy groups, they are given training in how to handle their anger in order to love rather than hurt the one they claim to love.

In some schools, children are taught meditation techniques in order to add to their ability to identify and manage their feelings and have enjoy a more filling life.

Shouldn’t Christian communities be well-known, respected, effective schools for training to how to connect the energy of anger with the commitment to love?


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