by Daniel Harrell
If you spend any time on social media, or are part of the Twitterati like so many including, famously, our President, you’ve no doubt been sucked into various vortexes of viciousness. Whether finger-pointing political snark—chirping with a vengeance since Friday—or some other nadir of insulting nonsense, we humans seem wired to enjoy venting against others. No species on Earth displays moral outrage like humans, nor all the joy we seem to relish from it. Typically, whenever psychologists offer subjects an option to punish others in a lab setting, we overwhelmingly choose it. Neuro-imaging studies show how letting out our anger against others—especially strangers—lights up our brain’s reward pathways. It feels good to put other people in their place. The internet has taken these evolutionary instincts and kicked them into hyperdrive. Author Brian Resnick equates Twitter to an old Skinner box (think of lab rats pushing a lever for a reward). The joy of public shaming reinforces our anger. We spitefully press the lever, tweeting and posting, engaging in virtual vigilante justice without fear of any real retaliation, all the while racking up self-righteous style points.
It makes me pine for the good ol’ days when you would yell at somebody to their face. Seeing another actual human face, face-to-face, tones down your rage if for no other reason than your risk of getting punched in our own face.
I’m a fairly low drama, cooly detached, emotionally-stunted kind of guy. I don’t lose my temper much. But there have been times when confronted by overt offensiveness, discourtesy or basic idiocy when my heart races, my voice raises, my face reddens, my arms flail and I fume and rant. I lose my cool and lose control. I think of biking downtown in the bike lane when a guy opened his taxicab door and sent me flying onto the sidewalk and then yelled at me for endangering him. Or the driver that rammed me from behind in the parking garage only to then sue my insurance company and say it was my fault for not moving. Or the neighbors out walking their dogs who take it upon themselves to fertilize my yard. Or the volunteers who promise to show up and then stand you up like what you needed was nothing. Or the engineer dad who paraded into the elementary class with some subatomic science project he totally did for his kid, making your child’s do-your-own-work chemistry experiment of food coloring and Alka-Seltzer look so lame. Or that anonymous pew critic who leaves a long litany in your box of all the ways your sermons and leadership could be improved and we could be more like you-name-the-church down the road and see attendance increase, as if I didn’t know this already. Man, I’m getting irritated just remembering these things. Hashtag livid.
Of all the deadly sins, anger is the most pervasive. It’s also the most enigmatic. The Bible, while warning against it, never condemns it entirely. Instead it says, “be slow to anger,” and “in your anger do not sin.” We have it on record that Jesus got mad—at hypocritical Pharisees, at Temple moneychangers and at a fruitless fig tree. The Old Testament prophets from Moses to Malachi let loose against the Israelites constantly. The Psalmists shook their mad fist at God. Job expressed honest anger against God too and was called blameless. There is a distinction between righteous and unrighteous anger that we’d never ascribe to gluttony or lust or greed.
We’re looking at the Seven Deadly Sins this Lent—and probably doing them too. Gluttony, lust, greed, anger, sloth, envy and pride—perversions recognized by early Christians and later theologians as vices that curve human souls inward, stunting any love we’re commanded to show toward God and our neighbor, rendering us self-focused, self-centered, self-indulged, self-absorbed, self-esteemed and self-worshiped. There is a parasitic perniciousness to these sins: they get their energy from the goodness they pervert. Gluttony perverts the goodness of eating and nourishment; lust perverts the goodness of relationship and sex, greed perverts the goodness of contentment and sufficiency. What about anger? Here’s the enigma: Anger perverts anger.
Righteous anger against injustice or in defense of love so easily slides into self-justified fury. In our wrath we rationalize wildly as to why we deserve what we want, why we didn’t get what we were really owed, why we’re right to act badly against what we choose to perceive as a slight or offense. One early desert monk, musing on anger, said covering your eyes with gold or lead doesn’t matter. Preciousness of motive does not change the reality of blindness.
Thirteenth century theologian Thomas Aquinas categorized sinful anger three ways: getting angry too easily (quick-tempered), too extremely (hot-tempered) and staying angry too long (long-tempered). I might add dumb-tempered, getting mad at stupid stuff, like at college basketball games. I mean seriously, how do you let that Florida player go end-to-end for a three-pointer to win it? I mean, I know you can’t foul, but c’mon, at least slow him down in the backcourt! Still hurts, doesn’t it, Badger fans? I feel your pain. I may feel it again a few hours from now. And I’ll be so ticked. Talk about madness.
Forgiveness is the classic Christian antidote for anger. But let’s be honest. Having to forgive just makes us madder. Having to forgive pushes every button; it’s neither fair nor fun. Even worse than being commanded to forgive, Jesus says we can’t just go through the motions. Saying “don’t worry about it” or “you’re forgiven” doesn’t count if you really don’t mean it. Jesus tells the uncomfortable parable of the king who forgave a servant an enormous debt only to have the forgiven servant refuse to forgive a fellow servant who owed him a few measly bucks. Enraged by this forgiven slave’s refusal to do unto another as had been done unto him, the king threw the ingrate into prison to be tortured forever. “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart,” Jesus said.
I remember this difficult sermon about a young woman brutally and unspeakably gang raped. The minister told the young woman how forgiving her abuser was possible with Jesus’ help, as if that’s what she would ever want. Who would ever forgive such violence? How do you forgive when the perpetrator is not some faceless abuser in a sermon illustration, but a parent? Or a relative? Or a spouse? Or an employer? Or a friend? What do you do when what you want to do is set fire to their car with them in it and inflict deep, long-lasting agony? Why does God still allow them to walk and to breathe and even find a way toward redemption? It’s not only the people who frustrate, offend or threaten to hurt who outrage us, but also the outrageous notion that Jesus actually cares for these people—and then that he commands us to care for them too.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” Jesus said. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that? So what if you do good to those who do good back? Even sinners do that. No, love and do good to your enemies, and expect nothing in return. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind even to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, as your Father is merciful.” I’m just reading the Bible here. “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” Is this hard? It is unbearably hard. It kills us to do it. But it killed Jesus first. Christ’s ferocious love for us compels us to love our enemies and seek their good if for no other reason than we once were enemies of God and shown mercy too.
Strung up on a cross by his adversaries and abusers, Jesus prayed for their pardon. It while we were still sinners that Christ died for us. It is while your enemies are still your enemies that Jesus commands you love them. Forgiveness does not wait for the hurt to diminish or scars to heal. It does not wait for the offender to repent or apologize. Repentance, while a precondition for receiving forgiveness, is never a precondition for its offer. Reconciliation may be a two-way embrace, but forgiveness operates in one direction. It rises up out of the bitterness and out of the pain, while the hurt throbs and the wounds are raw. Christian forgiveness is foolish, unfair and unjust, which is why the Bible calls it grace.
And Jesus says grace has to come from your heart. It’s not enough to go through the motions of mercy. If you say you forgive someone, but secretly retain a bill of particulars ready to be whipped out at the next infraction—this is not forgiveness from the heart. If you say you forgive someone, but never speak to them again, never invite them to lunch, never sit beside them in church, never fully embrace the friendship as it was but leave the forgiven thing as an unforgotten barrier between you—this is not forgiveness from the heart. Writer Anne Lamott quipped that withholding grace “is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.” Martin Luther King Jr. called it “adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.” Martin Luther went so far as to say an unwillingness to forgive means you’re not truly a Christian.
Following Jesus places insufferable restraints on our anger. You feel repressed by being a good Christian. On the other hand, getting angry and holding back grace makes us feel guilty. You feel frustrated for being a bad Christian. No wonder nobody goes to church anymore.
Critics of Christianity used to argue that religion fueled all the rancorous division we suffer in America. Dump God and get enlightened and culture wars would cease and we’d finally enjoy peace on earth and goodwill among people. But a funny thing has happened on the way out the church door. People became more tolerant of gay marriage and legalized pot, but as journalist Peter Beinart writes, a more deeply divided country has emerged, more viciously nationalist and racist and irreconcilably outraged. Rather than secular tranquility, conservative evangelicalism has given way to a zealous Alt-Right Christendom. Mainline Protestantism has given way to a haughty-left Bernie insurgency. Nonviolent African-American conviction gave way to Black Lives Matter, devoid of the Dream. Demographics show how divorcing your church leads to harder, more bitter lines drawn, more anger and indignation, more prejudice and hatred and resentment. Just check your Twitter feed. Or just read your newspaper if you can still find one. Not that Christians don’t get snarky too, but following a Lord who demands you love enemies and welcome strangers and turn the other cheek does have its salubrious effects—it tempers our temper.
Checking my own Twitter feed I found an article on Saturday about a Syrian Jihadi who turned to Jesus. It’s a beautiful story. Prior to his conversion, Mr. Mohammad said he would have slaughtered anyone who suggested he become Christian. Not only have his beliefs changed, but his temperament too. Today, his wife confirms, with a hint of understatement, that he is “much better to be around.”
At the same time, in keeping with anger’s enigma, forgiveness as antidote to anger does not demand abandoning justice. On the contrary, grace begins with indictment. To forgive is to blame. Step up to any stranger and simply say “I forgive you” and you’ll see what I mean. You only extend grace to those who’ve done you wrong. Moreover, forgiveness does not demand the suppression of anger. Instead, Christian forgiveness taps into the energy anger generates. If by righteous anger we mean the unleashed, ardent and hungry hostility against those evils which offend, frustrate, threaten, endanger or impede; then the cross of Jesus—the passion of Christ—is anger’s fullest and finest expression. The sin Jesus bore—of which we all share guilt—brought down the full fury of heaven. And yet God’s anger against us redeems into an eternal relationship with us. Redemptive anger is fueled by love. Righteous anger is righteous because its endgame is reconciliation. As holy emotion, anger hungers and thirsts for justice and holds love at its core. As the Scriptures remind, love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. It seeks first the kingdom of God and the goodness of others. Without love, anger is but a cataclysmic explosive set on destruction.
The gospel does not abandon justice: not for those whose cities and villages in war-ravaged countries have been plundered and burned to the ground by the vengeful bent on destruction? Not for those whose daughters and sisters have been raped, not for brothers and sons senselessly shot, or blameless bystanders and public servants driven over and stabbed, or the poor and helpless without recourse, or mistreated refugees and strangers.
Christianity confesses faith in a risen and returning Jesus who comes to judge the quick and dead. In the Old Testament and New, justice gets done by a “Son of Man” riding in to the rescue, an army of angels in tow. Intent on harvesting the earth of its ripeness, this Son of Man will unleash an angelic army of grim reapers to weed out the wicked—the chaff, the lazy and unforgiving servants, the goats, the broods of vipers and hypocrites to be bundled and burned. Divine recompense is pure gospel. The vindicated righteous will rise and shine and give God the glory-glory, providing sweet dreams in the meantime for the oppressed and abused. Nightmares only arise when Christians presume divine justice is ours to execute. We may get angry, righteously furious, but no throwing stones or passing judgment lest we be judged. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” Unlike human depictions of justice, blindfolded with scales in hand, God sees through every motive, his eyes wide open, slow to anger and abounding in love. God is not impartial toward evil; but he does love mercy more. Certainly more than we do.
For Mr. Mohammad, now a Christian, his conversion comes at a high price. His rejection of Islam and vengeance and violence makes him a target for his fundamentalist former allies. He fears they will one day catch up with him. But if they do, he reckons he now has the greatest protection of all. “I trust,” he says, “in God.”
Christ’s ferocious love for us compels us to love our enemies and seek their good if for no other reason than we once were enemies of God and shown mercy too. If by grace we mean the unleashed, ardent and eager compassion for sinners who do not deserve it but understand they need it and are lost without it, then the cross of Jesus—the passion of Christ—is mercy at its fullest and finest.