The Paradox of Holy Anger
I've been thinking about anger the wrong way for years.
As I take time to process the anger the White Evangelical Church has left me with, I’ve started to feel like the word “angry” might be too reductive, collapsing a wide spectrum of emotional turbulence into a single, rigid designation.
Sometimes “anger” takes the form of barely-healed scars, personal wounds that hide just out of sight waiting for the right situation to tear them back open. This is the visceral “fight-or-flight” response I get when pastors talk about mental health— even (especially?) when they do it well— that brings every leader who hasn’t crashing into every corner of my mind with overwhelming force.
Other times it’s more like a holy rage: the sort you might get when you learn that a prominent biblical counseling ministry forces women to stay in situations of abuse “because of the bible”, or when your friends speak approvingly of a law requiring schools to out LGBT students to their parents, a requirement which will further enable the already-endemic abuse of LGBT children and teens, or when every single day brings new examples of horrifying violence in Tigray or Ukraine. This sort of anger feels gross and icky and frustrating when you lack the power to make the world a better place, and it’s easy to convince yourself that your feelings are a sign that something is wrong with you. But they aren’t: it would actually be grossly sinful to be aware of these facts and not be angry.
Still other times it’s a frustration that lingers somewhere between righteous and self-righteous. How is it 2022 and huge corners of the church are still struggling to accept evolution? How has the “batshit crazy conspiracy theory” wing become a majority in the conservative church on questions from vaccines and the 2020 election to “does racism exist?” and “does James Lindsay know literally anything at all?” There’s a self-righteousness here that’s unwilling to admit the privilege I have to be highly-educated and to have had patient friends helping me get over all the nonsensical and vaguely racist “what if white privilege doesn’t exist, and racial disparities are explained by ______” takes in high school so I could start actually (and non-defensively) learning about the world in college. And there’s also a righteousness, in that the church shouldn’t be controlled by dumb lies and it’s perfectly reasonable and good to be upset when people and churches aren’t willing to take a stand on easily verified truths that directly affect people’s lives for fear of conflict or lost donations or “lack of unity.”
But I think something that unifies these (and many other) kinds of anger is that feeling this way is unpleasant, and I tend to interpret these emotions as something I need to “process” so I can “get over them.” And so I end up telling myself two very different stories:
The first story is that anger at injustice is inherently righteous. God, pretty much every page of the bible tells us, is upset when the powerful take advantage of the weak, and his response is a deep and often violent anger. To be angry at the world’s injustice is to be holy, while to either ignore it or rationalize it is to be apathetic. This story challenges us to learn more about sin (the world’s and our own), to speak clearly and directly about its impacts, and to devote our time and resources to fighting back.
The second story is that anger clouds our judgment and prevents us from acting wisely. My strong feelings might cause me to miss important nuances and shut out other perspectives. I might tell people off in a way that feels good, but doesn’t help them to repent or change in the long run. And, in many cases, my anger might not be righteous at all — my twitter feed is currently full of really angry people who are absolutely convinced that telling schoolchildren that LGBT people exist is grooming them to be sexually abused, and it’s precisely their emotions that are keeping them from seeing that the cause they’re supporting is in fact a bad one. This story prioritizes tactics and specific policies over broad moral brushstrokes, and (especially when we’re allies rather than experiencing injustice directly) encourages us to engage with people we disagree with in ways conducive to mutual learning rather than jeremiads.
For a long time I’ve thought of these approaches as somewhat contradictory. Either I can be angry and “speak the truth in love”, or I can be calm and kind and have genuinely loving conversations. Either I can burn inside at the suffering I see around me, or I can be a gentle and humble peacemaker. So when I saw people who are really skilled at this sort of gentle, patient approach to changing people’s minds, I implicitly assumed they had somehow overcome the pain and anger I feel whenever this kind of topic comes up.
But the past few months I’ve been learning more from people I admire on this front, and I’ve been surprised to find that they aren’t less upset by evil than I am — they’re quite a bit more. Their patience and gentleness isn’t a natural talent I just don’t have — they put serious effort into these conversations and find them painful and frustrating. It’s not that I’m feeling too emotional to do this well — so many people I trust deal with exactly the same feelings and do the right thing anyways.
(Perhaps this is what Saint Paul means when he writes “Be angry, but do not sin.”1)
We see this paradox in the last week of Jesus, when Jesus expresses the same anger I’ve been describing towards the religious leadership of his day, but in even more fiery, irate terms. Jesus refused to stay silent about “biblical religion” that lacked social justice or care for neighbor, and the language he uses to describe the fate of the religious-but-apathetic is genuinely frightening.
But his wrath is not merely anger for anger’s sake, nor is it merely a tool he uses to tear down his opponents. Jesus’s anger stems, as all holy anger does, from a deeply rooted love for every single human being, and he never loses sight of this singular goal of love.
There’s something powerful here, something that I could meditate on for years and never fully internalize.
Jesus, as I read the gospel, doesn’t “overcome his anger” in a way that lets him die humbly and beg God to forgive his murderers. Rather, his sacrifice and forgiveness are coming from exactly the same place his anger is.
Imagine this kind of love! Imagine seeing people for who they could be rather than who they are. Imagine rage driving you to do whatever you could to actually change somebody’s behavior rather than to condemn them. Imagine kind and humble engagement not because a person’s views are okay, but precisely because they aren’t and you’d do anything to change them.
This of course requires prudence. Loving somebody who’s hurting others doesn’t mean leaving them in a position where they can keep causing harm. Letting a person feel heard doesn’t mean avoiding hard truths just to avoid conflict. Peacemaking has to center healing for victims, not just the repentance of wrongdoers.
There is a way to humanize people who do evil things without erasing the reality of what they’ve done, and I can’t claim any expertise on how to do this because in my experience it’s really really hard. So I’ll leave you with a few words of James Baldwin I’ve been reflecting on, one of the most accomplished writers and activists of the twentieth century. In the context of the murder of several of his friends and horrifying police brutality against the Civil Rights Movement, Baldwin says:
Love has never been a popular movement
The world is held together — really, it is — held together by the love and passion of very few people. Otherwise, of course you can despair! Walk down the street of any city, any afternoon, and look around you.
What you've got to remember is what you're looking at is also you. Everyone you're looking at is also you. You could be that person. You could be that monster, you could be that cop.
And you have to decide, in yourself, not to be.
He then has more to say about anger, which expanding on would take too much time for this blog post.