[re-post from 2015 in honor of today’s Mass Gospel]
A man who is angry, even if he were to raise the dead, is not acceptable to God. — Abba Agathon
In Matthew 5:20-26, Jesus gets to the heart of the matter, locating the root of murder in the passion of anger:
You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment…
Jesus is never about behavior modification alone, but about striking at the root of all desire from whence come our thoughts, words and deeds.
St. John of the Cross, master of religious psychology, reflects on the danger of a spiritualized form of anger that can emerge in those who have made significant progress in the spiritual life. He says,
Among these spiritual persons there are also those who fall into another kind of spiritual anger. Through a certain excess in zeal they become angry over the sins of others, reprove these others, and sometimes even feel the impulse to do so angrily, which in fact they occasionally do, setting themselves up as lords of virtue.
Still others, in becoming aware of their own imperfections, grow angry with themselves in an unhumble impatience. They become so impatient over these imperfections because they want to become saints in a day. Many of these beginners make numerous plans and great resolutions, but since they are not humble and have no healthy distrust of themselves, the more resolves they make the more they break, and the greater becomes their anger. They do not have the patience to wait until God gives them what they need, when he so desires.
What is key in his analysis is this: for these spiritually immature religious adepts, the life of faith remains self-centered, self-preserving, self-promoting, and has not yet made the commandment, “love your neighbor as yourself,” their rule of life. For to love the neighbor in this way is to see their welfare or woe as your own, and so whatever you seek for them you also seek for yourself. For these anger serves not love, but self-love.
Those whose religious or ethical zeal is fueled by a seething anger, bitterness and self-righteous fury are often the masters of sarcasm and snark, murmuring cynicism and biting wit. St. John says what is most insidious about these people is that, because their anger is clothed in spiritual, religious or moral language, they are easily blinded to the vice beneath the garb. They feel that the cause they espouse justifies the caustic rhetoric. But, John says, to place the highest things (like faith, truth, justice) in service to the most base things — by placing them in the service of pride, anger, greed, envy, etc. — is profoundly dangerous. The Old Testament prophets are unanimous on this point: the use of God, and the things of God, in service to sinful motives and behaviors, no matter how well-disguised they are, stands among the gravest of evils. Better to be an angry atheist.
God says to Isaiah:
Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and the calling of assemblies—
I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers, I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;
cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression;
defend the fatherless, plead for the widow (Isaiah 1:13-17).
Anger can be a natural and healthy response to any situation where things are not as they should be, to injustice and evil. Anger is both a defense-reflex and a powerful motive for facing hardship or resisting evil with courage in the pursuit of justice. This is often called just or righteous anger. However, detached from mercy, which is love encountering and overcoming evil and injustice, anger turns into wrath. And it is wrath that is called a deadly sin. Wrath, unlike mercy, seeks not to overcome, redeem and heal evil, but rather to retaliate and destroy evil, inflict retribution.
This is why, for the Christian, justice can never be parted from mercy. Justice, when joined to mercy and bridled by patience, becomes remedial, restorative. Justice identifies evil, anger sets justice in (e)motion, and mercy, overcome with love for the evildoer, expends itself, not to destroy or malign, but to rescue, redeem and overcome evil with good. That is the logic of “the word of the cross,” as Jesus on the cross faced the full fury of the world’s injustice and evil with an omnipotent, non-violent merciful love.
The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Cor. 1:18).
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” They cast lots to divide his clothing. (Luke 23:33-34).
What a vicious scandal it is when people of faith in Christ wage their merciless, destructive and angry warfare out in the midst of the digital public square for all to see. Facebook becomes a space not for revealing the Face of Christ, but for defacing the Gospel. Such a witness! “See how they despise one another!” Indeed. God needs no such favors done for Him.
I recall a number of years ago attending a workshop entitled “Justice for the Poor in the Gospel of Luke,” given by an Anglican Scripture scholar. During his lecture, he addressed this issue of anger in ministry. He said something like this:
There’s a sad irony in the fact that, in my experience, so many of us who have professed allegiance to the “justice and peace” movement are too often driven by anger against our ideological opponents. This, it seems to me, is a bit at odds with the meekness required of the reconcilers and peacemakers Jesus calls ‘blessed’ in the Beatitudes. Who are called to love their enemies, to settle on the way to court. We are our own worst enemies, friends, when we abuse and caricature our debate partners. Come on, just say it out loud: “Blessed are the pissed peacemakers.” This is not what Jesus wanted.
He was very much a sympathizer with the peace and justice movement, and his comment was meant to offer an honest self-critique. Ironically, one of the participants in the workshop stood up and shouted at the speaker: “Bullshit!” He went on to say that this accusation was an insult to the peace-activists’ righteous anger and an unfair assessment of the many people who have faced so much hardship over the years. The burden of unrighteous anger, the man said, rested squarely on the shoulders of war-mongering conservatives.
The biblical scholar replied in a calm voice, “Sir, your demeanor and words do little service to our cause.”
Pope Paul VI, in his 1975 Apostolic Exhortation on evangelization, Evangelii Nuntiandi, argues that it is those who have been freed from sin’s grip by God’s liberating grace who are able to bear the force of joy. I will leave you with his words:
Let us therefore preserve our fervor of spirit. Let us preserve the delightful and comforting joy of evangelizing, even when it is in tears that we must sow. May it mean for us an interior enthusiasm that nobody and nothing can quench. May it be the great joy of our consecrated lives. And may the world of our time, which is searching, sometimes with anguish, sometimes with hope, be enabled to receive the Good News not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious, but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervor, who have first received the joy of Christ, and who are willing to risk their lives so that the kingdom may be proclaimed and the Church established in the midst of the world.