This week, I was invited to be angry. That happens almost every week, but this week I had an unusually large smörgåsbord of options to be angry at— Ashley Madison cheaters, hackers who exposed the Ashley Madison cheaters, Josh Duggar, Jared Fogel, police gun violence, criminal gun violence, abortion/Planned Parenthood, anything to do with Donald Trump, anything to do with Hillary Clinton.
Now many of those causes are important, and many of you are probably angry about them; some of you are probably angry at me for not being angrier. A popular saying nowadays is, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Personally, that saying reminds me of Despereaux, failing mouse school for being too brave, and his teacher imploring him, “There are so many wonderful things in life to be afraid of, if you just learn how scary they are!”
That is to say, maybe I am paying attention, but I choose peace over anger for reasons of my own. Maybe I feel that nothing good comes of the anger. Maybe I have seen too many souls I loved whose anger filled them up like bitter poison. Maybe I am simply following the advice of God.
The case for anger
I believe that much of the anger-seeking in our society is motivated from a good place, namely, a wish to identify what is wrong with our world and to fix it. Our society has big problems and it feels wrong to be complacent about them. Keeping ourselves educated is important. All of that is true, but none of it requires anger. Passion for injustice has taken many forms throughout history. Only recently have we begun to mistake non-angry responses for indifference.
In fact, other emotional responses may be better suited to positive action. (Quiet steely resolve comes to mind.) Contrary to our paradigm, anger by itself accomplishes little. We may raise awareness, but that only helps if unawareness is the problem (see “cigarettes cause cancer”, circa 1950). Yet we apply the salve of “awareness” to a vast array of unsuitable ailments as though it were a magic cure-all. Everyone remembers the ubiquitous “Kony 2012” campaign of a few years back. How much awareness was raised? How much outrage was generated? Yet what, if anything, was accomplished? In April this year, Relevant Magazine posted an editorial: “I Feel Like Kony Won.” Unless Kony follows American Twitter accounts, did he even know we were fighting? It’s almost as though ranting to like-minded friends on Facebook is not an effective means of toppling a hostile foreign dictator.
The cost of anger
Meanwhile, we are paying an enormous price— both individually and collectively— for our “take no prisoners” mindset.
Once we see that anger is not the only possible response to injustice, it becomes clear that our anger is something we are choosing. We meditate on topics that anger us, we listen to radio programs for facts that confirm our views and stoke our anger, our social media feeds are peppered with our angry shouting. All of this requires a large investment of our most precious and limited resource: our time. As with any limited resource, whenever we invest time to purchase that satisfying hit of righteous indignation, something else is being sacrificed. A recent XKCD cartoon showed a wife calling her husband (working on his computer) to bed. “I can’t,” he responds, “This is important.” “What?” she asks, and he responds, “Someone is wrong on the Internet.” Solomon never envisioned the Internet, but his 3000 year old advice still rings true: “A fool multiplies words… Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him.” Social media addiction is a real phenomenon whose cost is only beginning to come clear. How many of us are literally staying at the keyboard and sacrificing relationship in a way that is nothing to laugh about?
Apart from time spent, cultivating anger has a more pernicious personal cost. “As ye sow, so shall ye reap,” says the scripture. The brain is like a muscle: the parts we exercise become stronger. Who we are is literally the sum of the daily choices we make. When we train ourselves to anger, that response becomes more easily available to us. As the old saying goes, if all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Words can hurt, and carelessly wielded, anger is a hammer with enormous destructive power. I know. I have been the angry shouting guy, I have been the guy who finally lost it and lashed out, and I have been the guy at anger management group, learning tools to turn it around. But how much better off would I be if I had never walked so far down that road in the first place? When James warns that “the tongue is a restless evil full of deadly poison”, I do not think it is a tongue full of gentle, gracious words he has in mind.
We are paying a cost as a society as well. Think about this: when we take time from our spouse and kids to invest in the anonymous stranger, being honest, are we there for his or her welfare? Or are we just after the adrenaline rush? When our interactions with each other become a form of video game, we have strayed far from the path marked out by Christ when he commanded, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Like all the bible’s commands, this one is offered as much for self-preservation as for its ability to please God. When we are working toward the collective good, by definition we all benefit, yet a battlefield is not a place where working toward the collective good is possible. And a battlefield is what our society becomes when we make contemptuous statements about each other’s motives, when we belittle and dismiss one another. We all are made in the image of God, and Christ died for us all. We would do well to remember that before we say to our brother, “Raca! (that is, ‘You fool!’)”
A better way
Despite the deep-seated problems we face, there is still hope. It wasn’t always this way. The issues that stir our passions can motivate us in many ways that result in an outpouring of love and renewal and healing. When Mother Teresa’s heart was moved on behalf of India’s untouchables, she could have done all the things that come so naturally to us now: berating Indian society for their callousness, attacking from the outside, raising awareness among other westerners who already shared her worldview. Instead, she took up a rag in love, and personally began washing out sores. She took up those with broken bodies, and laid them in soft beds to show them kindness and mercy before they died. She took up her own personal cross and carried it all the way to her own personal Calvary. And as a result of her actions, the fragrance of a new, less callous worldview began to infuse that place until all of Indian society had caught the scent.
We have quite recently known how to do that here in America too. We have had our Malcolm Xs, it is true, but we have also had our Martin Luther Kings. Confronting a certain set of gross injustices, we were offered one vision, informed by worldly wisdom, of transforming American society into a battlefield; and we were offered another vision, informed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, of sacrificially drawing America out of darkness into light. It was the latter vision we embraced. It was the latter vision that transformed us. I have heard it said that Dr. King’s vision was too weak, that its changes did not last. But has not the loss of our positive transformation coincided with our descent into a society polarized against itself? If the prescription now proffered is hatred of our enemies, then that medicine is the very agent that is causing our disease.
There is a way for us to turn back. There is a way for us to return to the upward path. It is not the easy path: the “click-tivism” of signing an outraged petition costs us nearly nothing, but quite likely, it also accomplishes nearly nothing. It is not the natural path: sacrificial service to our enemies does not trigger any adrenaline rush. But if we are to be spared, we must leave the path we are on. “Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath,” warns the scripture, “it tends only to evil.”
There are a lot of causes in the world; this week was example enough of that. We do care about them, and we should; they are important. They are worthy of our best, but our best cannot emerge from our anger. Our best can only emerge when we are seeking one another’s good in love.