The Season of Anger: Stress, Grief, and Social Change

It is the season of anger. People are angry if they don’t get the vaccine they want when they want. They are angry at the government for being too restrictive or not being intuitive enough about the spread of the virus. They are angry about residential schools, discrimination by police, and some people, driving a vehicle that weighs a tonne or more, are just angry at the wheel. Recently and tragically in Ontario, a young man used his truck as a weapon to kill others he imagined to be a threat. As summer heat rises, the whole earth now seems to boil and smoke with fiery anger. Such fire burns and scorches.

It has been a year of fear and anger. For some, rage can be a path to liberation. For others, it is a vice that leads to broken communities. In marriage and friendship, for example, we know a temper can be destructive and derail constructive attempts at reconciliation. But it can also signal a wound that needs attention.

My PhD focused on the charismatic leadership of Toronto megachurch pastor Bruxy Cavey who is a specialist of sorts in the emotion of anger, returning to it as a sermon subject again and again. Coming from his Anabaptist pacifist convictions and his textual approach to biblical interpretation, he claims anger may be an emotion, but like lust it is an emotion best understood as a temptation, and ought to be shunned as a vice. He wrote recently on this subject, and while he doesn’t give any social context for his writing, and makes no reference to current events, we can be sure his timing on this one is intuitive. He knows it is the season of anger, and so he says, “Whatever it is that anger and outrage are helping you accomplish, love will do a better job.

For Cavey, Christians should never be angry, and never valorize anger because it may be a means to positive social change. “Anger is like murder” he says, citing Jesus in the sermon on the mount (Mt 5:21-22). He qualifies texts like in James 1:19-20 that say we must “be slow to become angry” and from Paul “in your anger do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26-27) as counter-intuitively supportive of his warning on anger. Anger is included in Paul’s lists of vices, and certainly not in the fruit of the Spirit, where love, gentleness, and I as wrote about last month, joy reside.

(image: pixabay)

There is certainly something to be gleaned from Cavey here, and for those quick to bless anger as cathartic emotion or righteous indignation ought to be the first to read his meditation. Anger is one of the seven deadly sins, and it relates closely to hate, violence, and revenge. In terms of social conflict, anger is sure to do one thing: stir up an angry response. Call it the cycle of anger. For the Christian, Cavey’s biblical survey is apt.

I recall a Peanuts comic strip where Charlie Brown quotes the Hebrew Bible. He is being brow-beaten by a gang of girls, who finally confront him: “What do you have to say for yourself?” Charlie Brown meekly replies: “Nothing. You girls are absolutely right. And I’m glad to hear you feel this way.” The girls leave quietly, flummoxed, and then Charlie Brown turns to the reader and quotes from the Book of Proverbs 15:1: “A soft answer hath turned away a whole flock of wrath.” He doesn’t include the other half of the proverb: “but a harsh word stirs up anger” but it is equally applicable.

Anger usually breeds more anger. Still, there is more to be said about a Christian perspective on anger. Call it a creation-based perspective.

Pacifist Wrath

In my book The Subversive Evangelical: The Ironic Charisma of an Irreligious Megachurch (McGill-Queens 2019) I delve deeper into Pastor Cavey’s critique of anger, which is often a critique of the stereotype of the angry right-wing evangelical. Cavey himself models gentleness, humour, and a conversational style in his teaching, what some journalists have described as a combination of lecture, stand-up comedy, and talk-show host. The casual and jocular tone, especially during controversial teachings or onstage interviews with contentious others such as a Muslim guest (Nov. 2014) can cause indignation in some members of his audience. Cavey explains, “For religious people who have lived within a tradition of anger equals holiness equals truth, it throws them off, but they need to be thrown off”.

This teaching often includes commentary on the “wrath” of God. Only God can be wrathful, says Cavey, because he is the ultimate judge. His wrath is always under the direction of his love, as love is fundamental to God’s essence, while wrath is accidental. Jesus, who turned over tables and brought out a whip in the temple one day, was expressing his judgment against the “den of robbers” who occupied its court. Jesus did not recruit his disciples to such action, emphasizes Cavey. Christians need to distinguish when to imitate Jesus and when to stand back and worship. Such disapproving emotion is properly exclusive to the divine, and Cavey insists Christians should have a reputation for being gentle, graceful, merciful, and very embracing.

Sometimes Cavey connects this teaching with Anabaptist pacifism, charging that non-Anabaptist Christians have killed in the name of holiness and righteous anger. At a Xenos conference talk he gave in the United States in 2013, he offered a sweeping historical judgment; the mainstream Christian authorities stopped killing only when the Enlightenment came and robbed the Church of its power to kill. That is to say, the Church never repented of its violent ways on its own but only by the force of secularization, which disestablished its cultural dominance. Today, religious people, Cavey added, “can only murder people with attitudes and judgments.”

At one point in the 2014 Unseminary interview Cavey concluded, “I think that’s one of the key lessons that we as Evangelical Christians in the West need to unlearn, is that anger is not the emotion that will help us display our holiness.

Anger as Inspiring Assertiveness

Such declarations naturally put Cavey outside the evangelical mainstream. For example, one prominent evangelical professor of human emotions, Robert C. Roberts has written that “anger expresses a sense of justice and a sense of being in the presence of responsible agents. A person who cannot get angry is seriously defective” (Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues 2014). Anger is a creation-based given that can be corrupted; but it is first of all an emotion that human creatures express in response to loss. Consider it to be grief turning outwards in an assertive and at times aggressive way. Grief turned inward can become depression and despair. Grief turned outward instead can energize us to declare wrongs and activate change for the better. When anger is assertive, it reflects human agency. When unduly aggressive, it continues a cycle of hurt, and as they say, hurt people hurt people.

Anger is a volatile emotion, and dangerous to justify. Especially if it is your own. But it is part of our humanity. We know Jesus wept. We can be assured he laughed. But he also became angry, as when he verbally thrashed the Pharisees, rebuked his disciples, or whipped up trouble in the temple. The theology of God’s wrath is beyond this blog. But human anger is creation-based, corrupted by sin, and possible to redeem for good.

Popular Marvel comic book hero The Hulk is the alter-ego of scientist Bruce Banner, who transforms into a powerful monster when Dr. Banner gets angry. Sometimes he destroys things and alienates allies; other times, he saves the day by defeating the forces of evil.

(image: Pixabay)

Anger can be a human response to evil, and even Anabaptists cannot avoid being angry. In his tome To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (2010) James Davison Hunter detects a passive-aggressive streak in the neo-Anabaptist camp, contending their criticism of state, market, and mainstream church create a public tone that is “overwhelmingly a message of anger, disparagement, and negation. Christianity in America, as it is believed and lived by most believers, is just not Christian enough” (165). “Theirs is a world-hating theology,” argues Hunter, which affirms neither social world nor creation but only the pacifist church and its God (174). Some Nietzschean ressentiment – a psychology of entitlement endemic to politics at large today – creeps into the Anabaptist narrative, as Anabaptist scholars and pastors recite the history of injuries against Anabaptists and intimate their position as being on the “right side of history” (175).

Hunter overstates his case, but he’s onto something. Anabaptists have good reason to be angry, but they should be more willing to admit to it. One Anabaptist writer says they are embarrassed by anger, and as a theological community they need to work this out. I agree. This writer argues: “The disappearance of wrath from the Anabaptist theological toolbox would leave us significantly impoverished. After all, wrath does seem to be a key component of the biblical tradition, not as a petty display of anger but as a passionate judgment against unrighteousness or idolatry.” Obviously, Pastor Cavey does not represent the whole of his tradition.

So right-wing evangelicals can be grieved by their loss of privilege and in anger, seek aggressively to restore it. Anabaptists can be grieved by the abuse they have collectively experienced, and in anger, rehearse the past to assert their moral superiority. People, and in this case Christians, get angry and potentially resentful. Some of its deeply human and understandable. Some of it is unhealthy, unhelpful, and self-defeating.

Anger at Injustice

Let me translate some of this to our political moment today. Hunter translates this ressentiment as resentment, but with a combination of anger, envy, hate, rage, and revenge motivating the political action that arises from it. It is most visible among those who perceive themselves as weak or aggrieved. While Cavey may shun such anger while actually being motivated by it, I think those most indignant in Black Lives Matter and in Canadian reactions to the dark legacy of residential schools are more aware of their anger and positively disposed to it. Anger can generate destructive hate, revenge, and violence as seen in Minneapolis riots and the more recent burning down of churches in Canada; but it can also be a motivator to positive action, redressing wrongs and shifting attitudes by calling matters to attention that would otherwise be dismissed. Anger signals a wounding.

Angry mobs rarely effect positive social change; but Spirit-led anger can inspire a determination to make a difference in deep, long-standing injustices.

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The radical perspective of Cavey on anger as a vice, expounded upon from the Bible, is a healthy warning to those quick to justify and bless their own anger. But anger itself in the Christian tradition is not necessarily sinful: it is what you do with it. Rather than oppose anger to love, it may be more accurate to say anger can be turned to love, and justice can be understood as love working itself out in institutional ways. What is justice is a matter of discernment, but in this season of COVID, we need to be acutely aware whether our anger is indeed righteous and not vengeful, or unawares, triggered by months of pent up frustration from social isolation.

It is my hope that good anger will assert itself and draw attention to redressing wrongs that have long been dismissed. Let us rectify and reconcile what we can, and leave to God what will inevitably remain bent and unresolved. Anger may have a season, but if it becomes a permanent posture, we will alienate both enemies and friends and turn us into embattled and embittered creatures. Do not let anger deprive us of emotions that are equally, if not even more important, like gratitude, or core Christian practises, like forgiveness. Let such things be our good temptation.

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