Is it ever OK to be angry? Whether or not it’s OK is a question we’ll delve into in a minute. But first we have to acknowledge that anger just is. If you check out any emotion chart – the kind that helps kids identify their feelings – or an emotion wheel that breaks the primary emotions down into even more categories – anger is on every one of them. Even so, “Don’t be angry” is a phrase often heard, often in church circles. Anger is seen as a negative, inappropriate, and definitely unspiritual emotion.
But in today’s scripture readings, we’re confronted with a dilemma: some of our greatest religious heroes got angry. The account of Jesus tearing up the Temple gives lie to the notion that he didn’t experience the full gamut of human emotion. And Moses – well, it wasn’t long after he was given the tablets that we know as the Ten Commandments, that he smashed them to the ground in anger as the Hebrew people danced around the golden calf they’d made while he was up on the mountain with God.
Today, we continue our exploration through Lent of the covenants that God has made with humanity over the eons. The covenant with Noah, the promises to Abraham and Sarah (by the way, did you notice that Abraham is in the news this week? Pope Francis made an historic trip to Iraq this weekend and yesterday visited the ancient city of Ur – traditionally held to be the birthplace of Abraham, patriarch of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity).
Today brings us to the covenant with Moses on Mount Sinai. I’m really liking the way the lectionary has been taking us through the history of the relationship between God and humankind. We don’t often get to see the ‘big picture’ when we get just a snippet of a story here and there. But as we read all these covenants in order, we can see how God does relate to us: with steadfast love, forgiveness, transformation, and renewal. That story continues with us today.
But today, with the gospel reading and knowing what comes next in the Moses story, I thought we needed to make a stop and consider this matter of anger. A year or so ago, I was asked to contribute a chapter to a book that Pastor Megan Rohrer is writing about chaplaincy. It’s supposedly going to be called something like The Body of the Chaplain and will have chapters like “The Chaplain’s Heart,” “The Chaplain’s Hands” – you get the idea. I was asked to write the chapter on – are you ready for it? – “The Chaplain’s Gut.”
So – I’ve been with you for a whole year now, so I’m feeling confident enough to share one of my deepest secrets: sometimes I get angry. Now don’t be alarmed. My philosophy of anger is described very well in the book, The Gift of Anger: And Other Lessons from my Grandfather Mahatma Gandhi. In it, Arun Gandhi describes how at age eleven he was sent to live with his grandfather, and for two years learned pivotal life lessons about social justice and community transformation.
In an interview he said, “My grandfather said that anger is a wonderful emotion. It’s not something we should be ashamed of. It’s a very powerful emotion, but we need to learn how to channel it intelligently, so we can use it effectively. Anger is like electricity. It’s just as useful and just as powerful but only when we use it intelligently. It can also be just as deadly and destructive if we abuse it. So we must learn to channel anger so we can use that energy for the good of humanity rather than abuse it and cause violence. If we learn to channel anger effectively and positively, it can turn into courage, it can turn into something positive that we can use.”
I have a long way to go to achieve the level of Gandhi’s serenity, but it is a beginning on the path of channeling this energy.
Some of you may have heard me mention a spiritual tool called the Enneagram. If you know the Enneagram, you may know that there are nine types. I’m a Type One, which is often called either “The Reformer” or “The Perfectionist.” And, as a One, anger is almost as natural to me as my brown eyes. As Catholic Worker Movement co-founder Dorothy Day replied when asked to hold her temper, “I hold more temper in one minute that you will in a lifetime.”
These nine types are then divided into three centers of emotional responses: the Heart (or feeling) center, the Head (or thinking) center, and the Body (or instinctive/gut) center. The personalities of the types in each center are particularly affected by a particular emotion.
As a One, I live in the Gut Center, where we use an intuitive way of making our way in the world. We process information through our instinctual responses. Each type within the Center processes anger differently, but anger is the “gut feeling” that fuels our energy. You might think it odd for a Gut person to function as a pastor or chaplain. Wouldn’t someone from the Heart Center be better suited to the job? But a good pastor or chaplain can come from any of the centers. Each type has its gifts and its areas of growth. Self-awareness is the key.
Within the Gut Center, we Ones deal with our anger differently from our Eight and Nine siblings. You can always tell when an Eight is angry because they’ll immediately express it in a very forceful way (moving physically, raising voice). On the other hand, you might not even know that a Nine is upset because they’ll try to deny their anger, but then be passive-aggressive about it. You might not be able to tell that a One is angry either. Ones, on the unhealthy end of the continuum, try very hard to control or repress their anger, believing they have to always stay in control of these “bad” feelings. Because they don’t want to allow their anger to overflow, it will often show up as irritation and frustration. It can also often show up as depression because the anger is turned inward. I have to pay careful attention to these signs of regression in myself. I am also aware that depression in others may be masking untended resentment and anger.
So, even though we are commonly told that feelings such as anger, sadness, and frustration are bad, the truth is that they just simply are.
An animated movie from about five years ago did a pretty good job of getting at this subject of our emotional landscape. Inside Out tells the story of 11-year-old Riley uprooted from her midwestern home and transplanted with her family to San Francisco. The disruption of her world causes her feelings (the wonderfully voiced characters Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust) to take over. Sadness is the predominant one. But Riley believes, at least up until the end of the movie, that she can’t let her parents know how she feels. I loved this movie. I especially loved the Anger character, voiced by the ever-fulminating comedian Louis Black. That would definitely have been the main character in a movie told from my perspective! Still, the message of the movie is clear: there are no bad emotions!
But all too often we will retreat from friends, family, and other activities when we’re feeling “bad,” believing that we shouldn’t impose our suffering on others. Even some religious traditions discourage the expression of “negativity.” To them, doing so is a sign of spiritual dis-ease. But I believe that we have to honor all our feelings, including anger.
I used to visit a man named Roger, who was in a skilled nursing facility for over 15 years after a tragic accident. Although his physical condition was very poor, his mind was sharp and alert. Almost to the day he died, he exhibited the intellect of a scholar and author. Roger was often angry, although more often than not he was depressed. He still mourned the sudden death of his wife years ago. Between lack of control over just about everything and sub-standard care in the facility, he had every reason to be angry and depressed. He had every right to his grief. I never tried to talk him out of those feelings. Even when he wished for death, even when he railed against God for punishing him for some ancient sin, I listened and acknowledged his pain. For one thing, I had to admit that I’d probably have some of the same feelings if I were in his position. For another, I found that when I listened and his feelings were honored, usually after a while we were able to move into conversation about other matters.
I must confess that my ire is often kindled when I visit places like this. My fury is directed, not only at one poorly run facility and certainly not at any underpaid and barely trained employee, but at a health care system that leaves the elderly who have no financial resources at its questionable mercy. This is one example of how anger can become righteous. As an Enneagram One, I’m not called a “reformer” for nothing! We see what’s wrong with the world, get mad about it, and are determined to do some-thing about it. As Martin Luther wrote,
“I find nothing that promotes work better than angry fervor. For when I wish to compose, write, pray and preach well, I must be angry. It refreshes my entire system, my mind is sharpened, and all unpleasant thoughts and depression fade away” (It’s generally believed that Luther was a One).
Or as Matthew Fox (channeling Gandhi) wrote in one of his daily on-line meditations: “The prophet trusts anger and one’s moral outrage and strives to mold that anger into creative possibilities . . . recycles the anger of oppressed peoples away from sublimation, denial, passivity or depression into ways of transformation, self-expression, and New Creation. Isn’t this what Gandhi and Martin Luther King did—give birth to social art? Lassoing anger so it served the greater good?”
Is this what Jesus was doing in the Temple? Jesus, who we usually think of as more soft-spoken and even-tempered, makes “a whip of cords,” drives out the sacrificial animals, overturns merchants’ tables, dumps coins on the floor, and tells the moneychangers to stop making God’s house a market-place. When stunned bystanders ask for a sign to authorize his violent actions, Jesus doesn’t bat an eye: “Destroy this temple,” he dares them, “and in three days I’ll raise it up.” Not exactly gentle Jesus, meek and mild.
Biblical scholars have different theories about this story. Some argue that what Jesus is railing about in this ‘cleansing’ of the temple is the system of exploitation that the collaboration of religious authorities and Roman occupiers had created. At normal times, they levied exorbitant tithes and taxes. At Passover time, when Jerusalem’s population could be doubled or even quadrupled, powerful economic interests were at work. Jesus performs a kind of material exorcism.
Others argue that what angered Jesus was a Sabbath-only kind of religion that separated Temple rituals from daily living, or a compartmentalization of faith that renders the temple “sacred” and the home “secular.” As New Testament Professor Amy Jill-Levine describes: “The church member sins during the workweek, either by doing what is wrong or by failing to do what is right. Then on Sunday morning . . . heartily sings the hymns, happily shakes the hands of others, and generously puts a fifty-dollar bill in the collection plate. That makes the church a safe place for those who are not truly repentant and who do not truly follow what Jesus asks. The church becomes a place of showboating, not of fishing for people.”
Either way, these interpretations point to a truth about discipleship: Jesus is not about “business as usual.” Jesus is not a protector of the status quo. Jesus has no interest in propping up institutions of faith that elevate comfort and complacency over holiness and justice. His righteous anger causes us to consider our own anger at oppressive systems and what to do about them.
I have opened up this matter of anger knowing that there’s a lot more to be said. I do not want to appear to condone just popping off at everyone over every little thing. Sometimes, even though the emotion might indeed be there and acknowledged, there should be no action taken or words spoken. I don’t think we can criticize Moses for his anger over the golden calf incident. But his actions didn’t serve any purpose. He had to eventually make things right with God and go back up for new tablets.
We have to make decisions about our own anger. In the chapter I wrote, I asked:
Now what about you? What is your relationship with anger? Ask yourself these questions:
- Do I have difficulty expressing my angry feelings?
- Do I express my anger in ways that are hurtful to others?
- Does it get in the way of healthy relationships and/or cause work-related problems?
If any of these resonate with you, it might be time to seek help. Doing so in no way implies any weakness; in fact it demonstrates your strength of character in moving towards healing and wholeness.
Now ask yourself about your religious or spiritual belief about anger.
- Was I taught that it’s a sin to be angry? Who told me that? Parents, pastor?
- Have I ever thought that getting mad is un-Christian?
- Have I ever been told that I’m not very spiritual because I have anger issues?
If any of these sound familiar, a pastor or spiritual director is someone who can help you work through the spiritual aspects of anger. Again, it’s a normal part of emotional and spiritual growth to confront the places within that trouble us. Pastors, chaplains and spiritual directors have done this work for themselves and are trained to help.
Finally, do you experience righteous anger? Ask yourself:
- Does a news story about some kind of societal injustice make my blood boil?
- Am I affected by knowledge of oppressive systems, such as racism, homophobia, poverty, etc.?
- Am I involved in any activities that address these issues?
If you are not involved, you might find joining a cause to be an outlet for your emotional energy. A quote often attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas says: “Anger looks to the good of justice. If you can live amid injustice without anger, you are immoral as well as unjust.” The note of judgment is a little too harsh to my liking, but I appreciate the acceptance of righteous anger and the call to action
But if you are already involved in such activities and are still troubled by your angry feelings, it might be helpful to find additional ways to release your anger. There are a variety of ways to do that and it’s up to you to find what works for you, with help if necessary.
The bottom line is that anger is a natural part of being human. How we deal with it can cause us difficulty, but there is always hope and help. My chaplain’s gut lets me know when I am angry and it tells me how I can best respond to that feeling. Yours can too!
Since it was almost the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the Temple, he found people selling cattle, sheep and pigeons, while moneychangers sat at their counters. Making a whip out of cords, Jesus drove them all out of the Temple—even the cattle and sheep—and overturned the tables of the money-changers, scattering their coins. Then he faced the pigeon sellers: “Take all this out of here! Stop turning God’s house into a market!” The disciples remembered the Words of scripture: “Zeal for your house consumes me.”
The Temple authorities intervened and said, “What sign can you show us to justify what you’ve done?”
Jesus answered, “Destroy this Temple, and in three days l will raise it up.”They retorted, “It has taken forty-six years to build this Temple, and you’re going to raise it up in three days?” But the temple he was speaking of was his body. It was only after Jesus had been raised from the dead that the disciples remembered this statement and believed the scripture—and the Words that Jesus had spoken.