Commandments, rules, and laws – our readings offer a lot to think about. When I was 5 years old, I followed (mostly) the rule: “Don’t cross the street by yourself”, even as I wanted to explore the world across the road. When I was 25 years old, I understood that those rules were for my welfare, health, and protection. There were also rules to shape me to be a good person: “You have to share your things with your friends.” Hopefully, when we are older we don’t think about those things, they are ingrained, and they are part of the good person we have become.
Somewhere between 5 and 25, we all pick up the habit of making distinctions in the law. “That doesn’t apply to this.” “Well, it’s not like anyone died.” Some people become ever more literal about the rules; some become less literal about the law, the rules, the commandments. I wonder if we any longer discern about the way we are becoming. That is what Jesus tries to address in his sermon on the mount. “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 brother will be liable to judgment.”
I think by the time most of us are grown up, we haven’t killed anyone, but we have experienced anger in so many times and places, with so many people, and with people we love. Maybe we think, “Well, it’s not like anyone has died,” but we realize that real damage has occurred. What is the old saying? Anger is one letter short of danger. If we are honest, anger occupies a larger part of our lives than we want. We constantly live in a place where the words of Ecclesiastes warn, “Do not let anger upset your spirit, for anger lodges in the bosom of a fool.” (Eccl 7:9) Anger is a part of our lives and we are called to discern and reflect upon it lest “whoever is angry with brother will be liable to judgment.”
Certainly, we all read the papers about the protests and marches against the Executive Orders on immigration, refugees, border security, and increasing deportations. There is anger that elected a president; there is anger about the president. I suspect everyone us considers their anger as righteous. In chatting with people, in the confessional, and in our community, I hear the rising level of anger that seems to be building, upsetting our spirits and threatening to expose us all as fools to which Ecclesiastes speaks. I thought yesterday’s front page article in the Tampa Bay Times, “House Divided,” was a revealing piece of reporting about the way in which anger lurks in our homes. It is a story of a woman, a man, and the Donald Trump candidacy, election, and administration which has brought anger out in the open. There is outrage and disappointment in a toxic mix – that is her dilemma. His dilemma is that the one he voted for has begun an administration that he considers unprepared, reckless, remarking, “How do you insult Canada and Australia in a week? The two most polite countries on the planet, and you insult them. That’s so sloppy.” And that’s on top of the anger he still holds towards the Obama administration.
The man and woman likely justify their anger. The protester hold their anger as righteous. And in the everyday, how often do we think, “This anger is not like that anger. This is justified, it is righteous! This anger isn’t liable to judgment! Look at Jesus, he got angry too!!”
“Justified”, “righteous”, I wonder what God say about this? How are we to think about the anger that is so often describes God’s prophet; the anger that, from time to time, poured out upon the people of God. The prophet Nehemiah, Amos, Micah, Jeremiah, and Zephaniah angrily denounce the wealthy Israelite’s’ exploitation of the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the alien/stranger among us – actions that were sinful and against the commands of God. And Jesus expressed anger at the Pharisees who exhibited such hard hearts (Mark 3:1-5) and at the crass commercialism that sullied the temple (Matthew 21:12-13; Luke 19:45-48). Surely, this is righteous anger! If we consider God’s word and reflect upon it, we will come to see that righteous anger conveys extreme displeasure over sin. The oldest expression of sin in Scripture is to break relationships. Jesus and the prophets aren’t breaking relationships in their anger, they are calling people back to covenant relationship with God. Their anger is redemptive.
As Christians, it is totally appropriate getting upset over sin. The social sins such as the social evils of abuse, racism, pornography, drugs, poverty, and capitalism run amuck. And there are the “everyday evils” such as gossip that destroys reputations, bullying that scars young people, and more – actions we should condemn. But no matter how reprehensible the people or activities we’re condemning, we might want to ask ourselves the questions, “Is my motive to be right or to be righteous? Is there sin in the way my anger is expressed? Where is the redemptive value of my anger?” We might want to remember that St Paul says, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun set on your anger, and do not leave room for the devil” (Ephesians 4:26-27) – to which I would add, leave lots of room for redemption.
We haven’t killed anyone, but… we need to reconsider anger in our lives and the damage it causes. We all have our patterns of anger, likely little of it redemptive. But we can change. We are called to change. Here is some advice for how to begin to change. It comes from the Apostle James, “Know this, my dear brothers: everyone should be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath, for the [anger] of a man does not accomplish the righteousness of God” (James 1:19–20).
As a people, we are a house divided. Anger is in the air. But as Christians, how does our anger bring ourselves and others closer to accomplish the righteousness of God? Tough stuff, but we are called to that reflection here in these times of mounting anger.