Is Righteous Anger An Oxymoron?


This week I was invited to give a guest lecture on St John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul and I was reminded what an amazing but formidable work it is. It might be the most in depth and sophisticated examination of the nature of the mystical encounter with God ever written. John of the Cross was the rare combination of theologian, practitioner, poet and well deserving of the title doctor ecclesiae. In Book One of the Dark Night, John of the Cross discusses the second stage of the “night”-the passive purgation of the senses. This stage introduces the concept of the seven deadly “spiritual” sins, which are versions of the original seven vices now operating in the life of faith. In the chapter on anger, he observes that it can arise in the emotional vacuum after a pleasant spiritual experience passes. It can also be anger turned at oneself for not being further along in the spiritual journey. But sometimes the anger is directed outwards. He states: Through a certain indiscreet 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. All such conduct is contrary to spiritual meekness. (Book 1, Chapter 5) John of the Cross suffered greatly at the hands of the “lords of virtue” and to some degree, most people have. I have. But if I am honest, I have also been a “lord of the virtue/flies.” Over the years, I have come away from meetings with fire running through my veins, indignant about some injustice or stupidity. I would put on Bruce Cockburn’s track If I had a Rocket Launcher and imagine an alternative form of conflict resolution on the drive home.* Neither conservatives nor the liberals have a monopoly on “righteous” anger. I have heard fundamentalist say things in the name of God and act in a manner that would make one wonder if they have ever heard of grace or Jesus. And I have seen liberals so infuriated that they have lied and manipulated process in the name of social justice, running over anyone in their way. There is a lot of anger in the Bible and I have certainly heard religious folks justify their indignation accordingly. But on further review, wrath in the Bible seldom works out very well. David’s righteous anger at the lamb story looks really bad when it turns out that Nathan was talking about him. Elijah has a huge let down the day after his victory over the priests of Baal and ends up quitting the prophet business. Jesus rebukes James and John’s righteous call for fire and brimstone and was not very appreciative of Peter’s defensive sword play. I would argue that even when anger is attributed to the Divine, the results are mixed.** Anger is a primal response to threat- it is what has helped our species survive. Sometimes anger is a function of really caring, like when you punish a child for doing something that is dangerous. And to see injustice and suffering in the world and not feel some degree of anger at those who perpetrate evil is to be morally dead. When that harm happens closer to home, anger for what has happened to those we love is both justified and warranted. Acting on it however is another issue Anger just is. And there are times anger may be necessary for survival, but it is probably something best dealt with inwardly and not used as an emotional or spiritual weapon. Wrath and both the words and actions said and done in its wake are destructive to the one angry and those who are on the receiving end of its fruits. The Apostle Paul’s exhortation to be angry but not to sin is timeless and necessary advice (Ephesians 4:26). Righteous anger is ultimately impossible for humans to pull-off over any extended period of time, if ever. This is because our definitions or interpretations of righteousness are subject to human limitation and error. Given that wrath is such a primal reaction, we cannot be trusted to be rational or self-reflective about it. Repressed and angry religious people are living models for almost all of the classic defense mechanism found in psychological theory. I think God says “vengeance is mine” not so much because God is vindictive but because he knows we cannot handle it. The same principle is at work in the repeated command of Jesus not to judge and its corollary that we will be judged as we judge others (Matt. 7:1-2). St John of the Cross reminds us that ultimately wrath is wrath regardless of our spiritual state. Letting go of anger is always necessary that we might take hold of grace- or rather so that grace may take hold of us. Pray also for me a sinner. *A great song about a horrific event. Worth listening to.

** For further discussion- send me an email.

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