The modern age hates anger, but I say we need more of it
April 12, 2016 (Archdiocese of Washington, DC) -- Here in the Western world, we live in a culture that tends to treat anger as taboo. A common tactic to unsettle an opponent today is to accuse him or her of being angry. It is amazing how easily humiliated and/or defensive an adversary can become in response to such an accusation. Yes, it is remarkable how quickly the one accused of anger can feel the need to resort to denials such as these:
- I am not angry! (Note that this is usually said angrily, thus demonstrating its falsehood.)
- I’m not angry; I’m just frustrated. (Note that frustrated is just a nicer way of saying angry.)
- I’m not angry; You’re the one who’s angry! (Note that the “terrible” charge of being angry is denied instead of owned and appreciated as an expression of passion for something that matters.)
- Of course I’m angry, but who wouldn’t be angry when talking to an idiot! (Note that in saying this, one is tacitly accepting the accusation while at the same time excusing it.)
Rare indeed in the West is someone who will respond in a way that both admits anger and owns it as something positive and important. One way to do this would be to say, “You’re right; I am angry. I’m angry because I really care about this matter; I’m not just a neutral observer. I fully admit that I have an agenda, an agenda I believe in passionately. I experience grief and anger when what I value is disparaged. Yes, I’m angry; I care about this.”
Of itself, anger is just a passion, an energy that is aroused in us when we sense that something is wrong or that something is threatening us. This anger energizes us for action, mental and/or physical. The body becomes involved in this as adrenaline is released into our system.
The Bible does condemn vengeful anger, but it also describes anger that is not sinful: Be angry, but sin not (Eph 4:26). The sinless Jesus exhibits quite a bit of anger in several Bible passages (e.g., Luke 11; Mark 10; Matthew 17:17; Matthew 21:15; Matthew 26:8; Mark 10:14; Mark 14:4; John 2; and John 8). His indignation shows us that anger is sometimes an appropriate response.
Despite this, we seem to be felled quite easily by the charge that we are angry. We live in soft, thin-skinned times. The pervasive relativism of today suggests that even if we are going to believe in something, we ought not to believe in it too strongly, because that might mean that we have an “agenda,” that we think there is an objective truth to be upheld and insisted upon. And according to modern “rules,” having an “agenda” (i.e., thinking that certain things are surely true) is wrong with a capital ‘W.’ There is also today an inordinate emphasis on tolerance, a necessary component in a pluralistic setting but not an absolute virtue.
Whatever the reasons, anger, an ordinary and necessary human passion, is humiliating to most modern Westerners. The response of most to the charge of being angry is to try to squirm out of it.
And yet I say that we need more of it. Now I’m not talking about fisticuffs coming in a violent outburst, nor am I referring to the ugliness and personal disrespect rampant on the Internet (usually issued from behind the anonymous safety of a personal computer). Rather, I speak of an anger rooted in love and a deep commitment to the truth, an anger that arises from seeing the harm caused by lies, deception, error, sin, and injustice.
Lovers fight. Lovers get angry; and well they should. For when love is in the mix, things matter. Truth matters; error and harm matter. Lovers want what is best for their beloved, not merely what is expedient or convenient.
Author Dale Ahlquist expresses a lot of this better than I can. In his recent book The Complete Thinker, where he analyzes the thoughts of G.K. Chesterton, Ahlquist writes,
Chesterton illustrates the point about “the twin elements of loving and fighting.” … Modern philosophies have tried to do away with this paradox … but fighting and loving actually go together. You cannot love a thing without wanting to fight for it. … To love a thing without wishing to fight for it is not love at all. …
The connection between two such apparent opposites points to the idea that truth is always an amazing balancing act. … If we lean too far in one direction or the other, we lose our balance. Thus, both militarism and pacifism represent a loss of balance.
Militarism is simply bullying, the strong having their own way. Pacifism is a lack of loyalty, a promise not to defend the innocent, the helpless, the defenseless.
The Church has always had to maintain the precarious balance of truth, whether in war or in anything else. …
Sometimes the only way to stop the fighting is to fight. Sometimes the only way to end a war is to win it—but only as an act of defense, not as an act of aggression. …
The sword is an important symbol of Christianity. It is not only in the shape of a cross; it is the scriptural symbol of truth, which cuts both ways—because error comes from opposite sides.
Chesterton also says he likes swords because “they come to a point,” unlike most modern art and philosophy.
Yes, lovers fight and get angry. And the anger of the greatest lover of them all, God, is evident in the downward thrust of the cross into the soil of this world, with its manifold lies and half-truths. The cross is the downward thrust, like that of a sword, of God’s non placet to the rebellion of this world and to the error it holds so arrogantly.
And yet that downward thrust is also open in love, as can be seen in the outward arms of the cross, the outstretched arms of Christ. At the very center of the cross, where anger and love unite, is the heart of Christ.
Yes, love and anger are closer to each other than we moderns often realize or admit. Love says that there are certain things worth fighting for and being angry about. But the anger coming from love is not egocentric, it is “other-centric.” It is focused on God, the truth, and the dignity of those who are meant to walk in truth. Ahlquist says, “In loving our enemies, we want to convert them so they are not our enemies anymore. Ultimately, we want to get our enemies to join our side.”
Yes, some things are worth fighting for and about. Ahlquist continues,
No sane man has ever held, that war is a good thing. … But the … occasion may arise when it is better for a man to fight than to surrender …. War is not the direst calamity that can befall a people. There is one worse state, at least: the state of slavery.
While a good peace is better than a good war, even a good war is better than a bad peace.
[And thus the] Church on earth is called the Church Militant. War is a metaphor, and it would not work as a metaphor if it were not a reality, a reality that we have to live with.
This life of ours is a very enjoyable fight, but a very miserable truce.
That last line is a very telling description of the modern age: a miserable truce.Everyone is walking on eggshells, afraid of offending anyone, and suppressing the truth on account of this fear. And thus our anger gets suppressed, renamed, and turned inward. It has been said that the definition of depression is “anger turned inward.” That’s not a bad definition in times like these, when large numbers of people are on anti-depressants and other psychotropic medicines to manage the “miserable truce” that is the false peace of these times. It is a peace rooted not in the truth, but in the compelled silence of political correctness and under the cloak of euphemisms and thinly veiled politeness.
Perhaps that is why such ugliness erupts from time to time, especially in relatively anonymous settings like social media and blog comment boxes. Here, we, who have forgotten how to have a good argument in person or how to manage and appreciate our anger in normal ways, can resort to the ugliness of savage and unkind personal attacks.
This sort of anger, often seen in political settings as well, is not about truth or love. It is about scoring points; it is about winning with little regard for truth or love. But the Church Militant without love is not the Church.
At the end of the day, though, anger has its place in the context of love. Decent, fair fights are necessary for those who love. Without a proper appreciation for these, we end up with the gray fog of a “miserable truce” that is evident in the modern West.
Just for fun, here’s a music video of the Bobby McFerrin song “Don’t Worry Be Happy.”
Reprinted with permission from Community in Mission.