We overestimate the power of anger to correct injustice.
I was reading the Epistle of James recently when I was stopped by what he says in Chapter 1, Verses 19-20:
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.
I was taken aback when I read …your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. What an unexpected thing to say. We generally believe that when an injustice is done, anger is indeed the proper response, especially if we can direct our anger towards the one who has committed the injustice.
We see anger being constantly expressed in both our public and our private life today. America is in constant turmoil as one aggrieved group after another expresses its deep anger through protest marches, Facebook attacks, Twitter exchanges, irate commentaries on TV and in print media, road rage, and personal screaming at one another. Rage reigns as the spirit of our age.
Anger, I think, is an appropriate response to injustice done towards ourselves or others that we care about. Injustice injures the sense of fairness, harmony, and wholeness that we instinctively believe should characterize human living.
And I believe that expression of our aggrieved feelings is healthier than letting them lie unexpressed within our inner selves where they fester into something sick and malevolent. Repressed anger can breed depression. It can also break out in acts of explosive violence, as in many of the mass shootings today. When the magna within a volcano is blocked from flowing out naturally, the interior pressure builds up to the point where release can only come through a fearsome explosion.
There is, therefore, health in letting anger express itself. As my wife often reminds me, she must vent when the inner pressures become too great. That allows her to return to a sense of calm. I think that is true for most human beings.
Trying to Understand James
So why does James say what he does? I want to know more about his thinking. The context, however, does not provide it. James gives no explanation for what he says. I am left to speculate. Here’s where my thoughts lead me.
If expressing anger is a healthy release of painful emotion, employing anger as a tool for achieving change in another person or in a society is another matter. I wonder if that is not what James is driving at when he writes, …your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.
Anger is a poor tool for changing other people for one good reason. When we direct our anger at another person, that other person is most likely to feel attacked. Because they feel attacked, they harden their defenses, not soften them.
Whether they see some truth in our anger, they still are likely to close up, not open up. And since they feel attacked, they defend themselves by counterattack. The situation tends to become uglier and uglier as battle lines harden and emotions get hotter and hotter.
We see this, for example, with many of the angry pro-life protestors who gather outside abortion clinics and try to block access, disrupt operations, and shame those entering or working inside. Such protests seldom lead to any real change in the situation or even fruitful conversation between the two sides, whether anti-abortion or pro.
I see this phenomenon as well in much of the political discourse in our country today. Anger from those who oppose or even despise Trump hardens those who support Trump. The rage of those who support Trump hardens those who oppose him. In such a climate, anger seldom leads to any transforming change of attitudes. We do not change our opponents’ attitudes. We just harden them.
I wonder if James’ attitude may not reflect his own reflections on the narratives in the Old Testament. The prophets are full of denunciations of Israel’s sins and injustice. These denunciations are said to be the words of God, expressing God’s anger at what he sees.
But did the denunciations lead to serious spiritual change? On the whole, they did not. Israel continued in its ways until catastrophe brought the ways of wayward Israel to a calamitous end. Even God’s own anger does not seem to have been effective in advancing his righteous order for life. If God was to find a way to set things right in the world (another meaning of the biblical word righteousness), then it had to be in a way different from the outpouring of divine wrath.
So we come to the New Testament message that God so loved the world, the disordered world of injustice, that God sent his Son to set things right through the way of sacrificial love.
Working for Real Change
This then leads to the question: How is real change achieved in situations of injustice? Not by violent expressions of anger, but by engagement in concrete constructive actions to remedy and transform the injustice. One enters into the social trenches and works in whatever way one can to bring first compassion and then change to the situation. Jesus sets the example and calls us to follow him.
Such an approach does not work transformations overnight. It often encounters frustrations and setbacks or even dramatic reversals (as happened to African-Americans in the years of Reconstruction and Jim Crow in the late 19th and early 20thcenturies). Jesus’ work of compassionate ministry landed him on a cross.
But the wisdom of Jesus’ parable about the seeds (Mark 4:1-9, 13-20) is that some of the seeds we plant in our actions do sprout, blossom, and produce an abundant harvest. And the seeds that Jesus planted in his own ministry have certainly done that.
This is not to say that protest marches and other public expressions of anger are illegitimate. They do an important job of expressing the anger and frustration that people feel about injustice. They turn the spotlight on that injustice, which is an important first step in correcting it. But public and private expressions of anger seldom motivate the perpetrators of injustice to change. They just fuel even more hardened conflict.
Is this then why James says what he does? Do my speculations make sense, or do victims of injustice hear them as a cop-out? I am curious what you my readers think.
4 thoughts on “The Impotence of Anger”
Gordon, Last night on PBS news, there was a segment at the end about the awful photo dating from the Vietnam war, of a girl running naked down the street after being bombed. It interviewed her now, and she said she discovered a copy of the New Testament, and became a Christian. Now she forgives everyone and feels filled with love instead of terror. It fits you message. Judy
Thanks, Judy, for sharing this story. I had not heard it.
Hi Gordon! Really enjoyed your thoughts on the verse of James that you have so pondered and written so well. I recently caught a discussion on the radio, very brief from searching from one station to the other, when it caught my attention. And I think it kind of relates to anger. Briefly, the commentator, a priest, was talking about how to come to better resolutions, ex: not so quick on going to war. He talked about emulating Jesus and how that could lead us to better solving our problems. It really made me think that we really do need Jesus in our lives more than ever with the way our world is going. Clare
Clare: Thank you so much for your comment. I’m glad you found it resonating with what you heard on the radio.