Resilience and Anger
Rev. Sami Pack-Toner
August 16, 2020
Colossians 3:8-11 NRSV
Ephesians 4:26 NRSV
Psalm 86:15 NRSV
One of my former classmates has two sons who have muscular dystrophy. He was telling me about the day they found out their oldest son, who was only four years old at the time, had MD. They decided to test their other son, who was two at the time, and he also had the genes.
And as they began to learn what life would be like for their two little boys, who seemed completely healthy then, my friend shared how unbelievably angry at God he was. He screamed and yelled at God. He swore at God. And that was the most honest prayer he has ever prayed.
As Christians, we love to show love, and we strive to be compassionate and process grief. We accept forgiveness….but anger? We often reject it. We often find it useless.
Anger is often a dirty little secret. It is so attached to violence that we often work really hard to avoid it. Being sad is much more neutral than being angry.
We can pretend like we don’t have anger, but we are actually finding covert ways of showing our anger, and they are usually in very unhealthy ways--like being passive-aggressive or resenting or bitter. Being Hulk Smash is not a healthy option.
Anger can be the cause of the destruction of peace and rightness and truth and balance.
And it can cause the reconstruction of all the harm.
It really is a paradox. It exists both as good and bad. It just depends on how you use it.
In order to talk about things that are destructive, we need to know what is constructive. We need to have a vision of the end. What builds? What are we striving for?
Shalom is godly peace and rightness and truth and balance. Anger can be a canary in the mineshaft. It can alert us to the breaking of shalom.
Anger brings to our attention that something needs to be addressed, accepted, fixed, repaired, or changed.
Could the key to our resilience be the ability to use our anger to reveal the things that need our most compassion and attention.
In my former life, I was planning on being a detective. The FBI was my dream, and I studied criminal justice and psychology in college. And I will never forget the day all of that changed: my friend and I were taking a homicide investigation class. Each lesson, I became agitated and stopped focusing on the “hows” of the crime and more on the “whys” of the crime. Pretty soon, my friend and I were both visibly upset and angry during class. I began to question my choices. I was mad at the idea that the most I could help was closure for a traumatized family. I wanted to prevent it.
Neither myself nor my friend are detectives today.
If we are to be the Jesus that people see in the world, then our mission should be nothing less than forming ourselves as Christ-like as possible.
But….Jesus was angry. God was angry.
God does seem angry a lot, especially in the Hebrew scriptures. They are full of stories of the Israelites giving God a million reasons to be angry and frustrated. There is so much anger and complex feelings from and about God in the Old Testament that we often avoid those scriptures altogether.
For myself, this sermon series has taught me that avoiding uncomfortable things only hurts us.
When anger is so negative and uncomfortable, seeing an angry God can be….stressful.
Anger can be used. The Bible gives us both positive and negative examples of the use of anger. Even just looking at the scripture passages I chose this week paint varied pictures of God and anger.
As messy and tricky as God’s anger is, it is a type of anger that has a purpose, duration, proportion, and action, with forgiveness all mixed in.
Some of the best leaders in the Bible argue and fight with God. They are honest with God. They have a relationship with God.
Maybe the better question is: when you are angry, do you mirror Christ’s anger?
Our anger should bring us back shalom. That is our measuring stick.
The cause for anger is a key part of learning how to use anger. Anger without cause is not good.
Anger without a duration poisons everything and everyone around you. Anger without forgiveness cheapens it.
Learning about the duration of anger, whether to act or not act, finding purpose in the anger and discerning the proportion of the anger are all skills we are called to hone.
If God gets angry, then perhaps we ought to get angry, too.
Could the key to inclusion and liberation and restoration be Godly anger?
Our country and the world just lost one of the best examples of using anger as a tool.
John Lewis mastered his anger. I know he wasn’t perfect. No one is. But his entire life was committed to forging his anger into a useful tool. I believe that it sustained him in the journey of watching the arc of the universe bend toward justice.
I have been reading John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell’s graphic novel series March, which tells Lewis’ life story, specifically focusing on his role in the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s and beginning the Freedom Riders.
They began sit-ins at department store lunch counters, then burger joints around the south. Then movie theaters. They were hit, spit on, fumigation bombs were even thrown into restaurants that they were locked in. Cigarettes were put out on their bodies. They would pour hot coffee and water down their backs.
Lewis often spoke about the work that God did in his life while he sat on those lunch counter stools. How he grew up. He “accepted the way of peace, the way of love as a way of living, not just a technique.”
Then, the group became the Freedom Riders. To protest segregated bus terminals, they took bus trips through the American South in 1961. The original group of Freedom Riders was made up of only 13 people: 7 black, 6 white. They began in Washington, D.C. and planned to travel to New Orleans. As they traveled south, violent incidents haunted the road.
The turning point didn’t arrive until March 7, 1965, known in history as Bloody Sunday. Lewis led over 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The other side of the bridge offered state troopers.
Lewis said, “There’s not anything more powerful than the marching feet of a determined people. When people are marching together in an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent fashion, that can appeal to all of humankind.” He continued, “No matter the cause or injustice, nonviolent protest is the immutable principle that you cannot deviate from. If you want to have a good end, your means must be good and noble. Somehow, someway, the end must be caught up in the means.”
And that is what will sustain us. That will allow resilience to grow and inclusion and liberation to bloom.
Since Lewis’ death, writer Paul M wrote about meeting John Lewis in 2007 when he gave a commencement speech at the University of Massachusetts. It was surreal meeting the man who was beaten for doing the right thing. The man who was beaten and didn’t beat back. The man who taught others that anger can be of God and be a catalyst for change.
Nonviolence does not mean an absence of anger. Not in the least.
Anger was the fuel for the Freedom Riders. And their response was not a quick decision or an act of courage that they decided on a whim. This group was organized, very organized!
It took a lot of training and practice. So much practice. In the series March, they write about the practice sessions of screaming and hitting each other. If someone reacted, they were done. They were kicked out of the Freedom Riders.
Lewis spent years studying Gandhi and Richard Bartlett Gregg’s work on nonviolence. He understood in order to reach restoration and not revenge, there needed to be a profound belief in the righteousness of one’s cause, and faith in the beloved community.
The means will define the end.
It was understood that violent resistance to domination would created more violence and more domination.
An important difference in anger to consider is between restoration and revenge.
When you get angry with whatever it is, big or small, which do you strive for?
There are many daily tests and evaluations we can practice with forging our own tool of anger.
When you watch the news, do you get angry? What makes you angry? Why does it make you angry? Do protests make you angry? Does looting? Does lying? Does kneeling? I invite you to really explore your feelings about makes your blood boil. Is it something you need to resolve or strengthen? These can feel overwhelming. You may want to fix everything immediately.
Are you satisfied with the current state of affairs outside the front door? If you are, then you may see no purpose for anger in the world.
Humans possess the capacity for anger, which if handled properly, is the catalyst for change.
We have to be dissatisfied with the world today to dream of a better tomorrow.
When we claim to love what God loves and hate what God hates, the Spirit of God opens our eyes to see the corruption and injustice in this world and in our lives.
When we commit to understanding our own anger, as people, as communities, as a country, we work to separate anger and violence. They don’t have to be friends.
When our anger reflects God’s anger about injustice and the breaking of shalom, we know we are on the right track. That doesn’t mean it can’t get corrupt or cause damage.
There is a legend of a wooden spoon. Supposedly, it will break the surface tension of a pot about to boil over. The liquid will continue to boil and be right at the top, but it won’t boil over.
What is your wooden spoon? The boiling water still has a purpose and use. But it is controlled and has a duration.