The Allure of Righteous Anger

I’m trying to figure out how pissed off to be and am having a difficult time. By nature I am phlegmatic, mildly torpid, and slow to anger. I avoid conflict when possible the way a deer (even one with horns) avoids a wolf (the product, my wife claims, of my growing up with parents who fought daily). I tend to chew on things reflectively rather than feel things intensely.

So what does a person like me do in a culture in which displaying anger is taken as a necessary sign of commitment and moral seriousness? Does my slowness to anger indicate wisdom and moderation (two of the top classical virtues) or is it the byproduct of timidity and cowardice? Some things, certainly, are worth being angry about. On the other hand (a favorite phrase for people like me), a lot of ersatz moral anger is simply emotionally satisfying display, dumping, and highgrounding.

People of faith—the intended audience for this blog—have many models for appropriate anger in Scripture and in history, from Old Testament prophets to Jesus to Luther to Martin Luther King (though I do not associate King primarily with anger). But we also have many models of self-righteous, self-serving, and ultimately harmful anger—from Herod (I’m quite sure he felt right in his anger) to burnings-at-the-stake to present day anger stokers.

Which leaves me wondering about how angry I need to feel, as a Christian, about our current socio-political mess, and about sin in general. According to the Boston Declaration (google it), which I read for the first time yesterday, I need to be more than angry, I need to be “outraged.”

The Boston Declaration presents itself as a Christian response to evils it sees at work in our society. The authors begin by describing their declaration as “prophetic,” which gives me pause from the get go. I’ve found that people who self-identify as prophets or apostles or healers or the like are best handled cautiously. Others—most importantly the Holy Spirit—will decide whether they are prophetic or merely full of themselves. If you have to call yourself prophetic, then perhaps you aren’t.

But maybe I’m just mincing words.

Then they tell us, more than once, that “we are outraged.” I wonder whether they’ve ever witnessed someone in a “rage.” I have and it’s not a pretty sight. Nor is that state conducive to anything productive. It has been the formula for a few decades now to preface arguments (especially letters to the editor) with the words “I am outraged,” but I don’t think it’s either particularly of God or even rhetorically useful.

The rest of the document does, in fact, continue the rage, listing in rather tired, highly politicized language the evils they oppose. And who wouldn’t oppose them. Taken individually, and cast in less florid and inflated words, the things they oppose are mostly worthy of being opposed. (Though what they fail to mention is as telling as what they do, indicating that they are selective in their rage.)

My point isn’t to single out this undoubtedly well-intended effort against sin, nor to suggest it is any more of a self-righteous rant than many other such proclamations, from other points on the political spectrum. My point is to question—sincerely, as in a question for which I do not assume an answer—whether this is anger and an approach that I should share. (Signing the declaration would, in fact, be extremely easy and would cast me in a favorable light with some colleagues without my having to actually do anything.)

I know myself (a bit). I know I am eager to rationalize my own conflict avoidance. Perhaps I react negatively to the Boston Declaration because of a guilty conscience, not because it sounds a lot like political rants from the 1960’s (I heard lots of them). I know the Bible says, “be slow to anger, for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God,” but that it also says, “be angry and do not sin.”

Some say the key to genuinely righteous anger is that the anger is directed at those who harm others, not anger at offenses to one’s self. I’m sure the Boston Declaration signers would make that claim. (And if the document were less pompous, I’d be inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt.)

In the end, I think my emotional state doesn’t matter much. It’s dangerous to call oneself prophetic and glory in outrage (see the Virtue Peacock in last week’s post). But it’s also dangerous to be docile in the face of evil (see the Oblivious Ostrich in last week’s post). What matters is what I do, in my small corner of the world, to repair and extend God’s shalom in his world.