Unrighteous Indignation

[Christianity Today, October 23, 2000]

Around the big table were ringed representatives of many faiths and many causes, and directly across from me was a man who burned with zeal for his. He held forth confidently on the urgency of his organization’s mission, and concluded by repeating the charge he gives his leaders. “I tell them to stay angry,” he said.

Has anger become a virtue?

Anger has long been the Seven Deadly Sin with the best box of costumes. When the guy in the next car rages at you, he’s dangerous. When you rage at him, you’re just. We can usually recognize the results of anger, especially in others, as destructive and evil. But there are times when we think our own anger is justified, say as a kind of fuel to fight injustice. There are times when we think it is holy.

It’s not just the world that thinks this way. When I want to have a particularly futile argument with a conservative I tell him (and, in this case, it will be a him) that I think the movie “Braveheart” is a revenge fantasy and that, since Christians are supposed to forsake revenge, it’s a variety of pornography. My movie-going friend will protest that Mel Gibson portrays Christian virtues of courage and self-sacrifice. I don’t have any question about that. But Jesus showed us how to be courageous and sacrificial while we die for our beliefs, not while we kill for them.

Perhaps there are time-and-place situations in which war can be just. But there’s never a situation where it’s right to gloat in revenge. There’s never a time to cultivate delicious anger just for the thrill of it.

I’ve been thinking about why this kind of anger feels so very good. It is, I believe, the mask of self-righteousness, and we desperately hunger to know that we are righteous. All humans suffer from free-floating guilt because, well, we’re guilty. We’re all sinners, and that’s the only kind of person Jesus came to save. But even for us Christians it can be difficult to dwell in repentance. We, along with everyone else, itch to find some grounds on which to stake our own righteousness. One way to resolve this anxiety is by finding someone else who is worse than us. We can judge them and unload our indignation, and feel assured of our comparative righteousness.

I thought of this a few years ago when news broke of church buildings burned in the south. Immediately a widespread public hunger grew that an evil conspiracy be found behind these burnings. We didn’t want them to turn out to be caused by bad wiring or pranksters or insurance fraud B we wanted to see real live walkin’ talkin’ evil people. The quantity of anger bubbling under the surface, hungry for a target, was disturbing. It’s the product of guilt misfiring.

Should crusaders strive to “stay angry?” It’s a very bad idea. Someone once said that staying angry is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die. If your cause is just, you would still find the energy to fight for it even without anger. You just wouldn’t be self-righteous about it.

The worst effect of self-righteous anger is the inner damage. It distorts your clarity about your own sinfulness and undermines your humility. Jesus told us to love our enemies, and demonstrated it by asking his Father to forgive his murderers. The failure of Christians to emulate this is one of the clearest examples of G. K. Chesterton’s line that Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult, and not tried.

One way of dealing with our inner sense of guilt is to locate somebody worse than us, and condemn him. The alternative is repentance, and preferring others above yourself.

Think about the weeping woman who wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair. Her repentance broadened her heart to receive and express much love. She was more whole and blessed than the Pharisee who judged her, or a modern-day yuppie who judges southern racists. A southern racist who repents in tears goes up to his house justified, and a smug guy who says “Well, it’s about time,” but inside feels vaguely disappointed, does not.

Self-righteous angry people can’t afford to be humble. Their peace is fragile. But we can love and forgive them all the same. The illusion, I think, is that we have to fight against our enemies. But in reality our opponents are not our enemies. We have an Enemy, who wants to destroy both our opponent and us. He will entice us to hatred and self-righteousness, even in doing what we think is the work of God. There is only one way to defeat him: to love our enemies instead.

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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