In Anger We Trust? Repentance in the Age of Rage

It’s been over a month, and I’m still reeling from a comment I read on social media in January. Since yesterday was Forgiveness Sunday, signaling that we have now entered into Lent proper, I’m reflecting on how that single comment has shaped my attitude toward anger and reconciliation.

It all started with a meme. What the meme actually said isn’t all that important. Suffice it to say it was an angry one. It featured an expletive or two, yet despite its verbosity made no constructive attempt at conversation or rational argumentation.

In other words, it was not unusual in any way. How many similar posts we encounter each week–inconsequential rants that accomplish little aside from brandishing the post-er’s feelings on an issue.

Neither my right- nor left-leaning circles seem immune from the vitriol of aimless anger these days.

I almost ignored the post and scrolled on; it’s all so exasperating.

But what stopped me–what has grieved me, really–was one of the comments posted in response to the meme.

“Don’t give up! Don’t change!” The comment began. “Stay angry!”

Stay angry?

In a scant three syllables, these words captured what may just be the last thing inhabitants of this hyper-polarized society still seem to agree on: that intractable, inflexible, irrational anger toward the Other is virtuous.

As though, if we relinquish our anger for just one moment, we will lose our focus. Our steam. Our power. Our armor.

We live in an age of rage, an era in which unbridled seemingly righteous anger legitimizes rather than de-legitimizes someone’s air of authority.

The signs of this are everywhere. They surface in one-sided news articles that not only neglect but denigrate dissenting views; in the blind vitriol of protesters on both sides of the aisle who can’t stop their yelling or suffocating applause long enough to simply look one another in the eye as fellow human beings for a hot second; in the fact that even on issues where widespread consensus does exist, we can’t actually admit it–we have to continue performing our anger so that no one guesses for a moment we might share even some infinitesimal quality in common with our opponent.

I don’t think we are immune from the age of rage in the Church. There are so many issues to be up in arms about these days. Whose side are you on? Whose rules or practices or ways of doing things are “correct”? Who’s got it right and who’s got it wrong?

A prayer that’s been forming itself in my heart: let me not become so insecure about the state of our culture, our nation(s), our world, our Church, that I mistake the Gospel for merely a social cause, a contest I must trample down others to win.

Let me remember that the Gospel is Good News–to be shared not only with the people I agree with but with all (hu)mankind, all the world.

In my experience, Good News is rarely if ever announced with a smug smirk, an expletive, a clenched fist, an angry cat.

So what do I do? How do I combat this temptation to locate myself in the age of rage rather than the age of the kingdom to come, the age of repentance and forgiveness?

I’m not sure. But Lent seems as good a time as any to wrestle with that question.

As I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve found comfort in some reflections Peter Bouteneff offered in his somewhat recent book How to be a Sinner.

For Bouteneff, the fallenness of this world, even with regard to blatant social evils–such as systemic racism–can serve as a tool to become aware of ourselves as sinners even if we ourselves are not racist. 

He recounts a time when he was part of a group of Christians from various denominations to plan a prayer service in the wake of arson attacks on black churches in the South. While other folks helping to plan the service suggested prayers that grieved or condemned racism, Bouteneff suggested they also include a personal confession, “identifying the anger, pettiness, and prejudice that dwell in our [own] hearts,” not just the hearts of the perpetrators.

Some who heard this suggestion were angry and confused–why should they confess? They weren’t the racists. They weren’t the arsonists. But others who considered the confession aspect more carefully realized the uncomfortable truth that in some sense, even atrocities we are all ‘against’ carry a degree of communal responsibility.

“Taking responsibility for the ills of the world can seem like sheer vanity,” Bouteneff continues. “As if I am personally so consequential! But it should actually stem from a deep sense that we are all in this together. And wouldn’t it seem that our primary duty should be amending our own lives rather than pointing fingers of blame at others? After all, we can take total responsibility for and actually change ourselves.”

This strikes me as a pivotal mind-shift that could benefit us in the age of rage.

One practice in particular Bouteneff alights on, which I think aligns perfectly with the spirit of repentance cultivated during Lent, is what he calls “Loosing,” that is, opening our hearts to the possibility of God’s salvation for everyone. This is not to be confused with apokatastasis or the doctrine of universal salvation. As Bouteneff points out, whether God chooses to save everyone is and shall remain a mystery–but we, for our part, can hope that He does.

How does one adopt the spiritual discipline of Loosing? Brace yourselves.

“The next time you see someone you are inclined to judge, roll your eyes at, or condemn, imagine God calling you by name to say: “I love this person, and I want to save her. Is that OK with you?” Your answer should be, simply must be, “Yes, Lord! Don’t let me hold You back!” That oes for everyone and anyone. The sea of people crowded ahead of you in the supermarket checkout lane. The kid with the ridiculous tattoo. That over-affectionate couple. Someone yelling at you because of your color or sex. The politician whose views you abhor. Everyone of them: “Yes.” “Yes.” “Yes!” 

Even quoting this, I feel a tension in my fingers, fully expecting many may be angered by these words. And that’s okay. I write them mainly for myself.

As difficult as I find this “loosing” to be, I also long to be rescued from the “trouble–really the utter nuisance–of being judgmental.”

It’s not to say that there isn’t such a thing as real wrongness, or real personal responsibility–that we should just turn a blind eye to evil acts or refuse to protect ourselves and others. But that, on a deep level, we are all in this (“this” being the sickness of sin) together.

I’ll close with these words from How to Be a Sinner:

“We can observe subtle failures and mediocrities, or dwell on especially horrible events, and find inklings of those tragedies in the depths of our own hearts. Sometimes we step into a realization that–because we are all so thoroughly interconnected–something exists within each of us that contributes to the disastrous state of affairs.”

 

***

Some of the links in this post may be affiliate links. More info here.

 

 

 

 

 

6 comments:

  1. I also find myself reeling over the one-sided ‘age of rage’ I hear in media, conversations, and churches. In reviewing your previous posts, I came across one from November 6, 2016, “Praying When the Times Hurt.” Your posting is just as relevant today as then, if not more-so, as we approach another election in the US. I have been increasingly being grateful for the timeless words and traditions that ground me in a kingdom that over-arches the political wars of our current times. In these times it is hard to formulate or find grounding in my own words. As you wrote, “When we return home from a long journey, we don’t want to have to rebuild our own house.”

    I am repeatedly challenged by the words of Solzhenitsyn: “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.” And like Solzhenitsyn writes, the line oscillates within me, and I am continually challenged by the grudges I hold from personal hurts as well as my grief for the underprivileged of this country and this world who bear the brunt of injustices. And in so stating, I find that line oscillating once again. Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

    I am grieved in particular at the level to which that political rage has overtaken the church. Just yesterday I marked a book on my wish list by David Fitch, “The Church of Us vs. Them.” Since it was written in 2014, I fear the conflict has only increased. I expect the trend affects not only Evangelicals, but can be seen across most religious groups. How sad to lose our grounding in the Kingdom of God to the kingdoms of this world.

    As you speak of anger, I am reminded of the seminary course I took in conflict and communication. From that and a few other resources, I composed an anger flow chart (which I would be happy to share). Relevant portions here include the following:

    Anger can be defined as a DEMAND fueled by ADRENALINE. The DEMAND derives from our PERCEPTION of an event as a THREAT. At this point, we have the opportunity (that few take) to re-evaluate our perception: 1. Is it true? 2. What is the rest of the story? 3. Is the conclusion (attitude, perception, emotion) valid? As you observed, few take this step of evaluation, remaining stuck on the stage of adrenaline fueled demands.

    Anger, however, is not in and of itself a sin. The sin comes in the action we take to vent the heightened anxiety of our anger. Using a 2 dimensional grid for analysis, relationship versus goal, one has 5 choices:
    1. Suppression: You win, I lose. May lead to depression
    2. Aggression: I win, you lose. Can be open aggression or passive. Leads to injury, abuse
    3. Leave: I lose, You lose. Results in lost relationship and issue is never resolved
    4. Assertive Compromise: Both win, and both lose. Result is only a partial solution
    5. Assertive “Carefronting”: I win, You win. “Our Way” Preserve both relationship and issue resolution. This is the most difficult, and is not always possible. It requires communication, research, listening, and digging down to the common shared values.
    In today’s political and social media environment, we probably can identify all 5 of the resolution styles, but #5 seems quite rare, and even compromise seems to be slipping away.

    The challenge for me is to continually nurture that grounding, for which ritual and tradition (including community) are helpful tools, and to be continually aware of the oscillating line within myself. Lord, have mercy.

    Sam

    1. Hi again Sam! Thank you for reminding me of that line from Solzhenitsyn, I had forgotten it and it certainly crystallizes the struggle I tried to articulate here. There were other quotes and points I wanted to raise in this post, but I’ve been sitting with these thoughts since January and I figured better to just post something and build on it later.

      But after I posted I was thinking of the many correlations and tie-ins between what I was trying to get across and the practical experience of Lent. Of Forgiveness Sunday, socially awkward as it is, it is so disarming. Of “fasting from our passions as we fast from food,” proclaimed so many times in this first week of services. Not to mention the Canon of Repentance, in which we learn to see ourselves-as-sinners in the sins of others throughout biblical history. Surely that in itself is an exercise of learning to see ourselves in the Other, whose sins we somehow assume are worse or more worthy of judgment than our own. What a corrective!

      The taxonomy of choices you outlined, too, is something I’m going to have to think more about. It’s useful in so many contexts, incl 1:1 relationships. How to implement this in broader discourses? That’s always the challenge. But I suppose Lent is a reminder that all these things begin, as you point out, in our own hearts. I’d love to see the flow chart! If it has to be sent as a document, you should be able to email it to email hidden; JavaScript is required. If I don’t respond within 48 hrs that means it didn’t make it to my personal inbox so let me know here! 🙂

  2. ‘Dostoevsky says, “Each man is responsible for everything before everyone.” We think we ourselves are not responsible for the state of the world as it is and that if only others were as good as we were the world would be better. This is a lie.’

    Father Stephen Freeman

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *