Let’s talk about that dirty “A” word the Church so often dislikes…
In the Church, we try to avoid “anger” like that mask-less person on the train who will just not stop coughing.
I’ll never forget when I was in my first year of college and attended a retreat that was put on by the campus ministry I was involved in. The young women and young men were split into separate groups. (There was no group that was designated for gender fluid, gender nonconforming, or non-binary folx).
The speaker for the women’s group told us she was going to talk about what she said was “Christian womanhood.” And she told us that we were going to look at what the bible had to say about how to be a “virtuous woman.” Throughout the day we looked up bible verses (which were – of course – taken out of context) that mentioned kindness, gentleness, and self-control.
She told our group that these are the virtues Christian women must maintain. “We must be kind and gentle. When someone wrongs us, we must have self-control,” she said. “Jesus commands us to forgive others, and therefore we must not respond with anger.”
Now, while this was a fundamentalist Christian ministry, this conditioning to be nice, kind, and refrain from anger is prevalent throughout many U.S. Christian and secular institutions and systems. And women, femmes, BIPOC, and trans, non-binary, gender fluid, and gender nonconforming folx are especially expected and conditioned to be “kind” and “refrain from anger.”
As Austin Channing Brown explains in her book: I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness:
“There are so few acceptable occasions for my rage to be expressed. Because I am a Black person, my anger is considered dangerous, explosive, and unwarranted. Because I am a woman, my anger supposedly reveals an emotional problem or gets dismissed as a temporary stat that will go away once I choose to be rational. Because I am a Christian, my anger is dismissed as a character flaw, showing just how far I have turned from Jesus. ‘Real Christians’ are nice, kind, forgiving – and anger is none of those things. Though I knew these interpretations to be ludicrous, dealing with these reactions to any hint of my anger was enough to prevent me from speaking it.”
The irony is: this concept that anger and rage are somehow “bad” – which is often upheld in many Christian circles – is actually far from biblical.
Throughout the books of wisdom, prophets, psalms, Gospels, and epistles, God’s faithful people – as well as God, Godself – express anger and rage in multiples ways, shapes, and forms – particularly at injustice and when people are being marginalized and excluded. Even Jesus gets ticked off when he finds money changers in the Temple who were exploiting and excluding those who are most vulnerable. This enrages him. And he does not exactly express his rage with “kindness, gentleness, and self-control.”
Rather, Jesus makes a whip of cords, drives all the sheep and cattle out of the Temple, pours the moneychangers’ coins out all over the ground and flips their tables over – all while shouting: “Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!”
While this story is well-known to many, it might still be a little shocking every time we hear it in detail. We are so conditioned to think of Jesus as the nice guy and the gentle shepherd. However, what happens in the Temple is far from this picturesque image of Jesus.
And the thing is, Jesus’ emotions and actions were valid.
He was pissed off that the sacrificial system was creating poverty.
He was angry that the Temple – where people would go to have access to God – was actually inaccessible to many.
He was enraged that the institutional system was excluding those who could not make the difficult trip to Jerusalem because of their disability, health condition, or financial situation.
According to Jesus, God is accessible to everyone, not just as select few. And God is not constrained to a particular structure or location. God meets all of us wherever we are.
My campus ministry leaders were wrong for a lot of reasons. And saying that anger is un-Christ-like is one of them. The act of expressing anger and rage is holy work. And this work is absolutely necessary because it urges us to join God in creating a more beautiful and just world.
As Rachel Ricketts explains in her book, Do Better: Spiritual Activism for Fighting and Healing from White Supremacy:
“Righteous rage… is forceful anger that is asserted when a grave harm has transpired, and it commands accountability… Rage, like anger, can be channeled and transmuted for good. It is at the core of many of the most notorious social movements of our time.”
As followers of Jesus, we – too – need to feel and express holy anger and rage in healthy ways. This is important for our own health, as well as for the welfare of others. So may we take the time to do this intentional hard work of tapping into, expressing, and processing our anger and rage and creating spaces within our faith communities where others are able to do so, as well. And then – when we are ready – may we allow these holy and valid emotions to move us to act.
Rev. Emily Heitzman (she/her/hers) is an ordained Presbyterian (USA) pastor serving as the shared Pastor with Youth and Households at three ELCA congregations in the neighborhood of Edgewater in Chicago: Unity Lutheran, Ebenezer Lutheran, and Immanuel Lutheran. Some of her sermons and reflections can be found at Musings from a Bricolage.
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