Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Just Wrath

Many years ago, I heard a sermon in an Episcopal Church in which the priest expounded at length on the deadly sin of anger. His basic point was that it is always sinful for Christians to feel and/or act on anger. And so anger has no place in the Christian life.

At the time, I was taken aback by the sermon on biblical grounds. After all, the gospels clearly depict Jesus as angry. And in his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul writes: "Be angry but do not sin" (Ephesians 4:26). Holy Scripture does not categorically condemn all anger. And so I continue to believe that this priest's sermon expressed an extremist view that fails to distinguish between unrighteous and righteous anger.

With this in mind, I read with great interest an article by Leon J. Podles entitled "Unhappy Fault." With reference to the child sex abuse cases within the Roman Catholic Church, Podles offers an insightful exploration and defense of the virtue of just wrath. Here's a teaser:


Any institution tends to preserve itself by avoiding conflict, whether external or internal. In addition to this universal tendency, many Christians have a false understanding of the nature and role of anger. It is seen as something negative, something that a Christian should not feel.

In the sexual abuse cases in the Catholic Church, those who dealt with the bishops have consistently remarked that the bishops never expressed outrage or righteous anger, even at the most horrendous cases of abuse and sacrilege. Bishops seem to think that anger at sin is un-Christian. Gilbert Kilman, a child psychiatrist, commented, “What amazes me is the lack of outrage the church feels when its good work is being harmed. So, if there is anything the church needs to know, it needs to know how to be outraged.” ...

The emotions that are now suppressed are hatred and anger. Christians think that they ought not to feel these emotions, that it is un-Christian to feel them. They secretly suspect that Jesus was being un-Christian in his attitude to the scribes and Pharisees when he was angry at them, that he was un-Christian when he drove the moneychangers out of the temple or declared that millstones (not vacations in treatment centers) were the way to treat child abusers.

Conrad Baars noticed this emotional deformation in the clergy in the mid-twentieth century. He recognized that there had been distortions in “traditional” Catholic spirituality. It had become too focused upon individual acts rather than on growth in virtue; it had emphasized sheer naked strength of will. In forgetting that growth in virtue was the goal of the Christian’s moral life, it forgot that the emotions, all emotions, including anger and hate, are part of human nature and must be integrated into a virtuous life. ...

Wrath is a necessary and positive part of human nature: “Wrath is the strength to attack the repugnant; the power of anger is actually the power of resistance in the soul,” wrote Josef Pieper. The lack of wrath against injustice, he continued, is a deficiency: “One who does good with passion is more praiseworthy than one who is ‘not entirely’ afire for the good, even to the forces of the sensual realm.”

Aquinas, too, says that “lack of the passion of anger is also a vice” because a man who truly and forcefully rejects evil will be angry at it. The lack of anger makes the movement of the will against evil “lacking or weak.” He quotes John Chrysostom: “He who is not angry, whereas he has cause to be, sins. For unreasonable patience is the hotbed of many vices, it fosters negligence, and incites not only the wicked but the good to do wrong.”

Pieper observed the disappearance of the concept of just wrath in Catholic moral theology and spiritual life:

The fact, however, that Thomas assigns to [just] wrath a positive relation to the virtue of fortitude has become largely unintelligible and unacceptable to present-day Christianity and its non-Christian critics. This lack of comprehension may be explained partly by the exclusion, from Christian ethics, of the component of passion (with its inevitably physical aspect) as something alien and incongruous—an exclusion due to a kind of intellectual stoicism—and partly by the fact that the explosive activity which reveals itself in wrath is naturally repugnant to good behavior regulated by “bourgeois” standards.

Pieper’s quote from Aquinas’s commentary on John is relevant to both anger and forgiveness. Aquinas is commenting on the passage in which Jesus tells us to offer the other cheek:

Holy Scripture must be understood in the light of what Christ and the saints have actually practiced. Christ did not offer the other cheek, nor Paul either. Thus to interpret the injunction of the Sermon on the Mount literally is to misunderstand it. This injunction signifies rather the readiness of the soul to bear, if it be necessary, such things and worse, without bitterness against the attacker. This readiness our Lord showed, when He gave up His body to be crucified. That response of the Lord was useful, therefore, for our instruction.

The philosophical error that is at the root of this rejection of the passions is not stoicism so much as nominalism and a false concept of freedom which has become ingrained in Western Christianity.


Read it all.

7 comments:

Steve Hayes said...

For some Orthodox takes on it see Righteous anger: Khanya and The Good Anger: Glory to God for All Things. The latter deals specifically with Podles.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for sharing the links, Steve. I'll be sure and check them out.

Perpetua said...

So what do you make of Muslims having a "Day of Anger" against the Jews over the Temple Mount?

Bryan Owen said...

Well, Perpetua, part of what I make of it is in the article you've shared: it notes that the cleric in question is "well-known for his controversial fatwas." It would be helpful to know what other, more moderate Muslims think about all of this.

Discerning righteous versus unrighteous anger can be a tricky business, particularly insofar as our passions often spring from and are shaped more by our self-centered, sinful impulses than by our virtues.

Fr. Stephen, who has posted a piece on Podles' essay on his blog, speaks to this difficulty when he writes:

"I will say without fear of contradiction that I have never seen a single case of human 'righteous indignation.' Just as I have never met a man who was pure in heart, neither have I met a man who is pure in anger."

He goes on to qualify this statement by saying: "Just because I have not seen it, does not mean it does not exist."

But again, this is checked by Fr. Stephens' citation of St. John Chrysostom who, over and against Aquinas' theoretical analysis of anger, calls the experience of anger "a form of insanity, a 'temporary demon.'"

Perhaps, depending upon one's perspective, calling for a "day of anger" is tantamount to whipping up an experience of anger as "a form of insanity" and a "temporary demon" which, if unleashed, can do great evil, particularly when such anger is directed against those defined as the enemy.

All of this is simply to say that anger is a very powerful passion that, if not checked by virtue, can be very destructive, regardless of one's religion.

For a related discussion, check out this Jewish perspective on the virtue of hate.

maggi dawn said...

thanks, a timely post for me! Internally, suppressed anger is a one-way street to depression, but it has external consequences too. To fail to register anger or to sublimate it to "christian blandness" has at least as much destructive potential as anger itself.

Bryan Owen said...

I agree with you, Maggie. The issue is how to deal with anger in fitting and healthy ways, not suppressing it.

Jendi said...

Excellent post! I recommend Garret Keizer's book 'The Enigma of Anger' for a nuanced exploration of anger in the Christian life. He is a Harper's columnist and an Episcopalian (I think he was a lay preacher or deacon at some point).