Righteous Anger?

Righteous Anger?

Sun 11 Oct

Righteous Anger? by Glen Pettigrove;

According to conventional wisdom, anger is not always bad.  Sometimes it is good.  In fact, at times it is even required.  A number of important moral thinkers have supported conventional wisdom on this point.  Probably the most famous of these is Aristotle, who asserted, ‘With reference to anger we stand badly if we feel it violently or too weakly, and well if we feel it moderately’ (NE II.5).

Is this the wisdom of the church as well?  As is so often the case, the answer depends on whom you ask.  Some noteworthy figures in the history of the church have agreed with Aristotle and conventional wisdom.  For example, Aquinas claimed that, although too much anger can be a problem, ‘lack of the passion of anger is also a vice’ (ST II-II, Q158, A8).  The Psalmist offers the following as an expression of piety:

‘Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?  And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?  I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies’ (Ps 139:21-22).

As the rest of the psalm makes clear, he hates them so much he wishes God would kill them.

As a general rule, if you find Aristotle, Aquinas, and the Psalmist all agreeing with one another, you ought to assume the position they are endorsing is right.  However, on this occasion, we have reason to doubt what they are saying.  As I have already noted, not all voices in Christian history have joined in the conventional chorus.  The most famous of the contrary voices is Matthew’s Jesus.

‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.”  But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “you fool,” you will be liable to the hell of fire’ (Matthew 5:21-22).

The passage is preceded by Jesus’ claim that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven (v. 20).  It is followed by an instruction underscoring the seriousness of anger.  Anger is so bad that we should go out of our way a) not to anger others, and b) to make up with those we have.  How far out of our way?  

‘When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift’ (vv. 23-24).

Rather than going along with Aristotle and the Psalmist, Jesus sounds a very different note.  Far from promoting righteous anger against wrongdoers, Jesus encourages us to love them.  Just a few lines down from the passage that was read out for us, we find one of Jesus’s most famous injunctions.

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven’ (Matthew 5:43-45).

Although Jesus’s followers often failed to take his point, on this matter they seem to have gotten it.  We are told repeatedly in the NT epistles to ‘put away anger’ (e.g. Eph. 4:26-5:2; Col. 3:7-15).  So it is not surprising to find the 4th century monastic, Cassian, giving anger a prominent place within his catalogue of capital vices, which eventually came to be known as the seven deadly sins.  ‘The deadly poison of anger,’ he says, ‘has to be utterly rooted out from the inmost corners of our soul’ (Institutes viii.1).

Given Jesus’s teaching in Matthew, its repetition in the Epistles, and anger’s inclusion among the deadly sins by Cassian and Gregory the Great, how could Aquinas have come to endorse it again a few centuries later?  It is not out of 

ignorance of any of the figures I have mentioned so far.  He is well acquainted with Matthew’s gospel and the canonical epistles and he cites Cassian and Gregory frequently.

No doubt it was in large part due to the influence of Aristotle.  At the time Thomas was writing, Aristotle was just being rediscovered after centuries of neglect in the west.  And Thomas built his career around being Aristotle’s champion.  The moral of the story here is beware of the dangerous influence of dodgy philosophers.  (For those of you who are reading this at home, you should know I am wearing a rather mischievous grin on my face as I say this.  This is because I teach philosophy at the University of Auckland.  So some might count me among the dodgy philosophers.)

But it is not entirely Aristotle’s fault.  You might think there are a few passages even in the New Testament where anger is endorsed.  The one most of you will be thinking about is the passage from Ephesians 4 that was our second reading for today.  ‘Be angry, but do not sin’ (Ephesians 4:26).  How much clearer could it be?  Sometimes we are enjoined to be angry.

However, before you get too excited about this passage, there are a few things you ought to know about it.  The first thing you should know is that the author is offering a paraphrase of Psalm 4:4, which says, “If you are angry, do not sin; ponder it on your beds and be silent.”  The writer of Ephesians strengthens the Psalmist’s point by restricting how long you may ponder it on your bed: ‘do not let the sun go down on your anger’ (4:26).  The second thing to notice about the passage is the company anger is keeping in the rest of Ephesians 4.  The writer puts anger in the same class as lying, stealing, evil talk, slander, malice, and grieving the Holy Spirit (4:25-30).  This is not how you would present anger if you were intending to endorse it as an emotional disposition that we ought to foster.  The author urges his readers to ‘put away’ these things and, instead, ‘be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you’ (4:32).  In other words, the writer of the letter to the Ephesians is singing Jesus’s tune.

Nevertheless, you might think there is still a bit of room for righteous anger in the New Testament.  After all, doesn’t Jesus get angry when he is casting the merchants and money changers out of the Temple?  That is certainly how we tend to read the passage.  However, interestingly, the gospel writers do not describe him as being angry.  The only clear passage in the canonical gospels in which you will find Jesus being described as angry is in Mark 3, where he is described as looking at the Pharisees with anger.  Even here, the description of Jesus’s ‘anger’ may not pick out an emotion.  Mark’s point seems to be to show that Jesus has the authority to exercise the ‘wrath of God,’ which is a technical term for God’s judgment.  But to make that case would require another sermon (or two).

Happily, we don’t need to make that case.  Even if Jesus is angry on these two occasions, at no point are we encouraged to imitate him in this respect.  Quite to the contrary, we are explicitly told not to imitate him.  As James puts it, ‘Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God’ (James 1:19-20).

Of course, this does not mean that we should not be bothered by injustice and take steps to change it.  It simply means that we should look for other tools to do the job.


To sum up:

Anger, even so-called righteous anger, is never recommended in the NT.
When we are encouraged to be slow to anger (i.e., meek), we now have a clearer sense of how slow we should be – so slow as not to arrive at that (angry) destination.
If we find we have become angry, we should take care:

a.That is does not manifest itself in our actions.

b.That we do not nurse it.

c.That we do all in our power to root it out.

d. And we should avoid provoking it in others.

(For more on anger, including a summary of recent psychological research on anger, see my paper, ‘Meekness and “Moral” Anger,’ which you can read online at https://www.academia.edu/1059738/Meekness_and_Moral_Anger.)