The other day an opinion-maker remarked with apparent surprise that after 9/11 Americans had not started attacking American Muslims. Readers will remember how many earnest warnings against violent reactions were issued in the days and weeks after the attack, and how many patronizing lectures on Islam as a religion of peace were given. You’d think that every group of Americans, other than those who read the New York Times, was a lynch mob just waiting for an excuse to feel righteous in venting their anger on victims who were easy and safe to hurt.
The same people who worry about the mythological angry middle class white Christian do not worry about anger in itself. Anger, in our culture, is “privileged,” as academics put it. It is a sign of authenticity that is rarely “interrogated,” if expressed by approved groups. You will not suffer for declaring that you are outraged, and you will often be applauded.
You see this in the reaction to Occupy Wall Street. For liberal writers, the ragtag group encamped near the Stock Exchange are expressing admirable anger at . . . whatever target the writers want attacked. Even conservative writers often said something like “They’re rightly angry at corporate America . . .” before criticizing them. In either case, the fact that the Occupiers feel angry at something, whatever exactly it is, is credited to them as virtue and a reason to take them seriously. Few on either side even suggest that the anger may not be genuine, healthy, and properly directed.
Why, however, should we assume that claiming to be angry, and even actually being angry, should be counted in anyone’s favor? It is easy to be angry. It is dangerously, poisonously, easy to be angry without having any particular reason. And it is easy, dangerously, poisonously easy, to find some target on which to focus that anger, a target that both justifies the rage and makes it meritorious. There is a lot of free-floating anger about, just waiting for an excuse to let itself go. “Wall Street” makes a great excuse. We are too complex, and too fallen, to believe our motives so pure.
Some years ago a pastor told a small group of religious-types of walking down the street in New Orleans, presumably in the French Quarter where human depravity shows itself more extravagantly than in other places, and turning to the young woman he was with to find her almost shaking with rage, her jaw and fists clenched. She turned to him and hissed, “Where is the Church?”
His answer, I thought, should have been “You’re right here, kiddo.” But she had said something profound, judging from the reactions of most of the others in the room. Someone said that he wished other people had such passion and concern, and heads nodded vigorously. The fact that she spoke with white-knuckled rage was sufficient evidence that she cared.
Even if her anger were purely a reaction to human suffering, what exactly was she angry at? What did she expect “the Church,” whatever she meant by that, to have done? Why should this evidence that Christians fail to do what they ought, as we have generally failed to do what we ought since the Ascension, so enrage her? Did she have any idea what even a collection of St. Francises might have been able to accomplish against the massive weight of human wickedness, and the particular temptations the city’s history brought it? What would be evidence that “the Church” had met her standards? How could she judge what Christians have done to help others, in the million little ways people shape their culture? Does she know how much worse the city would be without them?
She could not, I am fairly sure, have answered these questions, or the many others she would have to answer to be able to respond thoughtfully and practically to the evidences of the Fall of Man one sees on Bourbon Street. Her emotion served her ill, just as a practical matter.
The kind of anger we privilege, in other words, serves no good end. It is not an aid to understanding nor a spur to action. Because anger “blinds with its hurtful darkness the eye of the soul, we can neither acquire right judgment [nor] discretion,” wrote the fifth century Father St. John Cassian. Nor can we
gain the insight which springs from an honest gaze, or ripeness of counsel, nor can we be partakers of life, or retentive of righteousness, or even have the capacity for spiritual and true light: for, says one, my eye is disturbed by reason of anger. Nor can we become partakers of wisdom, even though we are considered wise by universal consent, for anger rests in the bosom of fools. . . . Nor shall we be able with clear judgment of heart to secure the controlling power of righteousness, even though we are reckoned perfect and holy in the estimation of all men, for the wrath of man works not the righteousness of God.
Someone trying to help another “may not by his wrath involve himself in the more dangerous malady of blindness . . . for how will he see to cast out the mote from his brother’s eye, who has the beam of anger in his own eye?” Cassian insists that angereven the political outrage we think admirablemust be “utterly rooted out from the inmost comers of our soul.”
The kind of anger we privilege blinds us, and that is as true for political analysis as for the spiritual life. And not just because it’s a passion we cannot control, but because it’s a passion we take as an end in itself (see, again, the Occupiers and their own explanations of what they’re about), and for which others reward us with approval and even applause (see my friends’ response to the young woman angry in New Orleans). These are feelings I know all too well.
Cassian leaves no room for anger, including the kind of impersonal response to evil that would seem to be felt in imitation of Christ, in such incidents as his cleansing of the Temple. I want to say that Cassian is wrong about this, and that the anger we feel when we see wickedness succeed expresses a pure hatred of evil, but he knows a lot more about the human heart than I do. I know something of my own heart, though, and I know I would see more clearly even about the prudential questions of social and political life did I not suffer anger’s hurtful darkness.
David Mills is Executive Editor of First Things and the author of Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
St. John Cassian on anger from his Institutes.
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