On human anger

By Madison McClendon

Those of us who oppose what the president is doing — opposition rooted in deeply Christian principles of justice — have cautioned each other repeatedly: Avoid outrage fatigue.

As the weeks and months wore on in 2017, however, I learned that my capacity for outrage is tremendous. Each new day renews my strength. I soar on the wings of wrath; I rage and do not grow weary. I walk, and my anger does not faint. I do not become fatigued to outrage.

What outrage does to your heart is far more insidious than fatigue.

This truth is not limited to this administration’s opponents. It is universal. The world is full of evil things, and that reality mightily tempts those who strive to unite their Christian citizenship with their worldly passport. Regardless of your political commitments, you will see it at every turn. Our most trenchant disagreements emerge from conflicting visions of justice. Our opponents always seem unjust. Feeling outrage toward them is a powerful, understandable temptation.

Outrage finds easy justification. As Proverbs says, each new indignity heaped upon the poor insults God above. I felt the hot, bright outrage upon my cheeks when the president suspended Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. This action creates a condition of unconscionable fear for the images of God who are immigrants to this country — people who were brought here as children before they even knew the countries to which we now threaten to deport them. That threat carries behind it the threat of annihilation in a land a child cannot know and does not love. I believe God rages at that wickedness.

God’s wrath against the oppressor is real. Children of God were born to freedom, but their fellow humans bonded them to slavery. Christ will stand at the judgment and condemn those who put them in chains. But God’s wrath is also forgiving; God’s anger can shift to mercy in an instant, and, above all, seeks reconciliation before punishment. Can any of us say the same? When my enemy seeks forgiveness, I cannot say I am eager to grant it.

James (1:20) is clear that human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Unlike God’s anger — which is focused on the things that matter, and can vanish in a second when the offense is forgiven — my anger does not subside so quickly or find so much clarity of purpose.

When I spend the day angry at Donald Trump, I go home and find myself angrily shouting at drivers in traffic, whose only crime is being on the road with me. I snap at my friends, or get in fights with people over matters wholly unrelated to politics. Or worse, I get in minor fights with people who I will need to work with closely, if I am to defend against all the dangerous things that Trump represents to me. I swim in a sea of my own emotions, and that sea is infected with a powerful drug.

Anger may well exist in a divine form, but, in my human body, it becomes something different, leading me to break apart the very ties to God and my fellow human beings that will be the linchpin and the watchword of any strategy toward wholeness and fullness. Even as it happens, I find ways to justify it, excuse it, to call “divine” what is simply my own fear and frustration acting in horrible ways toward those I truly love and am obligated to protect and labor alongside.

The danger of outrage is not that we become fatigued by it. The danger is that we become used to it. The danger is that it becomes how we interact with the world. The danger is that outrage can replace love as the lens through which we see everything — not only our enemies but our friends.

If we are to be perfect, as Christ commands, we must be willing to inhabit wrath from time to time, to feel our faces burn with the same anger that God feels when a child starves to death in the cold, as the rich eat more than they need in warmth and comfort. We cannot abandon anger entirely, and great harm comes from failing to recognize your authentic and real emotional life. When anger flares within our heart, we should listen, ask why, and let it motivate us to higher things.

Although we strive to be like God, on this side of heaven we will never fully achieve the high ideal of anger fully tempered by mercy. And so be careful with your hearts, dear friends, dear companions on this road to Zion. Be careful that your wrath burn for the right reasons; be wary lest you light a fire that cannot be easily quenched.

Madison McClendon is a Texas-born, Carolina-raised, Chicago-dwelling Baptist and member of North Shore Baptist Church. He holds a Master of Divinity from the University of Chicago Divinity School, works as an assistant director of donor relations at the University of Chicago, and is seeking ordination by American Baptist Churches USA.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.