Anger in the Service of Justice: Following Jesus' Example

I am angry, and I am not alone. In response to the heart-shattering violence visited upon innocent children and teachers in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, millions of Americans are enraged by the lack of sensible gun control laws, as well as by the tone-deaf responses of those who think the only solution is more guns.

This dreadful tragedy is waking up a vast number of people of faith, who are channeling their anger into seeking just responses in its aftermath. And we find an example for doing so in the person of Jesus, whose birth we celebrate in this season -- a holy occasion dampened by our tears of grief and outrage. Because when we read the Gospels with open eyes, we may be surprised to find Jesus getting mad at injustice -- and doing something about it.

Of course, we are bombarded by anger in our society: vicious arguments about political and moral views on radio and cable news programs; honking horns and rude gestures in mall parking lots; mean-spirited, vulgar and often anonymous comments blowing up our Facebook pages, Twitter feeds or blogs; a silly disagreement with a family member or co-worker that becomes fueled by deep stress or fear and explodes into a nearly violent altercation. We have more than enough anger in our lives.

Yet, there's a category of anger that we must recognize as distinct and necessary: moral or righteous anger. Such anger can give us courage to do what we might otherwise not be able to do, helping us to overcome the paralysis of fear. It can fuel outspokenness to rebuke evil or injustice, giving force to reproaches that otherwise we'd keep to ourselves or simply mumble in complaint.

As devotional author Robert Law wrote a century ago, anger "is merely a force, a gunpowder of the soul which, according as it is directed, may blast away the obstructions of evil, or defend us from temptation as with a wall of fire, or which again may work devastating injury in our own and in other lives."

Time after time throughout the Gospels, Jesus angrily challenges the religious authorities, mocking them for their self-protective, self-promoting ways. He drives the elite crazy by spending time with and showing favor to the poor and marginalized. He questions assumptions and challenges the status quo. And as a result he becomes the target of those in authority. Ultimately, those authorities tried to satisfy their hurt feelings by killing him. You know how that turned out.

Nevertheless, Jesus showed us that there are times when we must stand up and express truth to power in constructive, meaningful, unyielding ways despite the possible consequences. Consider how often, and in how many ways, Jesus expressed anger in the Gospels. He was clear and direct, possessing a particular purpose: to bring about justice or reveal malice or ignorance. He made no personal attacks, but sought to uncover the evil behind the actions. There is no record of Jesus being angered by a personal offense no matter how wrong, unjust, or violent it may be. He lived and taught that the one who is persecuting us is also created in the image of God and loved by God, and in that reality we can love our enemy.

Just as God is righteously angered over oppression and injustice, so should we be. Learning how to balance these teachings and actions is a lifelong process for those who choose to follow his ways.

Jesus' mission is to liberate human souls into a loving way of life. He is after what matters to God. And so he reveals dishonesty, fights injustice and subjugation, causes change, sets thing right. Undergirding every expression of his anger is love; Jesus speaks the truth in love. In every case the anger of Jesus is the passion of love. His love of God, his zeal for the ways of God, his mission to open the way of God to all, together make him indignant at whatever dishonors God and whatever impedes others from knowing and experiencing life as God intends.

To simplify the matter to the extreme, we might say there are two kinds of anger: natural anger, or the anger of fear and selfishness; and holy anger, the anger of love and justice. When we witness wrong done to others, particularly those who do not have the strength or means to defend themselves, then as people of faith we need to express the anger of love -- the anger that gives us boldness and outspokenness in defense of what is right.

This is a holy anger, as Law put it:

"one of the purest, loftiest emotions of which the human spirit is capable, the fiery spark which is struck by wrongdoing out of a soul that loves the right. When a person is destitute of such emotion, when there is nothing in one that flames up at the sight of injustice, cruelty, and oppression, nothing that flashes out indignation against the liar, the hypocrite, the 'grafter,' the betrayer of sacred trusts, there is much awanting to the strength and completeness of moral humanity."

There are numerous ways people of faith can be involved in helping set things right. For one thing, as we wrestle with the impact of the Newtown tragedy, we can advocate for stricter, common-sense gun laws, or work toward offering much-needed services for those suffering with mental illness. Or we can take on another needed effort -- whether it is helping to shelter the homeless, feeding those in poverty, visiting women or men in prison, helping to clothe children in need, serving those with special needs, working with youth who need an adult mentor. The needs are endless, the inequities abound.

This is a good season for each of us to ask ourselves: How might my moral anger be channeled into loving action?

Jesus' example and teachings reveal to us that anger, channeled and directed in love, can proclaim a better way and fuel positive acts. At this time of sorrowful soul-searching, of disturbed grief, as we prepare for the season of Christmas, may we open ourselves to the guidance of the spirit of peace to determine how best to express our moral anger, and in all matters, how to speak and act in love.

Originally appeared at