Peter Wallace: Anger in the Service of Justice - Following Jesus's Example

I am angry, and I am not alone.

The multitude of injustices perpetrated against Black Americans by police – spotlighted just now by the complete lack of appropriate justice regarding the grievous death of Breonna Taylor – is infuriating. Also infuriating are the blatant efforts on so many levels by elected “public servants” to deny simple access to the vote for all, to stifle economic equality and protect the wealthy, to remove much needed health care protections, to avoid responsibility for COVID-19 pandemic alleviation, to scheme in order to protect their own small-minded views in the federal courts, to ignore if not vilify the poor and cut off their safety net provisions, to intentionally deplete our hurting planet of active environmental protections – well, I could go on and on. My anger feels bottomless.

These combined tragedies are, at least, waking up a vast number of people of faith, who are channeling their anger into seeking just responses to these and other crises. We find a perfect example for doing so in the person of Jesus. Because when we read the Gospels with open eyes, we may be surprised to find Jesus getting angry at injustice — and doing something about it.

Of course, we are ceaselessly 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; maskless minions fomenting terror in the name of freedom in supermarkets; 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 face 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. [For more on Jesus’s anger and other emotions, see the author’s book The Passionate Jesus (2012, SkyLight Paths Publishing)]

As Scottish Presbyterian devotional author, Robert Law, wrote a century ago that 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.” [From Peter M. Wallace, editor. Heart and Soul: The Emotions of Jesus (2019, Church Publishing, Inc.)]

Time after time throughout the Gospels, Jesus angrily challenges the hypocritical religious authorities, mocking them for their self-serving, 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 rather 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 have been. 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 God’s children be. Learning how to balance these teachings and actions is a lifelong process for those who choose to follow Jesus’s ways.

Jesus’s mission is to liberate human souls into a loving way of life. He is all about going 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.

As Robert Law put it:

“Holy anger… is one of the purest, loftiest emotions of which the human spirit is capable, the fiery spark that is struck by wrongdoing out of a soul that loves what’s right and just. When a person is destitute of such emotion - when there is nothing in them that flames up at the sight of injustice, cruelty, and oppression, nothing that flashes out indignation against the liar, the hypocrite, the swindler, the betrayer of sacred trusts—there is much lacking for the strength and completeness of moral personhood.” [Ibid.]

There are numerous ways people of faith can be involved in helping set things right. For one thing, as we wrestle with, for example, the impact of a shooting 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, volunteering to serve in voting precincts or get out the vote, serving those with special needs, working with youth who need an adult mentor. The needs are endless, the inequities abound.

Above all, we can vote, and do whatever we can to make sure others can vote.

As Election Day approaches, this is a good time for each of us to ask ourselves: How might my anger be channeled into loving action? For this is how we make our anger holy and righteous.

Jesus’s 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 anger-fueled soul-searching, of disturbed grief, as we prepare for whatever is next, 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.