Holy Anger

“The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
John 2:13-18

It’s time to fess up. I’m not comfortable with anger. Not in others. Not in myself. Never have been, and probably never will be to the extent that I would like. Quite honestly, it frightens me. I typically try to avoid it like the plague (social distance and wash my hands of it). I’m pretty sure that anger avoidance is part of my Christian DNA. Verses from Matthew 5:22, Ephesians 4:31, James 1:19-20 along with a fair number of other scripture references have certainly influenced my discomfort and aversion toward anger.

Most assuredly the pictures of a gentle Jesus, meek and mild that adorned the walls of my childhood home further shaped my impressionable young mind. There was Sallman’s Head of Christ with that calm and saintly look on his handsome face. There was Jesus the ‘good shepherd’ with a lamb in one arm and a staff in the other. There was Jesus the ‘mother hen’ with a gaggle of gleeful children at his feet. Eventually a laughing Jesus appeared on the wall one day, and he became my favorite. All of them were hung by my Mother who to my knowledge never spoke an angry word or performed an angry act in her life. [Spoiler alert: I’m sure she did and I was unaware.]

It probably wasn’t until college psychology classes that I came to an educated understanding of anger. Anger is a built-in biological response to excessive stimulation. Anger is a feeling, and like all feelings it is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ in and of itself. Being angry at someone or something need not cause a knee-jerk reaction of guilt within me. Feeling angry and being the recipient of others’ anger is all a part of being human. And when it finally dawned upon me that this was as true for Jesus as it is for me (and you), that’s when I began to get a better handle on the dynamics of anger.

While I’m still uncomfortable expressing and receiving anger, I also understand that there is a place for ‘rightful’ directed anger. Righteous indignation or ‘holy anger’ is what Jesus rightfully directed in the synagogue in Capernaum toward the Pharisees when they refused to answer his questions. “He looked around at them in anger, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts.” Holy anger is what Jesus righteously directed toward the money changers when he made a whip of cords, overturned their tables and drove them from the Jerusalem Temple. This is not the gentle Jesus, meek and mild that adorned the walls of my childhood home. And this is not the kind of anger Jesus was warning against in Matthew 5:22.

When we read Paul’s admonishment to the Ephesians, “In your anger do not sin…,” we should also understand the flip side. That might read, “But use your anger righteously to build up the holy and dismantle injustice.” Jesus’ anger always had the proper motivation; that is, he was angry for the right (righteous) reasons. His feelings, words and displays of anger were directed toward sinful thoughts, words and deeds that bent the ‘arc of the moral universe’ not toward the Kingdom of God, not toward justice but toward injustice.

At the writing of this blog post across America there is a national display of anger toward racial injustice prompted by the death of George Floyd. His life was snuffed out under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer while three other officers stood by as witnesses to what many decry as a modern day lynching.

While there are surely elements of society that are distorting such occasions of holy anger to advance their own cause of violence, prejudice, intolerance and domination, at the core of the protestations across the land is the Old Testament cry for justice from Deuteronomy: “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, that you may live and possess the land which the LORD your God is giving you.” Any land that salutes the claim of being “under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” without being overwhelmed with holy anger at the rampant sins of commission and omission, sins of innumerable injustices from racial inequality to environmental devastation that have plagued it for centuries is sicker at heart than any viral pandemic could inflict upon it. It is a land needing resuscitation, the breath (Spirit) of God.

Today while some angry Americans (some who sing praises to Jesus) protest what they hail as their “God given unalienable rights” to “reopen the economy” and reclaim their “freedom” to do whatever and go wherever they want whenever they want, others are displaying a holy anger for what they believe to be a truly righteous cause of pursuing the justice (the divinely ordained justice) that is demanded throughout all of holy writ.

Today it is time for followers of Jesus to get comfortable with righteous indignation, holy anger.

Today it is time to remember the Jesus who was infuriated by false interpretation and malfeasance of the law, unsettled by insensitive and insecure leaders, incensed by rampant and unholy corruption, and unafraid to whip up his zeal to overturn the tables of injustice for the sake of healing the kingdoms of this world through the infusion of the Kingdom of God.

How long do we have to wait for justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream? The signs of the times are telling us that we don’t have long any more.

May holy anger anchored in love and justice and righteously directed hasten the day that God’s Kingdom more fully comes through the actions of all God’s children doing what is just, loving what is kind and walking in humility under God’s reign.