by Ellen Sims
Text: Ephesians 4: 25 – 5:2
Anger is the name of a character from Inside Out, the new Pixar film about the personified emotions inside the brain of an 11-year-old girl named Riley. Anger’s gravelly, growly voice is supplied by comedian Lewis Black. Anger takes the cartoonish form of a squat, red-faced man with clinched fists and a head that bursts into flame. But this movie makes clear that ALL of our emotions serve a purpose. They have potential for good. The character named Joy introduces Anger to the movie audience this way: “That’s Anger. He cares very deeply about things being fair.”
I’m going to repeat that: “Anger cares very deeply about things being fair.”
Just that simply, Pixar explains our difficult relationship with Anger. Anger can be used for justice. But anger can also wreak havoc. Anger is protective. Anger is destructive.
When we feel our brains are ready to burst into angry flames, we might employ the clichéd “count to ten” tactic to ask these questions: Is my anger trying to protect something? Or is my anger ready to destroy something? Because unleashing the power of anger can have either effect.
Of course, sometimes anger is simply impotent. I remember a burst of ineffectual anger once when I was chaperoning our daughter’s volleyball team. I’d parked my carload of 14-year-olds at a restaurant after a tournament one day. We had almost reached the entrance when a car of teenage boys careened into the parking lot and shot past us with horn honking and radio blaring from opened windows and shouts aimed at the girls dressed in their team uniforms. The girls ignored the boys. But I could not. Because I was in mother mode. And that car kept on circling, tires squealing, horn honking. Didn’t those boys realize they were endangering others? As the volleyball team entered the restaurant, I walked back to the edge of the parking lot waiting for the car to round the corner again. I had no plan. I was just mad. With my index finger poised like a drawn weapon, I pointed it straight at the advancing car and shook it mightily. Then I decimated them with this declamation: “You . . . better not . . . do that!” I sputtered in a high pitched, quavering voice.
I turned back to the restaurant to see our daughter withering from embarrassment. Once inside I asked an employee to call the police. “We already have, Ma’am. They’re on their way.” Of course, the boys were gone by the time the police arrived. No one was hurt. But it was no thanks to my lame outburst.
On this Sunday when our denomination provided prayers expressing outrage over Michael Brown’s death and other recent racial injustices, the lectionary handed us a passage from Ephesians that cautions us against anger. Do we vent our rage or contain it?
I’m going to attend to the Epistle Reading’s cautions about anger. But before this sermon is over I’m going to praise anger in the cause of justice. Eventually I intend to invoke the Still Speaking God who spoke to me this week in an article titled “Yes! I’m An Angry Black Woman!”
For now, let’s return to gentle words from Ephesians urging us to “put away . . . all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” If we are imitating Christ, our egos aren’t fragile, our fuses aren’t short. We patiently hear one another out even if another person’s voice grows strained and accusatory. If we are secure in our identity in Christ, we do not easily take offense. The less defensive we are of our own egos, the more compassionate we can be for someone else expressing anger. Remembering that emotions are morally neutral—it’s the actions in response to them that can harm or help—we might ask, “What is my anger trying to protect? What is my anger likely to destroy?
Our families of origins may not have provided much guidance in how to deal with anger. We may need to do inner work to understand our anger and learn strategies to deal with those feelings. Sometimes it’s as simple as asking to continue a conversation later when the tone becomes sharp. Or we might suggest bringing in a mediator to assist with a difficult topic. We might even walk away from a situation that is physically or emotionally unsafe.
However, as much as I agree with the admonition to put aside anger, I want you to notice how today’s Epistle reading begins:
25So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.”
Speaking truth to one another—living together as honest members of an authentic community—means we’re going to make each other angry at times. It can be hard to hear someone else’s truth without getting our feelings hurt and then lashing out to make ourselves feel better. The letter to the Ephesians is clear: “Be angry. But do not sin.” Our feelings are not sinful. Our responses to that feeling might be. Especially if we continue to wallow in our anger. Feeling righteously indignant can feel really good. Indulging in sarcasm and backbiting and verbal belligerence can be enjoyable. But that’s not the way of Christ’s community.
Be angry. But don’t sin.
Be angry. It’s in holy scripture. And if that anger is in response to an injustice, we are tapping into anger in order to protect rather than destroy. Remember, our anger is, as “Inside Out” explains, a result of “caring very deeply about things being fair.” Nor should we feel we have to hide our anger. Thich Naht Hanh advises, “When you get angry with someone, please don’t pretend that you are not angry” (Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flame. New York: Riverhead Books, 2001, 55).
Today marks the one year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death in Fergeson, MO. And in the year that has followed we have heard far too many headlines about police brutality.
A recent article expressed a necessary counterpoint to our Epistle reading today. In “Yes, I’m an Angry Black Woman!” Stacy Patton puts before us the five Black women who died in jails this summer. The nine Black parishioners murdered in a Charleston church while praying. A whole litany of racial injustice in the year following Michael Brown’s death. The author asserts, “Rage is not just righteous; it’s the only rational response.”
I don’t want to tame Patton’s anger. So I’m going to read the conclusion of her article rather than summarizing it. I owe her the fullness of her voice and the trueness of her emotion. She writes:
“When we respond to inhumanity, degradation, and outright hatred with anger, we are made to feel shamed and wrong for what is really a healthy response and sign of sanity.
I am sick and tired of people expecting Black women to take the high road while the world’s foot bears down on our necks. Sick and tired of being pushed to forgive in the name of instant, unearned grace. Sick and tired of people arguing to preserve their right to disrespect us, kill us, and keep us locked in the constraints of being the moral conscience of a nation, even in the face of vicious violence and dehumanizing immorality.
Far too long, we have been fighting to dispel the Angry Black woman stereotype. But that’s not the solution because the truth is, we are angry. Our rage is righteous. Our ire is understandable. Yet our anger is misunderstood.
To acknowledge our rage forces White America to look in the mirror. Unwilling and uncomfortable with what it might see, it turns the focus to our reaction, our purported irrational anger, and our “unproductive” or “unprofessional” responses, while others stand by silently and complicit in our social and physical deaths. We have to embrace and express the truths of our righteous rage while refusing to be confined, controlled or defined by that narrow racist stereotype. . . .
Let’s stop viewing our anger as a negative and appreciate it as a gift. Neuroscientists’ research reveals that anger is a powerful means of social communication, and a natural part of any person’s emotional resources. Anger helps us reach our goals, allowing us to be more optimistic, creative, and to solve problems. Anger is a source of fuel for motivating us to meet life’s challenges and persuade others to do the right thing. According to the Mental Health Association, anger is a natural response to threats, attacks, and injustice. Releasing built-up anger is essential for our mental well-being. . . . From Sandra Bland and the other jailhouse murder victims to the teen girl slammed to the ground at the McKinney, Texas, pool party, Black girls and women are never supposed to talk back or express their annoyance . . . with anyone who deems themselves an authority figure or superior. Which, face it, is just about everyone.
Black women’s anger is not the issue. Racism is the problem. . . .The Black woman’s tone is not the problem—the complicity, silence, and lack of outrage from White America, even the most so-called liberal White folks, is both the problem and reasons for our anger.
It is time to embrace the anger.” (Yes, I’m an Angry Black Woman by Stacey Patton)
Friends, I am the first person to reject the image of an angry god, a god who scares the hell out of you, a god who zaps the erring ones. I reject that God.
But there is value in holding onto the idea that God, however we envision that force for love, has capacity for anger against injustice. The Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, who himself marched in Selma for Civil Rights, posited a non-anthropomorphic God of Divine Pathos who nevertheless has love for creation and passion for justice that includes a divine anger. In the Hebrew prophets Heschel heard “the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profane riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet’s words” (The Prophets).
Does God get angry? I hope so. When I lift up a God of Great Compassion, I think so. I don’t think godly anger produces violence. But I hope God is disgusted with political candidates who demean women and disregard the poor. I like to think that God is fed up with bullies and brutes—and is sad and maybe even mad when you and I turn a blind eye to the harm being done to our sisters and brothers and to our beautiful but not indestructible planet.
Sometimes God must look upon us and weep.
And sometimes fire surely erupts from the top of the divinity’s head.
PRAYER: God, it seems that getting angry is the worst thing we can do. And sometimes it’s the best thing. You’ve certainly given us rich and complicated emotional lives. Help us act on those emotions in ways that serve your ways of justice and peace.