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Dr. Per Anderson
Anger in Passion Week
Concordia College Chapel
20 April 2011
Matthew 27: 15-26
Matthew 5: 21-24
Good morning. Lent is a time of attention to our souls. It is a time of inwardness for the sake of the world. It is a time of work on new life in Christ and with others.
When asked to preach in Passion Week, the topic of anger came to mind. I am struck by the ubiquity of anger in our common life. It seems to be everywhere and in all of us, never far from the surface, capable of exploding over matters that do not warrant rage. I am regularly stunned and distressed by blistering anger in phone calls, emails, conference rooms, meetings in church basements. I recently noticed a sign in a break room on campus offering free and expert help with anger control. I see myself doing “anger management” in my work. I see the distortion and even ruination of relations upon which the fullness of life depends.
So, what is anger? For the psychologist Ramond Novaco, anger is a “negatively toned emotion, subjectively experienced as an aroused state of antagonism toward someone or something perceived to be the source of an aversive event.” Anger, thinks Novaco, is triggered by perceptions of willful and unwarranted harm toward self or beloved others. “Anger is prototypically experienced as a justified response to some ‘wrong’ that has been done.” Anger involves blaming and judgment where we see the other as enemy. Anger does not mean aggression must follow. It is a disposition to respond to harm with aggression [“Anger,” Encyclopedia of Psychology].
Passion Week is a time to reflect upon anger. Its cascading events are driven by anger. Upon entering Jerusalem, Jesus goes to the temple where he evicts people exchanging currency and selling doves. The text does not report Jesus’ emotions. But note what he does: he uses force, causes property loss, and judges people negatively. He exhibits aggression; Jesus must be angry.
Jesus then witnesses to the reign of God through healing. The children respond as the crowds have done earlier—“Hosanna to the Son of David.” Temple priests respond in anger. Jesus then quotes a psalm. The next day, Jesus exhibits unmistakable antagonism when he curses a fig tree while searching for breakfast.
What is Jesus doing? The Temple event occurs during Passover. The city would have been choked with pilgrims needing to exchange their currencies for Jewish coin to buy sacrificial animals. The people buying pigeons would have been poor, unable to afford a lamb.
Is Jesus attacking the poor? Is he rejecting the idolatry of commercialism? Is Jesus criticizing the priestly class, who allow this market? What about the opulence of the Temple—its vast scale and gilded adornments? By trashing the place, is Jesus foretelling the destruction of the Temple?
What Jesus is doing is unclear. Clearly, he operates by an authority that does not bow to the authorities of Jerusalem. The poor and needy coming to worship with burnt offering are healed instead by Jesus. The crowds respond in praise. Jesus would have been noticed by those charged with maintaining crowd control and suppressing threats to the occupation. Jesus does not do enough to trigger arrest. But this preacher from the Galilee is now known, capable of generating a crowd. It is just a matter of time before they pick him up.
We have to believe Jesus understood the risks. As Matthew tells it, Jesus makes no effort to talk down his opponents, maybe because they are impaired by anger. Anger does that. To make things worse, Jesus responds with insult. The children get it. The priests do not; they do not even know their scriptures. This could only escalate the enmity.
In time, the Temple police pick Jesus up. He comes before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin. What follows is a mockery of due process. The charges against Jesus are confused—something about blasphemy. The testimony does not warrant conviction. Jesus refuses to defend himself. As Matthew sees it, Caiaphas and all have first-hand experience of the Messiah of God and do not believe. Jesus is some strange threat that must be removed.
In the text we heard, Jesus has just refused comment to Pilate on the charge of treason. Pilate dealt harshly with insurrectionists. But he does not take the charge seriously. Jesus is no threat to Rome. Pilate is willing to let Jesus free if the crowd wishes.
The priests persuade the crowd Jesus must die. The crowd cannot tell Pilate why. They are in anger; they are in rage. Pilate appears bullied. Pilate’s wife tells him Jesus is innocent. When the crowd seems poised for aggression, Pilate caves and absolves himself of responsibility. According to Roman and Jewish law, Jesus will be crucified without cause. Groundless anger rules. Groundless anger kills Jesus.
So, what do we do about anger in the Christian life? For 1500 years, uncontrolled anger has been one of the seven deadly sins, sins that generate other sins. Perhaps the most challenging expression of this anathema can be found in the Sermon on the Mount.
In the first of the “hard sayings,” Jesus interprets the Law to include inward dispositions as well as actions. Anger, the disposition that leads to murder, is as blameworthy as the lethal result. If you do not catch this turn to inwardness, Jesus makes this clear in the next case of adultery and lust.
Given this, we can see why Martin Luther views the ethics of the Sermon as impossible to achieve, even for monastics. Most of us never murder, but in anger all of us entertain it. So, anger is a big problem. Maybe Jesus is speaking in hyperbole. Who knows? Luther takes Jesus at his word and despairs of the possibility of keeping the Law.
In the passage we heard, Jesus indicates the Law requires even greater penalties for those who cannot control the insult and invective that anger can trigger. Calling someone a fool merits the fires of hell while murder merits the judgment of the court. Maybe this is hyperbole, but there is no mistaking the rejection of anger. And if we yield to anger (as we surely will), Jesus makes provision for reconciliation as an urgent duty. Before we would go to Temple to give offerings to God, we must first be right with others. The priority of right relations with others over religious observance is striking.
Before we turn to Paul, what about this rejection of anger? Is not anger quite normal in human experience? Novaco says yes—the fact that humans get angry probably accounts for evolutionary success. Anger arms humans to survive. It should be expressed and channeled. Anger energizes constructive change. Anger shows we know good and reject evil.
OK, but is it really necessary to bring antagonism into our dealings with wrong doers? What does it do to make things right? Well, we and those we love are subjects of willful and unwarranted harm, sometimes-brutal harm. We are justified in our anger, we believe. Life has its shocks and wounds; anger has its place.
I must say I am unsure. Anger may have helped humans adapt, evolve, and survive. But is it necessary for survival today—or is it maladaptive? Few people on Earth need explosive anger to arm themselves against predators. To sustain the world we know, people need calm and clear minds—to process information, to communicate across cultural lines, and to make complex and consequential decisions. We need maximal brainpower focused on solving problems and avoiding disaster.
While anger is primeval and universal, it is not everywhere the same. It is socially constructed by cultural systems of human making. These systems give us schemas for interpreting and responding to the harms of life. Anger is one response. But there can be others.
Consider Paul, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger and do not make room for the devil.” Paul is writing to newly baptized Christians in Ephesus about living in the likeness of God. Unlike the Gentiles, they should be about building up the community, exchanging social division for kindness, and forgiving as God forgives. In this way, Christians are called to be imitators of God. So, “live in love,” says Paul, “as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
For Paul, anger should be an episodic and fleeting emotion. Abiding antagonism and unbridled rage have no place for those who imitate God. They fuel aggression and retaliation. Anger should give way to forgiveness and building community. Jesus and Paul agree—anger is a problem for love of God and neighbor.
In closing, I would like to share observations by Donald Kraybill concerning one Christian alternative to anger in response to harm, namely, forgiveness. Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, Kraybill reports on the response of an Amish community in Pennsylvannia 6 years ago when a shooter committed execution-style murder of six girls in a one-room school before killing himself.
“Within hours, the Amish community forgave the killer and his family. News of the instant forgiveness stunned the outside world – almost as much as the incident itself did. Many pundits lauded the Amish, but others worried that hasty forgiveness was emotionally unhealthy.
Members of the Amish community began offering words and hugs of forgiveness when the blood was barely dry on the schoolhouse floor. A grandmother laughed when I asked if the forgiveness was orchestrated. ‘You mean that some people actually thought we had a meeting to plan forgiveness?’
As the father of a slain daughter explained, ‘Our forgiveness was not our words, it was what we did.’ Members of the community visited the gunman's widow at her home with food and flowers and hugged members of his family. There were a few words, but it was primarily their hugs, gifts, and mere presence – acts of grace – that communicated Amish forgiveness.
Amish faith is grounded in the teachings of Jesus to love enemies, reject revenge, and leave vengeance in the hands of God. As a father who lost a daughter in the schoolhouse said, ‘Forgiveness means giving up the right to revenge.’
In the Amish view, forgiveness is a religious duty. As a young Amish carpenter said, ‘It's just standard forgiveness,’ but he was wrong. Conventional Christian forgiveness posits a God who forgives sinners and urges them to forgive others – to pass the grace on to those who wrong them.
The Amish refrain – ‘If we don't forgive, we won't be forgiven’ – shows a different impetus. Their salvation hinges on their willingness to forgive.... They cite the Lord's Prayer… as their motivation. One bishop…said emphatically, ‘Forgiveness is the only thing that Jesus underscored in the Lord's Prayer.’
‘Forgiveness was a decided issue,’ one bishop explained – decided, that is, by Amish history and practice over the centuries. When the religious ancestors of the Amish were torched at the stake for their faith in 16th-century Europe, many of them, echoing Jesus on the cross, prayed aloud that God would forgive their executioners.
Despite their front-loaded commitment, the Amish still find forgiveness to be a long emotional process. Though there were no expressions of outright rage or hopes that the gunman would burn in hell, the wanton slaughter of their children did bring deep pain, tears, and raw grief.”
As this remarkable story indicates, human response to the harms that befall others or us need not issue in anger and aggression. While not all Christians agree we must forgive to be forgiven, anyone who wrestles with anger biblically must be moved by Amish faithfulness to the teachings of Jesus and Paul. I commend their witness for our meditations this Passion Week. Amen.