The Prince of Peace said, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Mt 10:34). Amid the ubiquitous anger of 2021 America, especially virulent on college campuses, Christians and non-Christians alike can see the truth of this paradox.
A paradox that is harder to see, but could be a key to restoring peace, is that our anger points to one of our greatest virtues.
In a recent New York Times editorial, Molly Worthen discusses how Americans have been pursuing partisan politics with religious zeal. Instead, as President Biden encouraged in his inauguration speech, we should “stop the shouting and lower the temperature.” I agree. I have argued publicly that we need to break the addiction to tribal warfare by cultivating deep listening and real conversations across our differences. Treating one another with humility and gentleness is the ultimate goal.
I have lately come to realize, however, that the ways in which I and others have envisioned this happening run counter to both anthropology and theology. Dr. Worthen concludes her essay, “Humans may be wired to need some kind of faith, but we are not fated to be fanatics.” Yet if we believe we are made in the image of God, it would seem that we are fated to be fanatics. I suggest that rather than merely condemning anger—divine or human—we will be better served by striving to understand its source and to recognize its potential for fueling transformative change.
The Anger of the God of Abraham
The irascibility of the biblical God is undeniable, whether or not one regards the Bible as God’s word. As Sam Harris, a notable modern atheist, memorably observes, “Everyone who has eyes to see can see that if the God of Abraham exists, He is an utter psychopath.”1 At the other end of the faith spectrum, St. John Henry Newman points out that in Scripture, “all irreverence towards God is represented as being jealously and instantly and fearfully noticed and visited, as friend or stranger among men might resent an insult shown him.”
The God of the Old Testament was not replaced by a new, gentler one with the arrival of Jesus. Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead on the spot for withholding some of their money from the Apostles (Acts 5:1-10). Despite philosophy’s perpetual attempts to make God abstract and impersonal, Scripture teaches us plainly, at every stage, that “fanatical” anger is one of his attributes.
It would be a mistake to think of God’s anger as merely a projection of our own failings, something to be discarded in the light of Reason. What Reason actually tells us is that the repugnance Mr. Harris and others feel is strong evidence for the God of Abraham. As G.K. Chesterton observes, “Truth must necessarily be stranger than fiction, for fiction is the creation of the human mind and therefore congenial to it.” The weirdest aspects of Scripture, the hardest to understand or accept, are the ones that show God’s fingerprints most clearly.
If we allow the Bible to shape our understanding rather than trying to shape it to ours, we soon discover that a God who did not get angry—who regarded our world’s manifold injustices with sublime indifference—would not be worth worshipping.
When Jesus says we need to become like little children, then, he does not just mean the ones sitting contentedly in the lap of the Good Shepherd on nursery walls. He also means the toddlers, kicking and screaming “NOT NICE!” and “NOT FAIR!” Unlike God’s anger, which flares up only when we do things that are harmful, our anger tends to be directed at the wrong things or expressed in the wrong way. Ours can do tremendous damage if allowed to rage out of control. Nevertheless, even the most disordered and destructive anger is a distortion of the divine longing for justice.
Our Wounds and Our Gifts
What has effected a Copernican Revolution in my understanding of anger is the realization that our sins are not arbitrary. Satan is an expert sniper: with his angelic intelligence, he targets and maims the unique gifts that could bring the greatest glory to God and happiness to ourselves. Gregory Popcak explains how what we think is worst about ourselves and others, paradoxically, points to what is best:2
[T]he seven deadly sins are actually a sign of hope because, despite their best attempt to obscure them, their very presence reveals the existence of the seven divine longings of the human heart, namely, our deep, hidden, but inescapable yearnings for abundance, dignity, justice, peace, trust, well-being, and communion, respectively. These seven divine longings have such tremendous potential to propel us toward divinization that Satan works hard to keep them hidden where we are least likely to look, behind the parts of ourselves we hate the most.
Our wounds and our gifts lie side by side.
The New Testament shows this clearly. The fiery intensity with which Saul/Paul persecuted a Jewish “heresy” led him to become the first and greatest Christian theologian. He was chosen not in spite of his fanatical anger, but because of it. In the beautiful courtship scene at Jacob’s well (Jn 4:4-30), Jesus began to reveal himself as the Bridegroom of all people, making the Samaritan woman an even earlier Apostle to the Gentiles. She was chosen as the vehicle for this glory, not in spite of her sexual sin, but because of it—because the very intractability of her disordered desire showed the depth of the divine longing of which it was the distortion.
What is true of the individual soul is also true of the national soul. The longing for justice is one of the defining virtues of our democracy. While we disagree, passionately, about what justice entails, the very intensity of our disagreements proves how highly we value it. We have been reading the graph upside-down. Far from being its death knell, the anger currently roiling our nation is a sign of its underlying strength.
For instance, consider the hot-button term “Critical Race Theory.” One side hears, “The idea that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.” The other side hears, “The idea that white people are evil oppressors simply by virtue of being white.” Those who accept CRT and those who reject it are both driven by the desire for justice, but they are starting from different premises. If their passion could be directed against racial injustice rather than against one another, it might be possible to make progress even on some of our society’s most deep-rooted problems.
Telling people to calm down usually has the opposite effect. A better way to “stop the shouting and lower the temperature” is to recognize, in ourselves and others, the divine longing that gives rise to the anger in the first place. This recognition can be a powerful antidote to judgmentalism, the Pharisees’ pornography. And it may even arouse enough curiosity to make us pause and listen to why people believe what they believe. While that may not quench the flame, it could bring us closer to harnessing its heat to forge a more just and durable peace.