IN DEFENSE OF ANGER

A Case Study of Love and Justice in Action

Some days come and go seemingly without any significance. Others are so overwhelmed with significance that they cannot possibly be contained to twenty-four hours.

Friday, December 14, 2012 was a prime example of the latter.

Getting way out ahead of the birth of our first daughter, a large box holding a baby crib arrived at our doorstep the morning of December 14. We cleared a spot in what would become the nursery and got to work methodically connecting dozens of small wooden pieces with bolts and a hex key. Six months later, we would be laying our baby girl in the tiny bed we were assembling.

December 14, 2012 was a day of excitement.

In the midst of working on the crib, a news alert came across my phone that there were reports of a shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut. We anxiously awaited the verified reports of what had occurred, finding out along with the rest of the world later in the afternoon that 28 people had been killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, including 20 young children. As I stood in our kitchen, I remember hearing that number — 20 children — and weeping uncontrollably. In the days that followed, twenty sets of parents would be laying their children to rest in tiny coffins.

December 14, 2012 was a day of sorrow.

 

Some days come and go seemingly without any significance. Others are so overwhelmed with significance that they cannot possibly be contained to twenty-four hours.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018 was a prime example of the latter.

The Western Church has for centuries celebrated the feast of St. Valentine on February 14, said to be the date on which the saint was martyred. Legend suggests that St. Valentine came under scrutiny from the Empire for overseeing the marriages of soldiers. Over the years, the feast became a celebration of romantic love, marked by the exchange of gifts — often candy, cards, or cheap convenience store novelties — between “valentines.”

February 14 was a day of love.

For the first time since 1945, February 14 also marked the Western Church’s observance of Ash Wednesday. Kicking off the 40 day season of Lent, Ash Wednesday reminds Christians of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and his journey to his death at the hands of the Empire in Jerusalem. Lent forces us to engage in introspection and self-denial as those who have been brought forth from dust and will one day return to dust.

February 14 was a day of sorrow.

Yet there was another significant event that captured our attention on Wednesday, February 14, 2018. In the afternoon, reports started coming in from Parkland, Florida that there was an active shooter at a high school. By the evening, we had learned that a former student had entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School with a legally purchased AR-15 assault rifle. Seventeen adults and students were killed, making it one of the deadliest mass shootings in our empire’s history. As have become sadly routine responses to these sadly routine mass shootings, many purveyors of the imperial establishment offered “sadness” and “thoughts and prayers.”

Interestingly, as I again stood in our kitchen and heard the number of people killed in the Parkland shooting, I did not weep. This time I pounded our countertop in anger.

I was far from alone. Many regular citizens saw this terribly familiar event as an opportunity to act. Led by the teenage survivors of the attack, sadness was followed by frustration and anger at the empire’s inaction on common-sense gun control has wrought. “We’re just children. You guys are, like, the adults,” vented David Hogg, a senior at MSD who survived the shooting. “You need to take some action.”

February 14 was a day of anger.

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Anger tends to get a bad rap in our culture, often for good reason. Some psychologists present anger as an anxious response to emotion disequilibrium and an attempted show of strength that serves as evidence of our true weakness. Dr. Leon Seltzer puts it this way:

To sum up, though anger — paradoxically — is generally a reaction to feeling weak, powerless, and out of control, it does to a certain extent fortify us. But, overall, such fortressing is mainly artifice. For understood as chiefly a defense against inner feelings of frailty, anger doesn’t begin to reflect anything like true strength or resiliency. Ultimately, personal power has a lot more to do with cultivating the ability to restrain our impulses, not simply forfeit to them.

Anger, it is argued, is only for the weak of mind.

A similar outlook on anger is pervasive within many Christian circles. Ours is a God of love, represented in the self-sacrificial action of Jesus. Jesus commanded his followers to love their enemies, to not strike back when stricken, and to recognize that “all who take hold of the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26.2, NET). Like a Jedi knight or a Buddhist monk, Jesus is thought to instruct us “let go of your feelings” and “neutralize your anger.”

But what if anger was constructive, loving or even holy? And what if Jesus actually provides an example?

There’s a story in the Gospel According to John about a time when his friend Lazarus was deathly ill. Lazarus’ sisters Mary and Martha sent a delegation to Jesus to inform him that their brother is sick. While there is no explicit request made of him, the implication is that Jesus will come to be by his friend’s side, if not heal him. John records Jesus’ response to the news:

“This sickness will not lead to death, but to God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” (Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.) So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he remained in the place where he was for two more days.

-John 11.4-6

Wait, what?! Does Jesus not understand the severity of Lazarus’ condition? Does he not understand the sisters’ implied request for him to come? Does he not care?

Apparently Jesus does understand Lazarus’ condition and does intend to do something about it, initially telling his disciples, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep. But I am going there to awaken him” (11.11). Their response, however, makes clear that they don’t understand the gravity of the situation, causing him tell them plainly, ‘Lazarus has died, and I am glad for your sake that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him’” (11.14-15).

Jesus’ relative slowness to act is not a sign of his unwillingness to act. In fact, that Jesus chooses to go to Lazarus at all is remarkable. The hatred toward Jesus has been festering among the religious leaders in Judea, and a trip to Lazarus’ hometown in Bethany would put Jesus and his disciples within range of the religious leaders’ crosshairs. The threat of what might happen to them is palpable, so much so that the disciples can’t even process a simple euphemism (“fallen asleep” = dead).

But Jesus isn’t shaken and his own fate is inconsequential. “Let us go to Judea again” (11.7).

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Having delayed a days-long trip for an additional forty-eight hours, Jesus arrives in Bethany to find “that Lazarus had been in the tomb four days already” (11.17). In Jewish thinking at the time, the soul lingered above the body three days after death before making its final departure. Resultantly, arriving on the fourth day that the body had been in the tomb means that Jesus had not only missed Lazarus’ death but also (seemingly) any chance of bringing him back.

And Lazarus’ sisters know it.

Upon seeing Jesus, both Martha and Mary run out to meet him and separately say, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11.21, 32). They have not lost their faith in Jesus, only in the possibility for reversing the curse that Lazarus’ death has wrought on their friends and family.

Then something profound happens.

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the people who had come with her weeping, he was intensely moved in spirit and greatly distressed. He asked, “Where have you laid him?” They replied, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. Thus the people who had come to mourn said, “Look how much he loved him!” But some of them said, “This is the man who caused the blind man to see! Couldn’t he have done something to keep Lazarus from dying?”

Jesus, intensely moved again, came to the tomb. (Now it was a cave, and a stone was placed across it.) Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the deceased, replied, “Lord, by this time the body will have a bad smell, because he has been buried four days.” Jesus responded, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you that you have listened to me. I knew that you always listen to me, but I said this for the sake of the crowd standing around here, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he shouted in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The one who had died came out, his feet and hands tied up with strips of cloth, and a cloth wrapped around his face. Jesus said to them, “Unwrap him and let him go.”

-John 11.33-44

The modern teaching of this passage tends to focus on the raising/waking of Lazarus. Indeed, the Narrative Lectionary designated the text for February 18 as “Jesus Raises Lazarus.” But beyond the fact that the actual raising of Lazarus only occupies seven verses, I would argue that the raising of Lazarus is a mere implication of something even more profound.

“When Jesus saw her weeping, and the people who had come with her weeping, he was intensely moved in spirit and greatly distressed.”

Most English translations fail to capture the emotion of the Greek text. A cursory reading of the story might see Jesus responding empathetically in love or sorrow. Indeed a pastor whom I follow on Twitter recently posted this:

Certainly feelings of love or sorrow are not absent. But there is actually another emotion which leads Jesus to act in response to Lazarus’ death and the pain it caused his family and friends.

Anger.

Translated “intensely moved in spirit” in the New English Translation, John uses the Greek word ἐνεβριμήσατο to describe Jesus’ response. Appearing only four other places in the entire Bible, ἐνεβριμήσατο is literally “to snort in anger.”

Jesus was distressed and even wept, but he did so out of anger. Christians are quite familiar with the “fruits of the Spirit” (Galatians 5.22-23) which represent godly character — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control — but here John suggests that anger can also be a product of the Spirit of God’s movement.

The pain of death — for Lazarus, for his sisters, for their friends and family — aren’t just sad. They are infuriating.

It is not right for them to have to feel this way.

It is not right for anyone to have to feel this way.

So Jesus gets mad. And he chooses to do something about it.

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Don’t we have enough anger? Isn’t anger what led to the Parkland shooting and so many tragedies like it? Isn’t anger actually a sign of our depraved human inclinations (Galatians 5.19-21)?

Here Jesus seems to provide an example of healthy human anger.

We are living through a time of profound moral outrage fueled by the technology to voice our outrage to the world. Nuance and context are destroyed by 280 character limits and trending hashtags. The avatars or digital profiles with which we disagree become enemies to attack. Honest mistakes become microaggressions become assaults on our very way of life. Ill will and resentment fester and incarnate themselves in hatred. We respond by weaponizing and respond in self-defense — with words, with guns.

This is not the type of anger nor the response we see from Jesus.

What we witness standing outside the grave of Lazarus is an empathetic response to the human condition. The world is not as it should be. Death and tragedy and grieving are a part of everyday life to which we have become resolved. Things that seem preventable keep happening — “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” and “Couldn’t he have done something to keep Lazarus from dying?”

Snorting in angry at what he is seeing, Jesus joins in weeping and moves to do something constructive about it. He doesn’t tell people the pain is regrettable but unpreventable. He doesn’t pick up rocks and start chucking them at the tombstone — though he isn’t above using physical objects in anger (John 2.15). He doesn’t turn to the religious leaders and begin calling them names — though he isn’t above name calling (Matthew 23).

Instead Jesus channels his anger and, by raising Lazarus from the dead, does something costly in order to break the cycle of the hopelessness that led to his anger. What’s more, we read that this is the event that puts the religious leaders over the edge to begin planning Jesus’ death — a sacrifice by which the power of sin and death will be put in its grave once and for all.

This anger is love and justice in action — “Thus the people who had come to mourn said, ‘Look how much he loved him!’”

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Not everything is truly outrageous, and anger is not the right emotion in every situation.

AND some things ARE outrageous, and anger IS the right emotion.

It is good and healthy and just for a fractured world to make you angry. It is good and healthy and just for recurring preventable events to make you angry. And it is good and healthy and just to do something productive and even self-sacrificial with that anger.

Sometimes love causes us to do crazy things. And sometimes crazy things are the greatest way to show our love.