A Raging Question
We are taught to be loving and humble, so what are we to do with our anger?
explorefaith: Why does anger present such a problem for so many of us?
Massimini: Anger is one of the most misunderstood and mishandled emotions we experience. For one thing, many people believe it is wrong to get angry. But that doesn’t really work. We do get angry. That’s because anger is a totally normal emotion.
We get angry when we experience real or perceived injustice. We get angry at people and at situations. And we get angry at ourselves. The real question is how to handle our anger.
explorefaith: Handling anger well can be very difficult, especially when we let our thinking become clouded by our rage.
Massimini: Anger is energy that is at our disposal. If we perceive an injustice, coming either from an individual or from society, anger is the energy that moves us to correct that injustice. Yes, it is often difficult to express our anger appropriately. Some people hold their anger in. In such cases, their energy goes inward and becomes negative, causing such ills as headaches, ulcers and depression. Others can’t control their energy and let it explode, thereby creating even more injustice. Still others misdirect their anger and blame the wrong people or the wrong situations.
When we can’t control or properly direct our anger, we should seek help from professional therapists or spiritually mature guides—or both. They will help us find ways to express our anger in a positive way and in a way that fits our personality. More deeply, they will help us see who we are. This is important because our control of anger depends basically on how we see ourselves.
explorefaith: Does that mean that responding appropriately when we’re angry depends on the way we understand our identity?
Massimini: We are unique individuals-in-society with personal dignity and integrity—that gives us the right to be treated with respect. As members of our family, school, workplace and community, we enjoy that same right. Also, we are citizens of our city, state and country and enjoy the protections of the law. Injustices can occur in all these areas of who we are, and when they do, we have a right to be angry in a way that is appropriate—psychologically, socially and spiritually.
As individuals-in-community, our right to be treated with respect is joined with our responsibility to treat others with respect. Our human dignity and integrity dictate therefore that our anger should always be used to correct others and never to harm or destroy them.
explorefaith: And for the Christian?
Massimini: Christianity illumines, elevates and strengthens our understanding of who we are, thus giving us a powerful way to handle our anger appropriately. We are the image and likeness of God. Like God the Father, we are creative; like God, the Son, we are healers; like God, the Holy Spirit, we are lovers—to the point where, with God’s grace, we can help transform ourselves, others and the world for the better. Also, we are a Good Friday people. We suffer the injustices of this world with Christ and as Christ did. Finally, we are an Easter-Pentecost people. We are filled with the living, world-transforming, risen Spirit of Christ. As St. Paul said, “I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me.” (Gal.2:20). Christ’s Spirit, dwelling within each of us, makes us creative, healing and loving expressions of Christ in and for today’s world. This gives us “Christ-esteem,” which illumines and strengthens our natural self-esteem.
Given our “Christ-esteem,” whenever we get angry, we should remember that we are the light of the world, the salt of the earth. Our Christ-esteem fills us with a special, humble pride. Making sure to keep humility one step in front of our anger, we look upon the injustices done to us and our society with the eyes and heart of Christ. And it is with the strength of Christ that we face these injustices and use our righteous anger to help correct them.
explorefaith: In the Gospel of Matthew( Mat 5:22), didn't Jesus warn us not to be angry?
Massimini: No. He taught us not to be angry in an inappropriate way. We should not get angry in a way that causes us to call someone an imbecile or a fool, or as a way of seeking revenge. Insults and revenge are evil and we should not return evil for evil. Righteous anger is anger that is expressed with respect, in humility and good will.
explorefaith: Yet there are some other passages in Matthew that seem to warn against acting out of anger. Matthew 5: 39, “When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well.” And Matthew 5:5, where he taught that the meek shall inherit the earth
Massimini: Actually, he is challenging us to use our “Christ-esteem” to act in a very healthy, corrective and constructive way. Note that he said , “When someone strikes you on your right cheek.” If a right-handed person strikes someone on their right cheek, he slaps them back-handed, in an insulting and degrading manner. Our attitude should be, “Don’t you realize that you are insulting and degrading the image and likeness of God. Don’t you realize you are striking someone who deserves human respect and who is an expression of Christ? Here is my other cheek; at least hit me straight on, in an honorable way.”
Matthew gives us two other examples: to offer a man your cloak (5:40), which the man by law would be forced to refuse to take; and to offer to carry another’s burden an extra mile (5:42). (Roman soldiers could order a Hebrew to carry their armor one mile but not more.)
These help us see what attitude Jesus wants us to take in the face of injustice: “As an expression of Christ, I see, with the eyes and heart of Christ, what you are doing or trying to do to me. You may have the physical or economical power to hurt me right now, but I have the spiritual power to reach out to you and try to help you become a better person than you are right now.”
This is where meekness comes in. Meekness is the reasonable control of our anger. We are both emotional beings and reasonable beings. Our natural and spiritual maturity requires a healthy balance of the two.
So let’s be clear. Jesus doesn’t mean, “Let that person hit you again.” That simply would not be reasonable. It would not be an example of meekness. And it would not help the other person.
explorefaith: Can you give us an example in today’s context?
Massimini: Yes. An abused wife should not let her husband hit her again. “Turning the other cheek” and being meek means she should stand on her human dignity, integrity and Christ-esteem and take all the necessary steps, e.g., calling the police, leaving the house, getting professional and legal help, etc., to stop her husband from abusing her. When Jesus was slapped by the soldiers, he kept his dignity and integrity and kept telling the truth, even defending himself by asking, “Why do you strike me?” (John.18).
The abused wife uses her anger to address her husband with the attitude, “You are wrong. I will stop you from hitting me. And then I will also have compassion on you and help you see that you are not only abusing me but also abusing yourself, as a husband and as a man. Like Jesus, I will help you heal so that you can see that you, too, are an expression of Christ.” In this way, she is using her anger-energy in a reasonable, positive and healing way—to correct her husband and not destroy him—or permit him to destroy her or himself.
We can see that the appropriate expression of anger calls for a good amount of spiritual maturity. It is something to work for and pray for. My wife and I lived for a time in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where we befriended many of the Amish people. One horrific day, a deranged neighbor went to an Amish schoolhouse and killed five little girls and seriously wounded five others. In the face of horrendous grief, the Amish parents and community reached out to the man’s wife, brought her food and comfort, and insisted that she not move away. They then forgave the man, who had ended the horror by killing himself, and even attended his funeral. At that moment, the whole world saw a magnificently mature expression of “Christ-esteem” that made true forgiveness possible and real.
explorefaith: Is it necessary to work toward forgetting injustice after the fact, in order to quell any residual anger?
Massimini: The answer is no. The Amish will never forget what happened. For example, they now have better security for their schools. If someone hurts us, we should forgive them, if they ask for forgiveness. If they don’t ask, we should be ready to forgive them and act as if we have forgiven them. But we must watch to see if they might hurt us again. Spiritual maturity permits us to relate to people who have hurt us, but with a prudent eye. Trust is something that must be earned.
explorefaith: What about when our anger steps to the next level, and we become incensed at society at large?
Massimini: Today, much that is true of our society and culture makes us angry. You could say that those driven by greed “slapped us with the back of their hand” and caused an economic collapse. How can we ensure that they don’t hit us again without hurting or destroying them. First and foremost, our “Christ-esteem” makes us very sensitive to the fact that we belong to one another. We’re all in this world together. So we should remember that we are today’s society and culture. It is not just them that we should be angry at. It is also ourselves. Where were we? Jesus was angry at the rich in his society, not because they were rich but because they were using their wealth and power to suppress the poor. And he shocked his society (and all societies) into a new awareness by telling the oppressors how hard it was for them to enter the kingdom of God, and by blessing the poor.
Jesus acted. We have the democratic and social power to act to bring economic justice to our society. We can make our schools better. We can work against racism, sexism and the shallowness and egotism that so much of our society is caught up in. We do this as Jesus did, by “taking hold” of our society’s corrosive values and changing them. They will resist—to the point that we will have to “crucify” them, i.e., put them through a Good Friday in order to bring them to an Easter Sunday of new life and meaning. This requires great spiritual maturity on our part.
Again, it is something to work for and pray for. We are all too familiar with religious people who believe they alone have the truth of God and who angrily want to force their will on our society. This is not a true expression of righteous anger, or meekness, or “Christ-esteem.” We are expressions of Christ together with all others, respecting the spiritual insights of others and not lording it over others. The power to change our society is the power of the crucified, risen Christ, not of any particular church’s political power.
explorefaith: So it is incumbent on us as Christians to use our anger over injustice in ways that actually help make things better?
Massimini: If we don’t get involved in helping make society more fair and human in the grace of Christ, we should be angry at ourselves. God will surely be angry at us. The Old Testament gives many accounts of God’s anger at His own people. That was the ancient people’s way of saying that when we don’t use our anger to correct injustice, we and our society suffer the consequences. We are not here to let our society suffer, we are here to help save it in the grace of Christ. Faith, hope and charity are powerful gifts that we possess and that God expects us to share with our world. Charity is forever. The more of it we build here and now, the more glory God will be given in eternity. From within the injustices of today’s world, God is calling us to use our Christ-esteem and anger-energy to bring God’s creative, healing and loving grace to our society. As ever, our society needs us, to work together with our spiritual brothers and sisters of other traditions, to help make a more faithful, hopeful and loving world.
Copyright © 2011 Anthony Massimini.