Saturday, 26 January 2008

Can anger be holy?

Lytta Basset. Sainte colère.I particularly enjoy the various quotes Simon Barrow puts on his Faith in Society blog. This quote on anger by Aristotle set me thinking in my rare idle moments this week. The linked article by Gene Stoltzfus on anger and peace-making makes a good point about anger being an ally in igniting firm truth telling. Over the centuries we have somehow edited the elemental force and energy out of our interpretation of biblical texts. It's almost as if we don't like to mix strong emotion with faith, preferring to re-write life and faith as something that is well-behaved and "nice".
Thinking about anger sent me back to my bookshelves and Lytta Basset's "Sainte Colère" which came out a few years ago - called Holy Anger in English. In it she argues that anger is not censored in the Bible. Job for instance dares to voice his anger about the dreadful situation he's in to God; Cain doesn't rail against the injustice of his offering not being acceptable and directs his anger into killing his brother; it's only when Jacob wrestles all night long with the stranger that he receives his new name and extricates himself from a manipulative and unhealthy web of family relationnships. And of course Jesus also gets angry. One of the verses in a hymn from Iona goes "Jesus Christ is raging, raging in the streets, where injustice spirals and real hope retreats". I think it's a good thing to integrate anger into our spirituality in a more positive way than through the Dies Irae, and as most people get more theology from hymns than anywhere else maybe that's one way to do it - though I should add that there are quite a few people out there who really don't like the Iona hymn.
You can read part of Lytta Basset's reflection on turning the other cheek here. That Bible text reminds me of a difficult time once in parish ministry when one of the elders said in discussion of a difficult personnel issue "we must turn the other cheek" to which I responded "but the other cheek you are turning is mine
not yours!" Turning the other cheek is about changing the paradigm of violence, making violence visible and trying to confront it. It isn't about accepting violence, evil and injustice like a doormat and pottering nicely on!
Basset argues that "holy anger is different from spontaneous human anger
; holy anger seeks to ressemble God's anger while not claiming that it ever actually achieves this." A holy anger refuses to appropriate God's anger for itself. It also does not victimise people or create scapegoats and can only bear fruit if motivated by love.
Channelling anger, finding a positive voice for our anger is not easy, yet it's the key to a vibrant civil society and to much campaigning work. It's traditionally been difficult for women and many other marginalised people to get their anger or rage listened to in our societies. Finding a voice for our concerns and anger is essential to our humanity, as is learning to listen to those expressing such concerns rather than telling them to close their lips and turn the other cheek. So that leads me to end this ramble on anger with a quote from Berthold Brecht which I first heard in a sermon in former East Germany as the first free elections were about to take place.
"Even anger against injustice makes the voice grow harsh.
Alas we who wished to lay the foundations of kindness could not ourselves be kind."