Getting angry for the right reasons

Getting angry for the right reasons

February 28, 2005
Written by Staff Reports
Robin Meyers
'Righteous indignation'

A monthly feature about spirituality

The third deadly sin is anger. Horace in the Epistles called it a "short madness," and there's a reason why we speak of being burned up by anger. Because until this sudden fire is out, nothing around us is safe - including those we love.

As the world moves faster and faster, fits of impatient and irrational anger abound. Road rage is epidemic, as is gratuitous violence. In a culture of hyper-individualism, everyone seems to be carrying around a gigantic chip on their precious shoulder. Our fuse has become very short indeed. So what lively virtue could possibly lie buried in the deadly sin of anger? The answer is righteous indignation - the kind of holy anger that has always powered prophets and reformers to change the world. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on that bus in Montgomery, it wasn't anger she felt, but indignation. She stayed seated, and the whole world stood up.

Old Testament prophets understood that a holy anger is what often precedes change. But the critical difference between consumptive anger and righteous indignation is that the former is all about some real or perceived injustice done to me, while the latter is about an injustice done to someone else.

The word "indignation" itself comes from the Latin root indignitas, from which we get the noun form "indignity" - the opposite of dignity. Hence, indignation is aroused not from injury to oneself, but in response to a fundamental injustice that denies dignity to others. Ironically, one must sometimes act in an undignified way in order to help bring dignity to others.

The prophet Amos swore that God was furious. Abolitionists like the Grimke sisters and Frederick Douglass brought a similar word to slave-owning America. God was about to "trample out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored," creating a wine of human blood.

Conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War (and I was one) were not all cowards or communists. Some believed deeply that the war was both wrong and hopeless. A new generation will now have to decide if this war also fits that description, and whether they can turn their anger into righteous indignation.

In our sometimes tepid mainline churches, anger may be out, but righteous indignation needs to make a comeback. After all, we worship a Lord who went ballistic in the Temple one day, furious over the corruption of religion in his time. The call to discipleship is sometimes a call to "right rage" - a call to do, not just to contemplate.

The hour cometh, and now is when the faithful will need to be indignant. Time to march. Time to get arrested. Time to be mad again, for all the right reasons.

The Rev. Robin Meyers is senior minister of Mayflower UCC in Oklahoma Cityand is professor of rhetoric in the philosophy department at Oklahoma City University. His latest book, The Virtue in the Vice: Finding Seven Lively Virtues in the Seven Deadly Sins is available at

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