“You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” – James 1:19-20
Anger gets a bad rap.
How often has someone been described as “angry” as a way of denying the righteous concern they have expressed? “Angry” is frequently used to dismiss women, persons of color, LGBTQIAP+ folk, and others who have been denigrated — as though their experience of marginalization can be ignored.
Once in Guatemala I accompanied a pastor to the U.S. consulate, where he submitted paperwork and references to get a visa for travel to a National Council of Churches assembly. The consular officer barked questions. The indigenous man replied respectfully, quietly. The officer said he did not believe my companion’s documentation. I said, “He is a respected leader; his travel is paid for by the National Council of Churches.” The officer said, “Doesn’t look like a leader to me: he looks like an Indian with a chip on his shoulder.” A perception of anger, however false, was an excuse for a sneering brush-off. (The pastor remained calm. My own rage burned hot.)
Scripture like today’s portrays wrath as nothing but bad. Thank God for teachers like the late Beverly Harrison, whose 1980 essay “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love,” still teaches a different view. Anger is often the necessary and faithful response to abuse. Anger can signify that I have been slow to listen, quick to speak; that I have failed to see the suffering in front of me.
Sure: sometimes anger can come from selfishness or pettiness. That’s probably what James referred to. But too often rejecting anger is also denying the violation that produced it in the first place.
God, grant me the courage to listen to another’s anger deeply and respectfully. Grant that my own anger may come from the same place as yours: outrage when your creation or one of your creatures is damaged. Let the heat in my heart be a testimony that what you have made, matters: that the hurt of one is a hurt to us all. Amen.
John A. Nelson is Pastor and Teacher of Church on the Hill, UCC, in Lenox, Massachusetts.