Angry? There’s Something You Can Do About It
by the Reverend Doctor Peter W. Allen
Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
August 30, 2015
Many of us were taught to be ashamed of our anger. Anger is bad. Anger is destructive. Anger is something that unthoughtful people feel. Anger is low class. Anger belongs to dictators and despots and poisonous ceo’s and insecure underlings who want to hang onto their positions. Sometimes we think of anger as the exclusive province of men. We can all picture that stereotype of the guy (always a guy) with the clenched fists, red face, and steam coning out of his ears.
Those of us who are working to make the world a better place? We’re not supposed to get angry. Nice people don’t get angry. Loving people don’t get angry. Only hurtful parents and terrible teachers and mean old bosses get angry. Women aren’t supposed to get angry, right?
Well, we know that’s not true.
If you are a human being – and each of us in this room is a human being – male and female, you get angry from time to time. And you have every right.
Shouldn’t we be angry if someone hurts us?
Isn’t it OK to be angry if someone treats us or someone we love in a way that takes something from us – our dignity, our reputation, our health, our sense of well being, our property, our money?
Of course, we should. Again, it’s part of being human. Anger is one of the basic emotions we all feel, along with happiness, sadness, fear, surprise, and disgust. At least that is the conventional wisdom around human emotion. We still have a lot to learn.
As Christians, or more accurately, as those who are doing our best to follow Jesus, there are lots of situations in the face of which we might feel angry. When our neighbors who are vulnerable are hurt by those in power, those whom the Hebrew prophets and Jesus of Nazareth made a priority – the poor and hungry, the orphaned, the widowed, the sick, the lonely, the imprisoned, those who are left out – righteous anger is not only OK, it’s expected of believers.
So what is James saying to us?
There are lots of theories about the identity of the person who wrote the Epistle (or the letter) of James. For a while, early scholars thought it might be one of the first disciples Jesus called, James the fisherman, the son of Zebedee, the brother of John. But that is not very likely due to the fact that fishermen were usually illiterate and the Epistle of James was probably written in the late first or early second century AD (or CE).
More often, these days, scholars think that James was written by Jesus’ brother or half brother, one of the leaders of the Christian community in Jerusalem. There’s still the problem of age, as Jesus’ brother or half brother would have had to be very old at the turn of the second century.
Whoever wrote this letter, the author had a handle on Jesus’ practical side – the side that emphasized behavior over theory or internal commitments.
Martin Luther, who of course played a very important part in the Protestant Reformation, was skeptical about the Roman Catholic emphasis on faithful behavior and referred to James as an epistle of straw. He wanted his followers to claim a more internal faith, where belief was more important than action.
If I may be so bold, I would both agree and disagree with our distinguished spiritual ancestor. Faith and action are both important. And I would call James an epistle, not of straw, but of solid oak, a document that helps us to live out externally that which we believe internally.
What is James trying to say in today’s reading?
To me, it seems like he is trying to caution people of faith and good will to pay attention to and resist our natural tendency spout our opinions without backing them up with actions.
Often, when we express anger, even if it’s righteous anger, legitimate anger, we do so in ways that are destructive. We lash out without thinking. We yell and make sweeping statements without thinking about whom we might be hurting.
Whoever wrote the Epistle of James was writing during the time when the early church was trying to figure out how to be an authentic community of Christ. Since we’re still trying to figure that out, James is relevant to us today. How do we become a cohesive, mutually supportive, hospitable, inclusive, faithful, sustainable group?
According to James, that will require some self discipline. Quick to listen and slow to speak. You mean even when it’s 10 at night and we have a headache and we completely disagree? Yes. You mean when we’re exhausted and we know the other person is wrong? Yes. Quick to listen, slow to speak.
OK, but what about this other part: Slow to anger?
Yes, slow to anger.
That does not mean we should not ever become angry due to some injustice or some harm that has been done to us or to someone we love.
Slow to anger. In other words, let our anger come not only from a place of pure unconsidered emotion but from a place of thoughtful passion. Lashing out in unthoughtful anger can do damage to marriages, to churches, to businesses, and to all sorts of relationships.
Slow to anger does not mean no anger; it means anger carefully vetted and discerned within ourselves and within our community before it is expressed in ways that can be hurtful.
The most amazing and wonderful thing about this passage is the way the author juxtaposes anger and service. Did you notice that? Very soon after he says that out anger does not produce God’s righteousness, he says that doing our faith, living out our faith, is like remembering what we look like in the mirror. In other words, being truly faithful requires being humble and being real. Being real about ourselves, including our faults and imperfections, leads to a more authentic and loving way of life.
And whoever wrote the Epistle of James thought that believing and living authentically means less talking and more. Being a Christian, in James’ eyes, means less mouth and more action. In his words, bridling our tongue and caring for orphans and widows – who in his world were the most vulnerable of all.
So what does this mean for us?
We get angry about a lot of stuff that probably doesn’t matter all that much. Sometimes, yes, our anger is justified, but to be honest, most of the time, it’s not. Maybe the best way to deal with our unjustified, selfish, ill-considered anger is to look out into the world and ask ourselves, Who actually has the right to be angry? Which of our neighbors are actually the victims of injustice? And what can we do about it?
And when we’ve prayed for and worked ob behalf of and spoken up for those who cannot speak for themselves or who have not been heard when they have spoken up, maybe our anger will subside just a bit. And maybe, hopefully, we will feel more grateful for the God of Jesus Christ, the One who is guiding us toward a better and more peaceful world.