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Holy Anger

Have they no knowledge, those evildoers,
who eat up my people as they eat bread,
and do not call upon God?
…they will be put to shame, for God has rejected them.
– Psalm 53:4-5

This weekend, I had the opportunity to attend a conference sponsored by Project No One Leaves – a gathering of attorneys, organizers and activists who are working together to address the US housing crisis. Representing both the “shield” of legal defense and the “sword” of grassroots direct action, practitioners from around the country came together at Harvard Law School to connect and strategize for building a broad-based movement to keep residents in their homes and defend our neighborhoods from the abuses of predatory banks and investors.

I was particularly excited to get to know folks at City Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU), an established community group that organizes around issues of housing justice. CLVU is an inspiration for many of us in this movement – a case study in what success looks like, and a model to be replicated in other city regions. City Life/Vida Urbana has pioneered a “sword-and-shield” approach to housing organizing, pairing legal education and counseling by lawyers and students with the power of direct public pressure brought to bear on banks and investors. It has become clear that we need warriors for justice, lots of em.

The highlight of my time in Boston was Sunday, when I was able to participate in CLVU’s campaign to challenge the dirty dealings of City Realty Group, which has bought up over a hundred properties across Boston and is systematically evicting tenants and imposing brutal rent increases to drive out working-class residents. We spent time Sunday canvassing properties owned by City Realty, talking with tenants about their rights, and encouraging them to come to CLVU meetings to get free legal counsel and organize with others in their same situation.

It was a powerful experience to witness the human cost of City Realty’s business practices. One woman we talked to had her rent raised by $150 dollars when City Realty bought the building. She had been living in the building for five years and never missed a rent payment, but when her rental check was one day late she woke up to find an eviction notice on her door! I met another man who lost his home to foreclosure and tried to buy it back from the bank for $230,000. At the last moment, City Realty group swooped in and bought his home out from under him for $233,000. Then, they let him know that he could have it back, but it would cost him $490,000!

While we were canvassing, we actually ran into a couple of folks who apparently worked for City Realty. From what we could tell, the tenants of the building had been evicted, and these men were getting the property ready for new, higher-rent tenants. As we tried to engage them in conversation, they were intensely defensive. These men knew that they were up to no good.

Door-knocking in west Boston, we saw both sides of this story. We met those who had been struck, and those who were delivering the blow. We saw the working-class women and men of color who wanted to stay in their homes, and the wealthy investors who saw their homes purely as business opportunities. I was outraged at the gangster-like character of these real estate investors, whose business model relies on pushing families out of their homes. It was almost enough to make me want to move up to Boston and get involved in the fight. I was mad as hell!

Later on, I had the opportunity to debrief my experience with a friend. I told him about what I witnessed, how furious I was, how wrong the men at City Realty were, and how we had to fight back. My friend was clearly concerned about the way I was talking. “What about ‘that of God’ in the real estate investors?” he asked me. “Aren’t we called to love them, too?”

This question surprised me. I had just described a grave injustice occurring – evictions, dispossessions, the livelihood of ordinary folks being gobbled up to line the pockets of a few crafty men – and my friend’s first reaction was to talk about “loving” these perpetrators of structural violence?

Of course, as a follower of Jesus Christ, I am called to love my enemies. But that does not mean I do not have enemies, nor that I need to be nice to those who plot evil and eat up my people as if they were bread. Jesus knew how to call a fox a fox. He knew a den of vipers when he saw one. I looked into the face of evildoers yesterday, and I am not going to sugar-coat what I saw. I am not going to play nice with those who steal from orphans and widows.

It has never been clearer to me that there are times to bind up a whip of cords and chase out the moneychangers. Real love refuses to allow injustice to stand. If “loving” the oppressor means assuming the best about their motivations, I don’t. If “loving” them means treating them with gentleness, allowing them to continue doing evil unchallenged, I can’t.

Real love gets furious in the presence of oppression. Real love sees that the only way to freedom – for all of us, regardless of our station in life – is to work for justice for the widow and the orphan, the foreigner and the poor, those who are most marginalized in our society. We will be judged based on how we treat the least of these.

Too often, we religious people try to suppress anger. We want to skip over it, and go straight to joy, tenderness and healing. We want the resurrection without the crucifixion. I fear that, all too often, we worship a God who lets us off the hook, rather than a holy, righteous God who expects us to be transformed – who baptizes us with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

Anger is a gift from God. It is an alarm bell, alerting us to the presence of conditions that we should not accept. Before we can even consider how to speak tenderly to those who are taking advantage of our people, we must first know that wrong really is wrong. We must hear the wake-up call of anger, letting us know that this kind of behavior is unacceptable. We have to feel in our bones that dispossessing the poor is evil, that pushing families out of their homes for profit is a despicable business.

For a middle class person like me, it is easy for me to treat this kind of injustice as an abstraction, but I cannot do that anymore. Holy anger has woken me up. This struggle is real, and I have to be a part of it.

  • It seems to me that anger is part of the process of action. We see injustice, God convicts us, we experience righteous anger and we act in support of the poor, widows and orphans as God leads us. It is possible at this point to hold on to anger as the reason we are acting, rather than love for our bothers and sisters. That’s when anger gets twisted and misused. When it’s no longer about recognizing injustice and being prompted to action by God’s justice, but about feeding our ego and sense of importance as an arbitrator and super hero.

  • Faith makes a good distinction. Anger can be addictive as well.

  • This could be where WWJD comes into play. What indeed would Jesus do? Would he just smile blandly, and utter, “Well, that’s just the way things are anymore.” Or would he pick up the holy whips, and demonstrate some holy anger? And now that the election is over, he might even suggest that Rachel Maddow go to work on it!

  • This post inspired me to think more about anger and its limitations. Here’s what I wrote. Thanks!

  • Responding to evil actions and policies, and countering them, is required of us by a righteous God. But anger takes its toll of the one who is angry, raising his blood pressure and clouding his judgment. His opponents may (correctly) see it as a sign of weakness, and play on his anger to provoke him into error. And if the angry one has not previously won the respect of onlookers, his anger is quite likely to draw their disapproval. For all of these reasons, I try to avoid anger in the presence of evil if I can. I pray that my anger might be taken from me, leaving me only with faithfulness to do what is right.

    Jesus warns us that if we are angry with a brother or sister, we will be “liable to judgment”. (Matthew 5:22) And so far as I know, the Gospels only say he himself was angry once: at a time when his detractors seemed likely to declare that it was unlawful to heal on the Sabbath. (Mark 3:5) Interestingly enough, the Gospels do not say he was angry when he rebuked the money changers and drove them from the Temple, and I personally think his judgment was cool and deliberate at that time, as an ordinary man’s would have needed to be to have pulled off such an act effectively.

  • Johan: Thanks for your follow-up post. I appreciate the way you cover some of the bases that my post did not. Between the two of us, hopefully we make it to “home plate.” 🙂

    Marshall: I think that I agree with the intent of your words, but not, perhaps, with the way you’re using language. I think that when you say “anger,” you’re referring to what I would call “uncontrolled rage.”

    My observation would be that Jesus, and a lot of other prophets, were angry with great frequency. Things have gone very wrong in our world, and anger is an appropriate feeling to have.

    I do not see any contradiction between anger and a controlled response to the conditions that trigger it. As I wrote in my blog post, I see anger as a basic, God-given emotion. It can be rightly used or abused.

    Just as I would not counsel anyone to repress their feelings of affection, fear, desire, etc., I do not believe it is helpful to view anger as inherently problematic. I think that Johan does a good job of pointing out the dangers of unresolved, non-integrated anger, while still recognizing that anger is God-given, a gift.

  • I would like to second Marshall Massey’s observations about anger; particularly his point that anger clouds the mind, making effective action less likely. I have seen that in myself as well as others often enough that when I now experience anger I regard it as a warning beel to me. And the warning is that I should pause, wait, perhaps retreat, until such a time as I my mind clears.

    My experience is that anger leads to hatred if the anger is not deflected; I sometimes refer to hatred as ‘the anger project’. I mean that anger is the seed from which hatred blossoms.

    None of the above is meant to be a criticism of feelings which naturally arise in the presence of injustice and predatory behavior. Nor is it meant to let perpetrators off the hook. Rather, it is meant to suggest that there are other options.

    Thy Friend Jim

  • Jim – I refer you to my response to Marshall.

  • Micah, friend, if I had meant “uncontrolled rage”, I would have written “uncontrolled rage”. I meant what I wrote.

    “Blessed are the pure in heart,” says Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. I would respectfully ask whether you think that anger was something God wanted present in the Garden before the Fall. If not, then like lust and hatred, anger must be understood as an impurity of heart, a disorder that comes into the world as a result of sin. That, indeed, appears to me to be the reason why, when we are angry with a brother or sister, we are “liable to judgment”.

    Returning to gospel order, it seems to me, includes returning to an internal condition free of all such impurities. That is why George Fox advises to be cool and still in our own hearts. But to view our anger, an impurity born of the Fall, as good and justified, is a real peril, for by doing so, we make it an obstruction that we choose to keep between us and God.

  • Marshall: I see what you mean about anger existing as a result of the fall. Without sin, there would be no need for anger – as there would be nothing amiss to be alerted about! This seems correct to me.

    Unfortunately, we do live in a fallen, broken world. In this context, well-used anger does seem like a gift that can bring about a healing response. I believe that anger is one of the ways that God spurs us to mend our tattered life together, in spite of all of the obstacles that our fallen condition presents.

    I wonder, Marshall: Do you consider white blood cells to be a gift from God? I do, and I see them as having some similar functions to anger. Obviously, if it were not for disease, we would have no need of white blood cells. But, because of our fallen condition, disease does exist. I am grateful to God for the immune system that we have been gifted to begin the work of healing, even if this gift is given precisely because we live in a broken world.

  • Anger is a signal something is happening, but it blocks understanding. Unless it is a true calling, with the true self unattached to the outcomes, it’s the ego that is angry . “I’m not the kind of person who stands by and let’s this happen”. We divide and put in opposition “Those poor people” and “Those evil people”. We are all equal and need to act that way. That’s why a lot of the recipients of “charity” from outside resent the help. They can tell when things are done for the gratification of guilt or if it is “mutual aid” from an equal.

  • Matericia –

    Anger can clearly be destructive if misused, but in my experience anger often *increases* understanding by pointing out what is wrong.

    As with any emotion, though, it’s important to avoid reacting in a knee-jerk fashion!