Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Grief and Anger
distributed 9/21/01 - ©2001

Over the past 10 days, we have all felt a jumble of emotions -- shock, grief, anger, fear, confusion, loyalty, alienation, and love.

This mix of feelings is not remarkable. Our emotions are utterly predictable in the face of death and disruption. The movement from our emotions into action or inaction, though, is a matter of deep concern.

As an emotion, grief alone has a numbing power. The feelings of sadness and loss turn us inward and weaken us. Grief is not energizing; it does not motivate us.

In a time of tragedy and trauma, energy emerges, not from grief, but from the powerful emotion of anger. Mr. Bush spoke to that mixing of emotion in his address to Congress last night. "Our grief has turned to anger and anger to resolution." "In our grief and anger we have found our mission and our moment."

What will come of that anger?

In ignorance and blindness, some have moved from anger to hatred, and lashed out at any individual who seems to represent "the enemy." Innocent Moslems and Arabs have been attacked and killed, abused, and treated with suspicion.

Mr. Bush puts a somewhat more focused face on the anger of the US. In his self-described "crusade," he (with the strong backing of almost all members of Congress) will lead the US and its allies in attempts to punish and crush terrorists and the nations that have harbored them. The machinery of war is already being gathered for an assault on Afghanistan. Other, less public strategies are being put into action.

Many voices are calling for an even greater focus in targeting and strategies as the US acts on its anger. Especially prominent are leaders from religious communities, who are urging restraint and patience, and who are refusing to accept the "collateral damage" of yet more innocent lives lost through war. The same message of caution and balance is coming from many wise political leaders around the world.

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The energy that drives all of these responses comes from anger, not grief. In its most raw and uncontrolled form, anger is a dangerous force. When mixed with insight, compassion and careful strategy, however, anger can be a powerful force for good.

  • 20 years ago, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) was established by a group of women in California. They were outraged after the death of a teenage girl killed by a repeat-offender drunk driver. Their anger gave birth to a national organization that has been highly effective in reducing the number of alcohol-related deaths on US highways. Their efforts have led to profound shifts in public opinion, and changes in laws about DWI sentencing and underage drinking. Their anger has avoided vengeance, and brought about a transformation in the legal system. They have gone a long way toward resolving some of the core problems behind drink driving.

  • The campaign for dolphin-safe tuna was driven by the grief and anger of US schoolchildren who learned of the massive slaughter of the marine mammals in standard fishing practices. By boycotting tuna on school lunch menus and pushing for changes in international food industries, their anger created standards and agreements that have saved the lives of dolphin, and empowered consumers in making pro-environment choices.
Anger, in itself, is a normal, healthy, and powerful emotion. Anger can provide motivation and energy for constructive, creative and healing efforts.

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As I look at the enormous crises that ravage our global environment, I am painfully aware of the difference between grief and anger.

With the extinction of species, the decimation of coral reefs, the felling of rain forests, the melting of ice caps and glaciers, the collapse of marine fisheries -- and countless other local losses and tragedies that are more personally experienced -- many of us feel overwhelmed with grief and loss. When grief dominates, we are weakened in our ability to act.

As people committed to eco-justice, we face a difficult challenge. We must be willing to discover and experience anger -- the anger that can energize and motivate us, the anger that can provide focus and direction for our efforts. But at the same time, we must work to balance our anger with compassion, wisdom, patience, love and hope. Our anger must always be directed toward good, toward peace and healing. As Paul wrote, "Be angry, but do not sin." (Ephesians 4:26)

In addressing all of the crises of the world -- of the environment, of social justice and of terrorism -- may we discover the loving power of God in our anger. And may we speak and act boldly to stop actions where anger spills over into the destructive realms of hate and vengeance.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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