The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Be Angry, but Do Not Sin
"Be angry, but do not sin." (Ephesians 4:26)
That's good theological advice, good pastoral guidance, and even a strong political strategy. The next bit, about "don't let the sun go down on your anger" is more than I've been able to manage recently, but the end of the verse -- "and do not make room for the devil" -- is another piece of practical wisdom.
What does it look like if we live by this biblical instruction, especially in these difficult days of political turmoil?
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Anger comes easily in all sorts of interpersonal and institutional settings. The admonition to avoid sinning places some constraints on how we speak and act from that anger.
As a part of my morning routine of reading the newspaper, I usually glance at the "Ask Amy" column just before I finish up with the comics. A high percentage of those seeking Amy's advice tell of some family or workplace incident where anger blew up into an irreconcilable conflict. Sin is the breakdown of relationship.
"Road rage" -- involving anything from a flipped finger to gunshots -- is anger that has crossed the line into sin. Domestic violence and child abuse often involve anger that has flared out of control. Sin rears up when anger causes physical or emotional harm.
Anger and sin are old, old companions. There's nothing new when they crop up in our families, our communities, our churches, and in politics. So the old, old advice to separate them -- be angry, but do not sin -- is time-tested and realistic.
Ephesians spells out some details on keeping anger within responsible bounds. "Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up." "Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another."
There is a mixed message there (be angry ... put away anger), but I hear a recognition that life in community will involve conflict, and that the conflict is best addressed with some restraint.
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I confess that I am fixated on politics these days. Matters of immense importance are being addressed in Washington and other centers of power. The shift in political balance is bringing turmoil with a surge of rapid changes that I find horrifying. On top of that, the tone of the political debate has degenerated beyond any civility.
Be angry, but do not sin comes to mind often as I track the news.
It is certainly advice that needs to be heard by our petulant president. His outbursts, tweets and lies reflect none of the qualities suggested in Ephesians. His inability to restrain himself is embarrassing and profoundly frightening. An out of control president is a far greater risk to the world than a raging driver stuck in a traffic jam.
The Bible verse comes to mind more specifically as I read vitriolic comments about the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to fill the vacant seat on the US Supreme Court. As you know, that seat has been open for about a year, and the Republicans in the Senate refused to even consider Obama's nominee, Merrick Garland. That refusal to act strikes me as a collective instance of anger spilling over into misconduct and sin.
Now there is a new nominee, and the conflict continues. One donation-seeking email that came to me a few weeks ago said, will you "call on Democrats to stop Trump from stealing Garland's seat?" (Actually, that seat was "stolen" a year ago, not with this nomination.)
The organization that wrote to me is supporting a filibuster on the confirmation vote. That could mean that Judge Garland would have to get at least 8 Democratic votes to win approval, even as the two parties stake out positions without room for compromise. Or -- far more likely -- it could mean a change of the Senate rules to allow confirmation with a simple majority vote, the so-called "nuclear option".
There are a lot of Democrats who are angry about the history of this Supreme Court vacancy. It seems to me that some of them want to carry that anger into a public fight, just because they are angry. To them, I offer the phrase, be angry, but do not sin. Don't blow up the political system just because you're pissed.
Judge Gorsuch needs to be examined carefully, and his decisions need to be evaluated for out-of-bounds bias. But rejecting him out of hand from pent up anger is no more legitimate than last year's Senate setting aside judge Garland's nomination.
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How does anger that restrains itself from sin work in this conflictual political setting? A fascinating example is being proposed for next Tuesday, Valentine's Day. The Revolutionary Love Project has this declaration:
We, people of faith and moral conscience, reclaim Valentine's Day as a Day of Revolutionary Love, Day of Rising. We resist all executive orders and policies that put people in harm's way. We commit to fight for social justice through the ethic of love -- love for others, our opponents, and ourselves. On Valentine's Day, we will rise up across the U.S. and around the world in music, poetry, dance and action to declare that #RevolutionaryLove is the call of our times.
You can add your signature to the declaration on the RevolutionaryLove website. Their suggestions for next Tuesday include (1) call Congress with love, (2) show up with 1 Billion Rising, and (3) post a love note -- to others, to our opponents, and to ourselves.
Valerie Kaur wrote, "When we love even in the face of fear and rage, we can transform a relationship, a culture, and a country. Love becomes revolutionary. The way we make change is just as important as the change we make. In this dangerous new era, Revolutionary Love is the call of our times."
Anger and love together motivate us to action. We can take strong stands based on our passionate values. We can call our opponents to accountability. And, in love, we can hold back from the malice and destruction that would take our actions into sin and evil.
Yes, it is possible to be angry, but not sin. It takes focus and intention, and it is possible.
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There's also a pastoral component to managing our anger. When hurt and rage get out of control, then our own psyches and spirits are damaged. We really don't want to "make room for the devil" within our souls.
Arianna Huffington has written a helpful article, "How to Get Out of the Cycle of Outrage In a Trump World". She says, "when we live in an ongoing state of outrage, anxiety, fear and stress, it wreaks an awful toll on our physical and mental health. It's not sustainable. And there is another way."
She adds, "The goal of any true resistance is to affect outcomes, not just to vent. And the only way to affect outcomes and thrive in our lives, is to find the eye in the hurricane, and act from that place of inner strength." The article lists a variety of steps for activism and self-care that are appropriate.
Yes, the anger is there. There are many reasons to be outraged. But unconstrained anger is damaging to our spirits, to our communities, and to the long-term cause.
Be angry, but do not sin. May we take that advice to heart as we settle in for a long struggle.
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