September 17, 2013
The Case Against Righteous Anger
It's possible to wield anger righteously, but it doesn't mean everyone can.
Should a blind person be permitted to carry a gun in public? That’s the focus of a court battle currently underway in Iowa. Advocates for extending the “conceal and carry” law to include blind citizens say the visually impaired should not be discriminated against because of their disability. Second, they say a gun is not inherently evil and every American has a constitutional right to own one.
Even if I agreed with each individual statement in this argument, I would still find myself uncomfortable with the idea of a blind person carrying a loaded weapon on the street. While such a law might make legal sense, it just doesn’t make common sense.
I feel the same way about anger. I’ve heard numerous theological and biblical arguments in recent years about Christians wielding “righteous anger.” The term is used to justify the rants of Christians against all manner of enemy. Sometimes our crosshairs are fixed on a politician or party, a social injustice, an expression of cultural immorality, some false teaching, or another Christian we determine is off the reservation. We hammer out a snarky tweet, or we post a rage-filled blog entry, and our outrage quickly kindles a bonfire of righteous indignation via comments, retweets, and likes.
My colleague at Christianity Today, Katelyn Beaty, has written a very thoughtful editorial about the self-righteous impulse behind online Christian outrage. She writes:
Journalist Katie J. M. Baker wrote that one reason she indulges in "hate-reading"—wherein one visits a website just to feel outraged—is that it "never makes me feel inferior. Instead, I've realized, it makes me feel superior."
I wonder if at the root of our Internet outrage is the need to show that we are righteous—specifically, more righteous than others. That the ancient impulse to justify ourselves apart from God is driving so much Twitter and Facebook rage (including my own). It wouldn't be the first time that religious folks "trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt" (Luke 18:9, ESV).
I recognize myself in Katelyn’s analysis. There is a a delicious self-satisfaction that I enjoy when I get angry. As a result, I’ve been on an anger diet. I’m attempting to withhold my outrage, keep my mouth closed, my keyboard off, and focus my attention on blessing, rather than blasting, those I disagree with.
“But aren’t there times when anger is justified?” you may ask. Of course there are. “And didn’t Jesus get angry?” Yes, he did. “And isn’t there such a thing as righteous anger?” Yes, there is.
Like a gun, anger is not inherently evil, but it is powerful. In the wrong hands it can do terrible damage. I believe a theological case can be made for the righteous deployment of anger. In the right hands, with the right training, and from the right heart, anger can be wielded lovingly to bring correction and healing. I trust Jesus to use anger this way. I don’t yet trust myself. I have misfired too many times. I have hurt too many innocent people. I have proven incapable of disentangling my righteous and sinful motives for pulling the trigger.
There are plenty of Christian leaders online who have aggregated large audiences, sold many books, and even built significant ministries through their anger. Outrage is a powerful and effective motivator (particularly when paired with fear). I sometimes feel the temptation to copy these tactics, particularly as a blogger/author/speaker for whom building an audience is how the bills get paid. "Pick your nemesis and unleash digital shock and awe," the little devil on my shoulder will whisper. "You'll be doing the Church a service by eviscerating that idea/leader/movement."
"I would only be doing it with the best of intentions," I tell myself. Bullies always justify their actions by listing their good intentions. That's why the road to hell is paved with them. The truth is I can make a strong theological argument for the righteous deployment of anger, but given my own track record and those of others I've seen I’m hesitant to endorse the use of anger by any and every Christian against any and every enemy.
Like arming the blind, the use of anger by Christian leaders might make biblical sense, I’m just not sure it makes common sense.