A few years ago I found myself full of a very great deal of anger. I was deeply enraged about a situation in which I and others found ourselves. Anger was certainly quite understandable. Looking back now, I would feel a good deal of that anger again if I was in a similar context. A number of us had been treated badly for some time and others had suffered as a consequence. The final straw was a decision brusquely imposed upon us: a dictatorial imposition which upset, and in many ways contradicted, the very essence of the purposes and relationships in which we were engaged. It was not a happy time, for some time, as we struggled with the pain and the anguish. Such anger both cost and chastened me and also changed and clarified me. For as they say, that which does not kill you makes you stronger. I learned a great deal about myself in the process. I learned that anger is an inevitable part of my passion for life and that, if I am to retain my passion, I must sometime have to deal with anger and express it. Yet I also learned that passion can also destroy if it is not grounded in compassion: daily grounded, ever more deeply, in that divine love which transforms all our human passions, struggles and emotions. This is the path of the cross, the path of Lent, along which we are drawn by Jesus…
The second response to anger is simply to let it flow. I guess that is the instinctive reaction of many, whether on a personal, community, or international level. Sometimes this also has positive features. Expressing anger can be a powerful way of standing up for truth and justice, and caring for the weak, vulnerable and put upon: including ourselves. Without righteously angry women for example, we would not have International Women's Day today and many achievements by and for women. If we do not have some righteous anger about what is happening to so many women in the world - in terms of rape, murder, poverty and other oppression - then there must also be something wrong with us. Yet this pathway can also only take us so far and it is fraught with danger if we are not careful. For physically, mentally and spiritually, anger can distort us, blind us and take us over. It can disturb our inner peace and cause, sometimes horrible, violence to others, and to ourselves. It can also be used as an excuse to be unnecessarily, and sometimes violently, abusive to others, and ourselves. Certainly, in my period of greatest anger, I know that I was thrown off balance and driven to excesses of various kinds. Venting anger does not mean letting go of the strength of negative emotions and actions. Sometimes it feeds and escalates them.
Good spiritual practices enable us to find a healthy balance. During the current run-up to Easter which Christians call Lent, the Church offers us ways to such a balance. For as a fully human being, Jesus certainly felt anger. On several occasions in the Gospels we are explicitly told that Jesus was angry and we find Jesus being fierce about injustice and untruth. Not least, in today’s Gospel reading, we find Jesus expressing anger dramatically, as he drives the money-makers from the temple. What a contrast this is to the idea of a wholly meek and mild Jesus! In the face of oppression, like the Hebrew prophets before him, Jesus did not simply sit on his feelings. Such ‘righteous’ anger was, and still is, a powerful and necessary expression of God’s compassion. We too must share in this. Yet, and here comes the difference and the challenge to us, Jesus also never let feelings of personal anger overwhelm him. He always took time to be centred in that divine compassion which heals as well as stands up for itself. For anger is something we may have but it is not something we should let have us. Our emotions are given to be used wisely, not for us alone but for the good of all.
Like Jesus’ advice about turning the other cheek, the cleansing of the temple was a specific response to a specific situation, not a universal law. It was a highly symbolic act in the prophetic tradition of Israel, as well as a dramatic protest about the exploitation of religion and the poor in the interest of money and power. As such it was a coolly calculated, as well as a powerfully passionate, expression of divine compassion. Jesus used his anger constructively. He did not let his anger use him. He neither let it fester and destroy himself and others, nor did he allow it to flow out into uncontrolled behaviour and violence. Jesus is therefore a lesson for us and for our world, whether we are faced by anger arising from personal oppression, or by anger arising from gender, social, ethnic, religious or other oppression. Anger so easily burns us up or leads us to set ourselves and others ablaze.
Lent is a time for renewing the spiritual disciplines which can enable us to handle anger and other disturbing emotions. It is a time for healthy self-examination: allowing us to identify the things which trigger our anger and the warning signs which stir in our bodies. It is a time for developing means of self-control: controlling our exaggerated or irrational fears and thoughts and putting in place management techniques, including times and spaces to ‘çhill out’. It is a time to learn how to be assertive about the things which really matter without becoming unduly aggressive. It is a time, above all, to pray and to grow more centred in the divine compassion of Jesus.
In the peace, the compassionate heart, of God, Amen.
by Jon Inkpin for Lent 3 Year B, Sunday 8 March 2015, International Women's Day