The right to anger

In “A nation on hold wants to speak with a manager,” journalist Sarah Lyall describes the way people currently fly off the handle in public places where even the smallest setback “sends them into a tailspin of hysteria.” Published on the first day of this year in The New York Times, her report cites many incidents ranging from verbal insults that bring employees to tears to physical assaults. She cites more than 5,000 accounts that happened in the past year of “unruly passengers on planes … passengers knocking out flight attendants’ teeth; of flight attendants subduing passengers with duct tape; of people brawling about masks, seatbelts, no-alcohol policies, the lack of normal service — you name it.” In addition to direct attacks, there appears to be an ongoing atmosphere of discontent; in Lyall’s words, a “persistent hum of incivility.”

Clearly, the events she describes have their origin in something bigger than the issue at hand, be it an ever-so-annoying problem or challenge to a person’s equanimity. The ongoing grind of the pandemic combined with an unstable political and social environment bears down on people’s feelings of helplessness. A perceived lack of control causes people to be angry and tempers to fray. Few families have escaped divisions about mask-wearing and the need for vaccinations. Continuing vigilance and anxiety about our own welfare and that of our nearest and dearest eat away at our peace of mind and create profound unease about the big things in life. So we become more easily angered at the small things that should not be so hard. Public displays of anger in our country at the moment are signs of distress in a world gone out of whack.

Anger is a complicated thing; not so much as a basic emotion we all feel at times, but in the ways it is handled. Suppressed anger is not a good thing for a person. On the other hand, uncontrolled explosive anger is not good either. It’s also complicated because anger and expressions of anger are perceived in different ways according to culture, religion, race and gender. Psychologist Ursula Hess, in a summary of her review on the subject titled “Anger Is a Positive Emotion,” concludes that men’s anger can signal strength and motivation to action but women’s anger is not received in the same way. Putting it simply: “women are liked less for their anger and women may appear stronger when staying neutral and remote than when losing control.”

Without doubt, Christianity has a conventionally negative view of anger. As an extreme form of anger, wrath is one of the seven traditional deadly sins. Biblical foundations for this classification can be found especially in the New Testament (2 Corinthians 12:20; Galatians 5:20; Colossians 3:8; Ephesians 4:31; James 1:19). Yet there is plenty of anger to go around in the Bible. People become angry; God becomes angry; Jesus becomes angry; and the Apostle Paul, despite his admonitions, certainly sometimes sounds angry. In the Hebrew Bible, the expression to be angry literally indicates a red nose or face, both in the case of human beings and of God. It is, however, a verb that is not used in the Bible with a female subject. This absence does not mean that women were never angry in the biblical world. Although tone in the biblical text is not usually identified, Sarah, Rachel, Miriam, Michal and Naomi are described as displeased, to name just a few (Genesis 16:5; 21:10; 30:1; Numbers 12:1-3; 2 Samuel 6:20; Ruth 1:20-21). Other women may be understood as acting or speaking in righteous anger, such as Tamar to Judah, the daughters of Zelophehad to Moses, Hannah to Eli, Tamar to Amnon, Job’s wife to her husband and Esther to the king (Genesis 38:25; Numbers 37:3-4; 1 Samuel 1:15-16; Job 2:9; Esther 7:6).

In Judaism, Rabbinical discussions in the Talmud and afterwards discourage anger and emphasize mercy, grace and kindness as signs of what it means to “walk in God’s ways” (Sifrei Devarim – Eikev 49; BT Sotah 14a; Rambam Sefer Hamitvot – Mitzvah #8). Yet, anger as an emotion is not denounced in the Torah. When Moses confronts God with what may be called an angry tirade about the people’s behavior in the wilderness, God does not reproach him for it (Numbers 11:10-15). The two occasions on which God questions a person directly about their anger serve as interesting examples of biblical perceptions of divine reactions to human anger.

In reaction to Cain’s anger about God’s preference for the sacrifice of his brother Abel, God asks, “Why are you angry and why is your face fallen? Is it not so that if you act well, it will be lifted, and if you do not act well, sin makes its lair at the door and for you is its desire and you must govern it?” (Genesis 4:6-7). Remarkably, God’s initial questions are not followed by reassurance. Something in the line of “you know that I care about your gift also” or “I love you just as much as I love Abel” might have soothed Cain’s hurt feelings. In fact, the issue that bothered Cain so much, his perception that God showed favoritism to his brother Abel, is not addressed at all. It looks like the inquiries about anger and Cain’s demeanor serve mostly as a setup for what follows. What Cain needs to do is to take a step back and focus on what it means to “act well” rather than on his discontent. Sin lurks at the portal of Cain’s mind and he needs to get on top of it. We know what follows: Cain is unable to manage his envy and he commits murder, the first act that connects to the word “sin” in the Bible. It’s the start of acts of violence that in the end so overwhelm the Holy God that they cause pain in God’s heart and lead to the decision to begin over again (Genesis 6:5-7).

Violence is a main theme of the second story in which God asks someone about their anger. The prophet Jonah receives word from on high to “get up and go to Nineveh and cry out to it that its evil has come to My attention.” What Jonah does in the next breath is to “get up to flee” (Jonah 1:2-3). In fact he flees in the opposite direction. And who wouldn’t? Jonah is the only prophet in the Bible who is called to proclaim on behalf of the God of Israel in a foreign country. And not just any foreign country but the worst of foreign countries, Israel’s arch enemy, renowned for its cruelty and vicious treatment of conquered peoples, Assyria. We remember that Jonah’s attempt to get away from Assyria and from God’s presence is not successful and that eventually he does what is required of him and proclaims doom over Nineveh. But – surprise, surprise – the overturning of the city that Jonah predicts becomes a turning around on the part of the Nineveh crowd instead and from king to commoner to beast they repent of their evil deeds. Not only that but when they repent, God repents and decides not to go through with the promised destruction. The story could have ended right there.

There is, however, a sequel. It’s in the face of this aftermath of his mission, which for Jonah is not a good ending, that we find out the reason for his refusal to do what was asked of him initially. Jonah is furious at the turn of events and shouts at God that he knew all along it would turn out that way because he knew what God was like and that was the reason he fled: “Did I not say this when I was still on my own soil? That is why the first time I fled to Tarshish, because I knew that you are a God of grace and compassion, slow to anger and full of loving devotion and repenting of evil” (Jonah 4:2). Then he asks God to kill him. That’s how angry he is. God responds by asking if he “does well” to be angry (Jonah 4:4). We are not told how Jonah received this question, but he positions himself at an advantageous spot to view what will happen in the city. It sounds to me as if God’s question gives him the idea that all is not over yet and, who knows, God may again have a change of mind and the whole thing will still come tumbling down.

This does not happen, and instead there is an interlude in which God provides Jonah with a plant and then subsequently destroys it, which once again drives Jonah into a fury on account of having lost protection from the heat. Like the brawlers of today in public places, this small thing is the last straw and when God asks him again if he “does well” to be angry, he underlines the rightness of his anger by once again requesting to die. The same verb that we encounter in the exchange with Cain is used here in the dialogue with Jonah. It’s about “doing well” in anger.

We need to stop here for a moment and think about Jonah. It is all too common to consider him a bigoted person who cannot stand the notion of God’s mercy. By extension, he becomes a bigoted member of a bigoted people, and that is not a path Christians may take. Nineveh in the biblical world was a name which had become synonymous with barbaric and gross violence, a place that is truly in need of turning in another direction, both for its own sake and for the sake of others. Nineveh represents not only evil in general, but in particular destructive activity against God’s people. In contemporary terms, we could say that Nineveh of the ancient world was the Auschwitz of our time.

 It is to this place, this pit of hell, that God turns in mercy once the townsfolk decide to turn from “the violence that is in their hands” (Jonah 3:8). This is the unacceptable wideness of God’s mercy that devastates Jonah. A free pardon means that the one with the death sentence, who was guilty, is free to roam the streets and destroy again. So, yes, Jonah was right to be angry. God has not only made a fool of him, but has come back on a decision that would have freed Jonah and his people of the biggest threat that loomed in their neighborhood, one that would turn out to be their ruin. Unable to accept the disaster that a continued existence of Nineveh poses, Jonah has lost it over the small thing, the plant that gave him some comfort. And he wants some violence; if not violence against Nineveh, then against his own person. In counterpoint, and similar to the encounter with Cain, God follows the inquiry about anger with a rhetorical question: “And the Holy One said: You now, you would spare the plant for which you did not toil nor made it grow, which came about in one night and in one night perished. And I now, should I not spare Nineveh, that great city in which are more than 120,000 people who do not know their right hand from their left, besides much cattle?” (Jonah 4:10-11).

 It’s ridiculous to suggest Jonah cared about the plant of course. It was the big thing about God’s merciful disposition that set in motion his fury about the small thing. This time, God’s grace, compassion and enduring devotion, so eloquently voiced by Jonah, outweigh the anger of God’s judgment and set limits around it. In neither Cain nor Jonah’s case does their anger meet with divine disapproval. What God puts up in counterpoint to anger is the need for reconsideration, the need to get on top of the impulse to violence.

In her book Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, Soraya Chemaly reviews a culture that generally tends to disapprove of and therefore suppress expression of anger in women and girls in the United States. She writes, “Anger is a moral emotion that hinges on our making judgments about the people and world around us. … It is not only that we have the right to claim anger. It is that our anger is a moral obligation. If we are willing to spend time, money, and effort for so many other things, surely liberating our anger should make the cut.” Chemaly describes how she once witnessed her mother throwing a very expensive set of dinnerware to smithereens to then continue calmly and smiling with her work and family relationships. Her action apparently enabled her to continue with her tasks but did not contribute to her wellbeing.

Almost 40 years before Chemaly, Christian theologian Beverly Wildung Harrison argued in her essay “The Power of Anger and the Work of Love: Christian Ethics for Women and Other Strangers” that suppressed anger robs us of the power to love, the power to act, and that rather we should “[celebrate] anger’s rightful place within the work of love.” For Harrison, the connection between anger and sin in Christianity spells the death knell for love. For her, anger is not the opposite of love and is a sign that we know all is not well in the world around us and that injustice needs to be addressed.

Suppressed anger hurts. We have a right to our anger and even an obligation to address it. Anger at injustice and discrimination needs to find an outlet. There is no distinction of gender in this need. As people who believe in a God whose mercy and compassion trump God’s anger, we can put ourselves on the side of that equation without giving up our right to be angry. While not giving up that right, we acknowledge at the same time the need to take a step back and control the impulse to violence. At every point we are confronted by the question of what it means in our context to “act well.” Our own wellbeing and the wellbeing of our communities are at stake.

Editors’ note: The biblical quotations in this essay have been translated by Johanna W.H. van Wijk-Bos.