Why so angry? Two pastors share an Appalachian perspective

“The silent majority” and the “despair of White rural Appalachia” are two of our least favorite expressions from the past few years. Pollsters, pundits and national media voices have looked to Appalachia to explore the idea of the angry White voter who feels disenfranchised with the way the country is going. This stereotype is simply another version of “hillbilly” shaming and of misunderstanding what constitutes Appalachia.

Ever since the sensationalized Hatfield and McCoy feud, people have cast Appalachia as a place of wild and lawless anger that is backward, naive and dangerous. These images accompany the unspoken invitation for others, even those well-meaning, to come help the mountain people learn what is proper and civilized.

The truth is that Appalachia and “hillbillies” are not any angrier than the rest of America. People are tempted to deflect national conversations by blaming oppressed regions like Appalachia, rather than pause and reflect on the more universal pains causing this present national anger. If we would allow ourselves a time of stillness and silence, we might realize that the anger of America runs much deeper than Appalachia — and it is not as simple as “angry voters” or sensational partisan politics. Yes, there is anger in Appalachia, just as there is anger in the nation. Yet what concerns us the most is the anger in our pews. This righteous anger is harder to acknowledge and even more difficult to discuss.

Friend, are you angry?

“Angry … no, I am not angry.”

“Are you sure? You seem angry.”

“No, I promise I am not. I just sometimes get frustrated and concerned, not angry.”

As we talk with fellow believers about anger, the conversation usually starts as an awkward dance. Many do not want to use the language of anger, even when they display all the signs of it. There is an unspoken sense that anger is less holy, that it is simply not a good look for Christians.

Let’s be honest. Christians are angry, and our anger is not always as sanctified or refined as some would like. Yes, anger is natural and normal; and, frankly, anger is a healthy reaction to some deeply concerning matters and situations. At times, our interpretation of our faith and church practice can make us struggle with anger.

Anger is an uncomfortable emotion for us as pastors, too, and we find it hard to engage with fellow believers. At times, we find it hard to be open with our anger or to receive the anger of others in the church. Rather than diving into our personal reasons for avoiding anger, though, we do wonder: Why are so many Christians angry, and why are we all feeling anger at such an intense level these days?

At a gut level we want to blame politicians, media pundits and social media. Yet in a not-too-distant past, we have had more divisive elections, troubling political leaders and polarizing journalism. Today we cannot blame politics — a more complex answer is needed. Christians are angry for a host of reasons, and the reasons are layered and various.

Stressed out

Believers are worn out and stressed out. These last few years have been really hard and crushing in a variety of ways. From death to sickness, isolation to alienation, acute distress to long-term consequences of COVID-19, the church has been engaging a daily battle with a pandemic of death. Frankly the stress of being under constant threat from this global pandemic has only increased our levels of concern, fatigue and apprehension. And the isolation of compassionately withdrawing from things like church, hugs with loved ones, spontaneous trips with friends and large college hangouts is leaving us shattered. Having less time to reflect, living in a pandemic and being lonely: all of these things mix together to make people upset. (Just typing this sentence and recognizing the losses is getting us worked up.) Stress puts us on edge, and extreme reactions are more common when we’re on edge.

Worn out by not being replenished

More than ever, Americans – even people of faith – are less likely to exercise spiritual disciplines such as praying, meditating, attending church and honoring holy days by withdrawing from usual commerce. Today more and more people go shopping, run errands, attend sport events and work on Sundays. Today, rather than having a community meal at church or hiking with family, people are more likely to binge on Netflix or get caught up on fantasy football while trying to simultaneously pay the bills, do laundry or catch up on those chores around the house. A 2016 Deseret News poll found that only one in 10 Americans is likely to engage in any form of meditation or contemplation on Sabbath, and only one in four attend church.

As the nation pushes ever closer to a 24/7 pace, our bodies are not wired to drive this hard. We need rest. Today we strive to achieve machine-like levels of functioning by sleeping less, working more and doing less spiritually replenishing activities — hence we are cranky. Our crankiness manifests in angry social media posts, fights at church and a willingness to surrender ourselves to more intense political loyalties as a way to engage in suburban warfare.

Rather than unplugging on a Sunday, we keep plugging in, all day long. We consume a double portion of social media, and we watch news to the point of overload. These systems of propaganda and commodification are fueling the “us vs. them” mentality. “Othering” people appears to be a sport now, one that gives us permission to dehumanize and villainize really anyone at all. The 24-hour cycle of social media and news continues to inform us about how and at whom to be outraged next. We are perpetually setting ourselves up for rage rather than replenishing ourselves with beautiful things like sleep (see Psalm 127:2). We deprive ourselves of sleep as we continue to stay plugged in. A 2008 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that insufficient sleep among U.S. adults is a health epidemic. When we lack sleep, we get angry.

Fearful and afraid

In addition to being highly stressed and physically worn out, many Christians are afraid. Although we would do well to heed Scripture’s regular refrain of “fear not,” in reality, many are fearful and nervous due to our loss of control.

Emotions are interconnected, and one emotion often leads to another. In a 2018 Psychology Today blog post, cognitive scientist Paul Thagard explained that those who feel out of control often then feel afraid, and it is a short step from fear to anger. So if you fear a person or a force, then you may get angry at them because they have motivated your fear.

It should not surprise us, therefore, that people who feel powerless and afraid in our current circumstances may respond in anger. Many feel out of control with the changing nature of the environment, increased costs, lower wages and rapid social changes. These almost instantaneous changes, especially in the last few years, cause some to feel forced to change how they live. Even the perception of loss is driving fear.

Believers are specifically fearful of the unknown future of their churches, communities and nation. Imagine your church attendance is now down by a third or even a half, and you are afraid that your church may close. Fear of being lost in the transition, of losing out in the changes or of failing in navigating the changes also heightens anger.

Change fatigue and rapid cultural change

In fear, people often deny the reality of change fatigue. Step back for a minute and breathe in the changes of 25 years. In 1996, there was no social media, smartphones, texting, Facetime, online bill pay, Amazon Prime delivery, Uber, Wikipedia or selfies. If we had introduced ourselves using preferred pronouns or discussed our concerns for fake news then, almost all Americans would have scratched their heads and wondered what we were talking about.

Today, people are literally flying into space recreationally and cars are driving themselves. As the world changes rapidly, some believers are upset at the pace of change. Many are having a hard time with the ways in which even good changes are occurring so quickly. One way to deal with change fatigue is to hold on to stability in such organizations like the church and then get really mad if the church also wants to change practices, policies or methods. Some go to church to exercise control; at times, that power dynamic gets disturbed, and people get mad. Many feel that the church, traditions and Christian practices need not change — or could at least change over a much longer span of time. Some of this rapid change is typified by what we term “radical social correctness.” With hyper change comes a spectrum of people’s abilities to shift, evolve and grow with the changes.

When a person is convinced that a particular change is wrong – or just wants to slow down the pace and slowly warm up to new concepts – they may find changes forced on them. They then feel unheard, out of control and mad about how “it is getting bad out there.” Today, some Christians are angry because they feel dramatically unheard and radically misunderstood. Among the biggest sources of anger are changes in family and human sexuality. In a time of “cancel culture” and extreme labeling, a Christian who raises concerns about social issues can feel dismissed, harassed, dehumanized and, even worse, demonized. The social issues get the blunt of our anger because they feel within our reach of control, whereas the larger and disempowering changes feel colossal. We can scream at Facebook friends about their lifestyle changes, their political views or their resistance to change. But the loss of our own job, career or even industry is just too much to wrestle with. We angrily go after what we think we can change.

Disempowerment and lack of responsibility

The overwhelming losses make many feel marginalized and powerless. For example, in central Appalachia, the devastating loss of coal jobs over the last 10 years has dramatically changed families and disenfranchised many. Sadly, many outside the region underestimate how much pain and grief these changes have caused. As people have pushed to change the energy production of the nation, the workers of an entire industry feel forgotten. People have seen the failure of the systems that support them, and they see people do whatever they want without consequences. Corporations wipe out retirements. CEOs make decisions that endanger and harm people. Yet business leaders do not go to jail, or else they escape with minimal fines.

Many believers feel that those in power have no consequences and that their sense of entitlement is trickling down to the average American. Anger is rising because many feel that a lot of people are not following through on expectations and that people are living out the reality of negligent entitlement. Many are asking, “When will someone take responsibility for their actions?”

People in the pews can then feel that seeking to make polite changes is a truly helpless endeavor, and that only getting angry and loud can possibly make change happen. So many feel that they are unable to affect real change.

We in Appalachia see everyday how powerlessness and disempowerment fuel the fires of addiction. The pains of addiction are making us mad. Addiction is ripping apart families, destroying local hopes and killing a generation. Communities are lined with tombstones. Drug companies are docked with minimal fines for their willful negligence. Surrounded by these realities, there is a basic absence of hope in Appalachia. Many feel that things will not improve for them. Those who lack hope are likely to respond with anger.

Outrage feels good

Seeing people get away with death and destruction makes people angry. Yes, anger is on the rise, but the venting of it is getting more public. As Amy Fleming notes in a 2020 article for Science Focus, personal, handheld and smart technologies allow us to vent instant rage 24/7 across a global stage.

Social media accounts mean we all have a platform from which to shout our outrage. Psychotherapist Aaron Balick, in a 2016 interview with No Don’t Die, says that the more primitive the defenses we have, the better it feels to express our anger. He says, “If you can really just be angry at someone and think that somebody is wrong and show them how wrong they are, that actually feels good.”

“So, if there’s a tweet that you can use as evidence that they’re wrong, even though you’re doing that by taking it out of context,” he explains, “you can use that as an excuse to feel good by getting a bunch of crap off your chest which actually has very little to do with that other person or what’s going on. It has much more to do with you expressing a series of emotions that you have that have been as yet unprocessed.”

In an age when instant gratification is on the rise, expressing anger helps people feel better in the short term. Believers also get a boost of energy by expressing rage. As people are worn out and disempowered, the momentary good feeling of expressing anger offers us a temporary relief from the rapidly changing world and our growing sense of being out of control.

“And also with you”

Amid this time of anger, pastors, church leaders and fellow believers are feeling the same emotions as the rest of the nation. These feelings are leading many to deconstruct their faith, resign their pastorates or slowly fade from regular church attendance. In one sense, this anger can be right. An anger toward those with power who take advantage of the disempowered certainly echoes Old Testament prophets (see Ezekiel 22:9).

Yet there is hope! Jesus said, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while” (Mark 6:31). As we hear this invitation from Christ, let us be more diligent and supportive of personal and communal devotional practices. More than ever we need to engage in spiritual formation and to spend time with the Lord in stillness and silence. Jesus also said, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life” (John 6:27).

Be encouraged that the Lord is inviting us to spend ourselves for things that last rather than temporarily filling ourselves with less satisfying things like outbursts of anger. Pause when drafting that social media post. Give it a day before you send the email. Consider unplugging for the day. Give yourself to more lasting things instead like laughing with a friend, sharing your faith or hugging your children. Nourish yourself on the things of eternity rather than momentary fetishes and Pixy Stix highs that fade.

Finally, Jesus is the one who is known by his way of being gentle. Remember what is said of him: “He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until he brings justice to victory” (Matthew 12:20). As your anger rises and the injustices rage around you, please know that you do not need to break others nor be broken in the process. Victory belongs to the Lord, and justice will be God’s.