Have you been feeling angry lately? I have spoken to quite a few people who have really been struggling with anger in these last three months. There is a lot of anger raging around on social media (although that’s nothing new). There’s a lot of anger in the streets. And I can say that I personally have been feeling angry. Angry about the death of George Floyd. Angry that rioters have used the death of George Floyd as a pretext to burn, smash, and destroy our downtown and neighborhoods across the country. Angry at the inconsistency of those politicians in our country who have lectured us for three months about social distancing and staying at home – telling us that these things are necessary in order to save lives, and then ignoring all that in order to defend those protests that meet with their approval. Please note, I am not angry about the protests themselves – I think they are the proper response to injustice – but I am angry about the glaring inconsistencies of some politicians.
Anger is a very powerful emotion, and if we let it, it can carry us into very dangerous territory. We have seen the destructive, dividing power of anger. But anger in and of itself is not wrong. In fact, as I mentioned, anger can be the proper response to injustice, when things are not as they should be. We all know that Jesus was angry when he cleared the money changers out of the temple. And in the Old Testament we often hear of God’s wrath. So, the emotion of anger is not in and of itself a sin – although it can and often does lead us into sin.
Anger should not, however, be our default state. Living in a state of constant rage is not healthy, emotionally or physically. God does not want us to live in a state of perpetual anger; rather, He desires that we be at peace, both within ourselves and with others. As St. Paul says in our second reading from his second letter to the Corinthians: “Agree with one another; live in peace.” He is writing of course to a specific Christian community regarding specific issues that they were dealing with. But his words are universally applicable. We ought to strive to live in peace with one another and to cultivate peace within our own hearts.
So how do we live in peace when we feel anger, especially anger that is justified? Remember that what matters is what we do with the anger we might be feeling, how we respond to it. The anger that we might feel has to be directed towards something positive, something that creates positive change. Anger that leads to destruction doesn’t solve anything; it only produces more anger. Or when we just seethe with rage and let the anger fester, but fail to do anything about it, we harm ourselves. The energy that arises when we feel anger has to be given a positive direction. It has to be directed towards cultivating peace.
How do we do that? I would say that first, before anything else, we have to look to ourselves: do I need to make a change in my own life? Are there any inconsistencies or hypocrisy in my own behavior – when I say one thing and do another, or expect a certain kind of behavior from everyone else, but give myself a pass in regards to that same behavior. Quite simply, we have to constantly strive to reform our own hearts – in other words, there has to be a constant process of conversion – of growing in holiness, growing in our relationship with the Lord – because we’re never going to be perfect in this life. We owe it to ourselves, to others, and to the Lord to grow in holiness. Growing in holiness is a matter of justice.
And then I would also add that the anger that we feel should be directed towards making a positive change in the world around us: first in our families, and then in our communities, although it shouldn’t be limited to our own families and our communities. A good example of energy being channeled into something positive was given by the many people who went downtown the day after the riots, not to destroy but to restore, cleaning and sweeping. That’s the right thing to do.
If you feel that there are things inherently wrong with “the system” – and there are – if you feel helpless at being able to change those things because they seem to be operating at a level beyond you – you can still take action, and you can begin in small ways. The accumulation of many, many small, seemingly insignificant actions can bring about true structural change.
God’s wrath that we hear about in the Old Testament – directed against the enemies of Israel, but also against the Israelites themselves for being unfaithful to to the Lord – represents God’s desire to set things right, to right the wrongs, to bring about true justice, which leads to peace. God desires that we live in peace: that we be at peace in our own hearts, and that we live in peace with one another, including with those who we disagree with or who are not like us. And God desires that ultimately we be united with one another and become one with Him: that we enter into the very life and love of the Holy Trinity. This will be the fulfillment of all our longings. And it is in union with the Holy Trinity that we will experience perfect justice and true, lasting, eternal peace.