Preaching to the Choir

These are some sermons, but mostly lectionary discussions. It also has prayers for some Sundays.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Part 2 of Wrath of the 7 Deadly Sins

It is curious to read how often the early Christian writers, especially the monastic writers, singled out anger as one of the most persistent and dangerous of these sins. I say that this is curious because the Bible is filled with stories of anger. The prophets were specialists at anger as they took to task their people for lack of loyalty to the covenant they made with God at Sinai. And we hear in the Old Testament God’s anger with his people for not keeping their part of the covenant. Job cries out in anger at the seemingly unjust state of his being. Jesus not only got angry but, as the Gospels tell us, lashed out in anger at the sellers at the temple, overturning their tables and lashing them with whips of cords.

Thus, the question arises: why did those early Christian writers single out anger as a treacherous condition that puts in danger our lives and poisons our relationship with God? Perhaps it might be useful at the outset to make a distinction between getting angry and being a
an angry person. After all, would it not be a callous person who did not react in anger at the sight of manifest injustice? Are there not things in this world that warrant an angry reaction? Getting angry is different than being an angry person. Everyone, at times, can identify with the character in the movie or book who gets angry with a given situation of abuse or injustice. Everyone gets angry, it is a natural feeling. Latin, shows us a difference in the words for anger; indignation (indignatio) from anger (ira).

It seems like that today we live in an angry world, with America having the highest rate of violent crime in the Western World. Psychologists report that they spend more time helping clients deal with their anger than any other emotion. Just turn on the news and you can see the evidence of the effects of anger such as; terrorism, child abuse, domestic abuse, work place violence, road rage, and many other expressions of violent anger. Today 6 middle schoolers were arrested in on suspicion of plotting to bring guns and knives to school to kill their classmates and faculty in Alaska. The students had planned to disable the Middle School’s power and telephone systems, allotting time to kill their victims and escape from their home town. Apparently, the seventh-graders wanted to seek revenge for being picked on by other students, the Police chief said. They also disliked staff and students, he said. Also this week, on April 21: Five Kansas teens were arrested after details of their alleged shooting plot appeared on MySpace.com Because of this link between anger and violence, it is hard to disagree with those who, over the centuries, have suggested that anger is always undesirable and should be eradicated from the range of human emotions. But all that anger is easy to see and is quite apparent.

By and large the early Christian writers did not always have that kind of anger in mind since that sort was easy to detect. What most worried those writers was that kind of internalized anger fueled by disappointment, wounded pride, real or imagined slights, disappointment with one’s situation in life, or other personal affronts that smoldered within a person, often undetectable by others but becoming a lens through which that person saw all of his social life. In our contemporary vocabulary, we often employ synonyms for this kind of anger. We call it “bitterness” or “resentment.” In a homily on anger the fourth century monk and Bishop Basil the Great called it a “sickness of soul, a darkening of thought, an estrangement from God...a cause of conflict, a fullness of misfortunes.” He ends that catalog indicating that such a person actually gives birth to a “demon” in his soul. Please note that “demon” did not mean a little creature with horns and a forked tail but a “power” (Greek: daimon) that took control of a person.
What ultimately is so bad about internalized anger is this: it hurts not only the person who possesses it, but then so is everyone else. One sees that kind of anger in families where a person “doesn’t speak to” or “freezes out” another member or members because of issues which, perhaps slight at the time, become magnified into a massive grievance that the person constantly rehearses mentally or externalizes by silence in the face of invitations or other gestures of good will. One sometimes sees a similar kind of angry person in the business environment: the employee or colleague who vents his or her internalized anger with passive-aggressive behavior or through little acts of sabotage or, more sadly, through a depressed life of doing as little as possible in order to “get through the day,” enveloped in a fog of barely suppressed unhappiness. Or the person who tries to control things at church, or school or clubs or meetings or in the family.

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