MANAGING OUR ANGER (John 2:13-22): 09 November 2008 (Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome)
There’s a small ethnic tribe in the southern Sierra Madre on the east side of Luzon called the Ilongot tribe. The interesting thing about their language is that it has no word for “anger.” The closest term they have for it is “liget”—which means “energy or passion,” not exactly anger.
The English language, on the other, has so many synonyms for “anger.” Just for the fun of it, I googled to check out these synonyms, and found not just a lot of words, but also a lot of colorful expressions like “lose your cool,” “have a fit,” “be up in arms,” and “go on the warpath.” My favorites are those that deal with what we do when we get angry, like “see red,” “gnash your teeth,” “hit the roof,” and especially “foam at the mouth.”
According to one sociologist, this tells us that we English speakers probably get angry a whole lot more than the Ilongots. (By the way, there are only 2,500 of them left today.) Of course the article where I read this also casually mentions a study that the Ilongots go headhunting. Okay, so I suppose this means that if an Ilongot headhunter chops off your head, at least you can be sure it’s not because he’s angry!
Anyway, one thing I think our gospel talks about today is anger. Our Gospel story, which is known as the “Cleansing of the Temple,” may as well be a crash course on anger management. It tells us that what our Lord does when he sees the merchants and money changers conducting their business in the temple. According to the Gospel:
“He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money-changers
and overturned their tables, and to those who sold doves he said,
“Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”
His words and actions say it all. Our Lord “saw red,” “hit the roof,” and was “up in arms.” There’s no denying it: Whether we like it or not, our Lord was pretty angry. Some of us may find this a disturbing scene. Many of us probably prefer the gentler Jesus: Jesus as the Good Shepherd who cradles the beloved sheep in his arms–even if it’s a black sheep! We wince, listening to Jesus’ angry words, slightly worried that when we do finally come face-to-face with him, he might just say similarly angry words at us.
Some of us may also wonder: Isn’t anger one of the seven deadly sins, by the way? If that’s the case, what do we make of an angry Jesus? Does this mean that the Lord committed a deadly sin?! And also, what about our own anger—because we all experience anger even if we don’t necessarily express it or do so in different ways?
Is it wrong to be angry?
I think here we can turn to one of the wisest theologians of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas. Basically, he teaches that anger is not necessarily sinful. Just because we’re angry doesn’t mean we’re guilty of some deadly sin. Anger, after all, is a human emotion, and there is nothing wrong about experiencing an emotion. Experiencing anger is not a sin. Anger is natural and, Aquinas tells us, can be a good thing. When we think about it, feeling angry, in fact, shows that we care enough about something to be affected.
To find out if our anger is good or bad, we need to examine two things: why we are angry in the first place, and what we do with our anger.
In the scene at the temple, our Lord got angry because he was against what the merchants and moneychangers were doing: They weren’t just conducting business in the temple, but, biblical scholars tell us, the kind of business they were conducting was actually pretty corrupt. So our Lord was angry at something wrong. According to Aquinas, if we are angry at something wrong or evil, then our anger is actually good! For example, we experience anger because we see someone oppressing and hurting another person. In such a case, what we are feeling is holy and righteous anger.
Saint Thomas Aquinas even wrote that when anger is an attack against the evil, and one ignores this evil and does not get angry at it, the result is sadness. Interesting…
But that’s not enough. We also need to look at what we do with our anger. In the Gospel, our Lord didn’t just feel angry, then walked away to sulk by himself, all his emotion bottled up inside him. He actually expressed his anger–and how! I think what this tells us is that expressing our anger isn’t exactly wrong either. There are certain occasions when it is actually healthy and even necessary to express our anger—not just for our own good, but especially for the good of others. How we should express this anger varies from case to case. Often it’s enough to tell the person concerned how what he or she does makes us feel. On other occasions, however, as our Lord demonstrates for us, stronger words and actions are necessary just to get the message across.
What is crucial is not the specific way in which we express anger since there is just no formula for this. Rather, what is crucial is that like our Lord, we remain masters of ourselves even in anger; that we do not allow ourselves to become helpless to our anger, be enslaved by it, get carried away, and say or do things that we will regret later. If there is one thing our Lord can teach us about expressing our anger, it is this: That we must express our anger only out of love, only for the purpose of correcting the situation that has caused the anger, and only with the intention of helping the person concerned to improve himself or herself.
I don’t know about you, but when I look at those conditions, I immediately realize how tough the Lord’s idea of anger management is!
And on the other hand, as we know, things can be very different if our motive for expressing our anger is to get back at others, to hurt the person who has hurt or offended us. In other words, a desire for revenge. This kind of anger is far from holy and righteous. It is unholy and self-righteous anger, and that’s actually the kind of anger that qualifies as one of the seven deadly sins. The problem, however, is that this kind of anger is so much fun. Let me quote author Frederick Buechner when he describes it because he puts it so well:
“To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”
When what we want is revenge, when what we crave for is to get back at others, that’s not holy and righteous anger. Rather, it is unholy and self-righteous anger. And that’s the best formula for getting carried away, when we express our anger disproportionately—and in the process, hurt others unnecessarily. Of course, as we know all too well, we end up regretting our words and actions afterwards.
This business of anger management is especially difficult when it comes to people who are closest to us, our families and our dearest friends, the ones we love the most because it is to they that we are, whether we like it or not, particularly vulnerable. Precisely because of our vulnerability, we often end up becoming helpless to our anger and say very hurtful things. But we must remember that unforgettable line that writer Robert Fulghum has written: “Rocks and stones may hurt our bones; but words—they break our hearts.”
So here’s a Quick Question for you: “In what way do you need to work on youranger management? It may help to think about the reasons or persons that usually cause you to ‘see red’ or ‘hit your roof’.” Think about it, and if you feel up to it, share a thought, a feeling, or a question. Who knows? It might help another reader.