During the spring, I found myself in Indianapolis at a conference with a diverse group of young clergy from around the country. We came to learn at the feet of a catholic nun named Sister Meg Funk. Sister Meg had been studying spirituality for 30 years, guiding religious leaders and practitioners through the discipline of discernment. She gleaned wisdom from multiple traditions and faith practices, particularly from the ancient desert tradition and her friendship with the Dalai Lama.
During one of the seminars, Sister Meg invited us all to listen with the ears of our heart to ancient teachings on “afflicting thoughts” that keep us from spiritual work. Initially, her words were like a balm, soothing our souls from the weary work of ministry. My colleagues and I received her guidance with open hearts – until the Catholic guru began to talk about the “affliction” of anger. She stressed that there is no teaching about “righteous anger.” Rather, thoughts of anger disqualify us from spiritual work.
Immediately, the mood of the room shifted. Ears closed. Hearts hardened. Her words became oil to flame and ignited a room full of fiery, clergy social activists. One African American woman asked Sister Meg a question burning in each of our hearts: “So does this mean righteous anger is the wrong position for the work of justice?
“The position of anger is always easier than the posture of compassion.”
The room whipped back to the Ghandi-like figure before us, waiting for her irritatingly slow, meditative response. For progressive clergy, young and old, righteous anger has become our pièce de résistance. Many of us around that room became pastors because we have a burning in our bones, a fire in our spirit, a torch of courage that blazes against oppressive forces that destroy lives and dehumanize God’s children. (I should add that this description also applies to progressive laypersons I know.)
How can righteous anger not exist, let alone not be a worthy position for the work of God’s justice in the world?
For me, a redheaded, Irish lasse, anger brews in my belly before my morning coffee. Two of my favorite movies are “Braveheart” and “Fight Club.” My go-to Bible characters are Deborah and Jonah. My midday work break includes boxing in my church’s karate room. Anger is the morning energy pill I take alongside my Zyrtec D, aiding me as I solve all the problems of the world.
I was once told that righteous anger is one of my spiritual gifts because I’ve always been ready for a good fight against injustice and for the weak and vulnerable – a fight that places me on righteous side of God’s saving work.
When Sister Meg finally responded, her tone remained gentle, imparting wisdom many of us would ponder for months, if not a lifetime. She explained that God was never the cause of, or motivation for, our “righteous” anger. Anger shrinks our spiritual relationships with self, others and God. Anger diminishes wisdom and insight, dimming and dulling the mind. Anger causes inner blindness.
At one point she smiled at the incredulous faces before her and added, “There is good news; anger is a learned response and, as such, can be unlearned and entirely rooted out.”
“When we are angry we are disqualified from spiritual work because our capacity to love is diminished.”
My thoughts swirled in a smoke cloud of confusion. If anger is not of God, then why do we justify our righteous acts of anger through the lens of God’s justice in the world? I can think back to a number of biblical scenarios where God’s justice and vengeance were attributed to the slaughtering of hundreds if not thousands of men, children and women. This is often how we define righteous anger – fighting against evil, fighting for justice in the name of God, allowing us to justify our right positions.
Sister Meg continued unraveling this infuriating truth. She said that thoughts of anger are not sinful in themselves but rather afflictions that can cause our soul to be inaccessible. When we are angry we are disqualified from spiritual work because our capacity to love is diminished. With the patience of Mother Teresa, Sister Meg ended her lecture with this statement:
“In the face of injustice and oppression, the only option is a compassionate, nonviolent response.”
The word compassion resounded like a clanging gong in my head. I get the nonviolent part and believe I’m capable of protesting without punching anyone. But, in the face of injustice, compassion can be tricky. The blaze of anger and hate can burn bright in the hearts of our enemies and, if we aren’t careful, it can also burn down the homes of our own hearts.
Compassion is not a position we take with our bodies but rather a posture we hold with our heart. A nonviolent approach derives out of a posture of love that keeps our hearts pure in the fight for justice
As I have continued to study the works of Sister Meg, I have determined that righteous anger is indeed the wrong position for the work of God’s justice. Righteous anger always puts God on the “right” side. Yet, when we scroll through history we find crucifixions and crusades, Hitler villains and hate crimes, individuals and groups – all believing that God was on their side, the side of righteousness.
Anger, no matter how righteous, puts our spirit in the wrong position.
“A nonviolent approach derives out of a posture of love that keeps our hearts pure in the fight for justice.”
The harsh truth is that we are afflicted with anger. We get angry when we watch the news, read our Facebook feed, listen to NPR or the pastor’s Sunday sermon. Our anger boils over in response to racist prison systems, dehumanizing immigration laws, violence against women, school shootings, climate crises, nuclear threats; the lists can go on and on.
Anger afflicts our thoughts, closes our ears and constricts our hearts.
The position of anger is always easier than the posture of compassion. Anger itself is not evil; however, it is a state of mind that can inflict harm without discrimination. When we choose the position of anger, we place ourselves in packs or tribes that segregate us into groups – liberal or fundamentalist, conservative or progressive, Democrat or Republican – that keep us from living lives that are compassionate toward all people, even the ones we love to hate.
Compassion allows us to see and act on the other side of anger. Compassion softens our hearts, placing our spirits in a posture of humility where we find God’s indiscriminate grace. This divine grace is the doorway that transitions us from the position of righteous anger to the posture of compassionate love, calling us all to partner in the work of God’s justice.
The posture of compassion gives us courage to participate in protests for the salvation of our planet, in women’s marches for equality and in world hunger campaigns. This posture is also countercultural for much of contemporary western Christianity. Compassion is a contemplative posture rooted in prayer, bringing us humbly to our knees before we carry the cross of Christ.
In her book, Discernment Matters, Sister Meg writes, “When we reverse anger, we imitate Christ accepting the role of self-sacrifice and we consent to lay down our life for another. To endure unjust persecution is the cost of discipleship.”
When Christ calls us to discipleship, we must remember that God is not wrathful. God is not angry. God is good. God is love. And so is the compassionate, sacrificial fight for justice.