The Problem With ‘Righteous Rage’

It’s the kind of line that slips past you if you aren’t reading carefully. Seriously, I’ve been going to church all of my life, and I’ve been in professional ministry for almost 20 years, and I don’t know that I’d ever noticed it before. I was writing a sermon a couple of weeks ago that drew heavily from the book of James, and there it was: “Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires.” (James 1:19-20)

Of course, I was familiar with the part about “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to get angry.” Even if I’m not always particularly good at practicing it, that part was the reason I turned to James in the first place. However, that last line is the one that got me: “Human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires”. You can’t bring about “the righteousness God desires” through anger any more than you can drive a car from South Carolina to Australia. It can’t be done. But we keep trying it anyway, for some reason. We keep trying with rage-filled culture wars. We keep trying with ALL-CAPS rants and character assassination. We keep trying to baptize our own political parties and candidates of choice so we can demonize the others and pour onto them the vitriol that such a status supposedly merits them. We keep trying to angrily coerce the world to adhere to our own preferences which we often unthinkingly equate with God’s preferences. We rage at the world for not conforming to our will, which we often mistake for God’s will. We’ve convinced ourselves that the only way that anyone could disagree with us on anything is if they are ignorant, stupid or evil, and so the wrath we pour out on them is (in our minds) richly deserved. And we often do all of this in the name of Jesus. God forgive us.

We were called to a better way. We were called to transcend and rise above this polarizing, Us v/s Them rage-fest. We’re supposed to know that fighting fire with fire just burns the whole world down. We’re supposed to model self-sacrificial love and kindness. We’re supposed to be full of grace. We’re supposed to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. The ends don’t justify the means. The ends are the means.

At this point, someone inevitably wants to counter with something like, “OK, but what about when Jesus flipped over the tables in the temple? Have you seen what’s going on in the world today? I think it’s about time we started flipping over some tables!” OK. To go fully into all of the interesting things that are going on in that scene is beyond the scope of this blog post. However, let me say this as clearly as I can: Jesus didn’t flip over the tables in the temple in order to give you license to be a jerk to other people (not even on FaceBook). As James says a little farther down in the chapter I initially referenced:

“If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless.” James 1:26

What if we made a conscious choice to infuse the world with grace, love, and forgiveness instead of outrage and vitriol? What if Christians became known in our day for being quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, and for seeking to understand? What if followers of Jesus became known for the respect and civility they showed in the face of difference and even disagreement? What if we had the faith to actually follow Jesus in these ways, even when it’s difficult?