We are sharing this article from a past issue of ONEING on Anger written by Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) faculty member Dr. Barbara Holmes in hopes that her words will inspire people to step across the boundaries of our comfortable certainties and embrace a communal contemplative moment of racial solidarity.
In these times of suffering and disorder, we look for a path to solidarity with those held down by the hands of dehumanizing systems of oppression. Contemplation is a profoundly transformative tool for discerning right action. As Dr. Holmes writes, “During these times of deep division and unnecessary harm to the vulnerable, the anger of decent people everywhere is appropriate. Public and peaceful expression of that anger is a first step toward creating safe boundaries.”
By Barbara Holmes | ONEING Vol. 6 No. 1 | Anger
“Anger can actually be an expression of compassion, a willingness to uphold boundaries that are sacred, or stand up for someone who is being oppressed.” —Julie Peters, The Spirituality of Anger
Anger is intense. Often, there is a flash of heat and disorientation and the need to justify or retaliate. When I was a child, anger was my response to hurt feelings. When offended, I would lash out or run crying to my mom. In her arms, and with her reassurances, I could quell a heat of rage so intense that it threatened to overtake me. Anger is an emotion that consumes mind and body—but sometimes anger is necessary for survival.
I remember the anger of my baby sister, when she was only five years old and I was eight. As the eldest of my siblings, I decided that she could not play with us. I guess, from her perspective, my eight-year-old dictatorial mandates were too much to bear. She got angry, in only the way that a five-year-old can. She leaped on my back, wrapped her little legs around my waist, and bit me as hard as she could.
I was shocked by her anger and tenacity. The pain was secondary. There was not much that I could do: She would not let go, so I ran screaming through the house with my sister attached to my back, biting me. My mother tried to pry her loose but she held on tight. In retrospect, I don’t blame her. I was quite the eight-year-old tyrant. When they finally pried her loose, she was completely oblivious to my parents’ chastising or my tears. Instead, she was clapping and laughing, completely delighted with herself.
The next morning, just as I was waking up, she kissed my face. She was no longer angry, but I saw my tiny sibling in a different light and never excluded her again. This little one was not to be messed with. Her anger opened my eyes and made our relationship better. She was angry, and rightfully so. Her expression of anger was personal.
But anger is not limited to individuals. The anger expressed by marginalized communities is both personal and collective. In either context, righteous anger can be a catalyst for change.
A Theology of Anger
We should not be ashamed of anger. It’s a very good and a very powerful thing that motivates us. But what we need to be ashamed of is the way we abuse it. —Mahatma Gandhi
Many spiritual traditions warn us against anger. We are told that anger provides fertile ground for seeds of discontent, anxiety, and potential harm to self and others. This is true. However, when systems of injustice inflict generational abuses upon people and communities because of their ethnicity, race, sexuality, and/or gender, anger as righteous indignation is appropriate, healthy, and necessary for survival.
Jesus expressed righteous indignation when he encountered the unjust systems of religious and Roman authorities, yet Christian theologies shy away from the integration of anger into their canons. How can churches continue to ignore anger and still be relevant during this era when everyone is angry about everything? People of color are angry about police brutality, white supremacy, white privilege, and economic marginalization.
However, recent polls show that white men are the angriest group in the United States. They feel marginalized although they maintain dominance in the economic and social structures of our society. They feel threatened by immigration, diversity, and their declining percentage of the population. White women are angry about sexual harassment, glass ceilings in their workplaces, and some of the above. With all of this anger permeating society, I am suggesting that we all need a way to channel and reconcile our anger with our faith.
For people of color, we need this outlet to save our lives. We are dying from stress-related diseases and health disorders, with no way to interpret our anger through the lens of faith. Accordingly, I am proposing a theology of anger for communities under siege. A theology of anger assumes that anger as a response to injustice is spiritually healthy. My intent is to highlight three ways that anger can contribute to spiritual restoration.
First, a theology of anger invites us to wake up from the hypnotic influences of unrelenting oppression so that individuals and communities can shake off the shackles of denial, resignation, and nihilism. Cornel West defines nihilism as “the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness.”[i] Second, a theology of anger can help us to construct healthy boundaries. Finally, the healthy expression of righteous anger can translate communal despair into compassionate action and justice-seeking. The Rev. Nelson Johnson reminds us that the dominant culture is also extremely traumatized by its own history of abuse. Many came to the west as bond and indentured servants. The question is whether or not we will recognize our wounds and the source of our anger so that we can heal ourselves and others, and awaken to our potential to embody the beloved community.
Charlottesville was a wakeup call. When angry white men carry torches and march through town chanting Nazi slogans, it’s time to wake up. It was a shock to be reminded yet again that the only nation that I claim as a space of belonging isn’t safe for many of us. To make things worse, the forty-fifth president of the United States openly supported their racism by equating perpetrators and resistors. Perhaps we were naïve when we hoped that the election of one black president would heal our racial tensions.
In the midst of blatant communal oppression, anger wakes us up to the realization that change can only occur when we put our cell phones down and turn off our systems of entertainment. In my book Race and the Cosmos: An Invitation to View the World Differently, I offer the following observation,
We weave gossamer webs of habit and familiarity that lull, sustain, and entangle us. But it is difficult to articulate creative solutions to intransigent problems while dazed.[ii]
For people of color, anger wakes us up from our daze and desire to “fit in,” no matter the cost. Writer Lawrence Ware discusses his own journey toward anger, a journey that ignited his love for the community. He says,
I’d spent most of my life worrying if white folks would like me . . . wanting white employers to look favorably upon me. I spoke in a way meant to make white folks see me as intelligent. My whole life was spent centering whiteness. . . . I’d bought into the lie of white supremacy, and I had unwittingly arranged my life around the white gaze.[iii]
Yes, I am angry about the conditions of black, brown and red people in this country. Yes, I do think that the norms of oppression and marginalization need to change. I am radical, and I am angry. I am all these things because I unapologetically love my blackness and yours.[iv]
During these times of deep division and unnecessary harm to the vulnerable, the anger of decent people everywhere is appropriate. Public and peaceful expression of that anger is a first step toward creating safe boundaries.
Creating Sacred Boundaries
When the human rights of people of color are violated, it is assumed that they will protest a little and forgive quickly. This grotesque ritual was evident after the murders of unarmed black teens by police and after the assassinations at Emmanuel AME Church of Charleston, South Carolina. One day after Dylann Roof killed the pastor and church members during Bible study, the families of the slain began offering forgiveness. They offered forgiveness without repentance, forgiveness without discussion of the underlying racism in this nation that fueled Roof’s anger.
While we know that forgiveness is necessary, our communities and the nation need time to recognize the horror of these events. This is a communal contemplative moment, a time to sit with our anger and consider the path that we are on. Chaplain Joshua Lazard contends that rushing past anger to reconciliation short-circuits the opportunity to have necessary conversations about cause and effect and pathways toward resolution.
Why does society expect the harmed to forgive before the slain are even laid to rest? When my sister bit me, she was the one who kissed my face the next day to restore our relationship. Even at five years old, she knew that she’d hurt me, so she initiated the first steps toward forgiveness. As actor Jesse Williams noted during the 2016 BET awards, “The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander.”[v] Is it the responsibility of the terrorized to forgive quickly, without any acknowledgement of wrongdoing or any attempt to heal the wounds? A theology of anger helps us to move forward when harm is done, but does not require instantaneous forgiveness. Instead, it invites us to create sacred boundaries so that we can express our righteous indignation as the first step toward a process of healing.
If we take a theology of anger seriously, first we come together, then we grieve together, then we consider where we are and where we are going. If there is opportunity, we engage in deep considerations of cause and effect, and we listen for the whispers of the Holy Spirit. Forgiveness is a process, not a quick antidote to hatred’s slow-acting poison. Our health and wholeness require that we take off our masks of Christian piety and do the difficult work of acknowledging our anger, our vulnerability, and our pain. It is this contemplative work that moves us toward forgiveness, for when we recognize our own human frailty, we can more easily forgive the fragility and failings of others.
Channeling Anger for Spiritual Wholeness
This idea of having to explain why it’s racial, while standing in our own blood is silly. It’s racial because it doesn’t happen to white people. —Jesse Williams
Collective and productive anger redirects our attention to the everyday survival and healing of our own community. As Williams notes, we cannot waste our energy explaining our anger when it should be obvious to all. Sometimes the anger of black folks is resistance but, more often, it is grief. During a demonstration in Minneapolis, Minnesota, after the police shot an unarmed black man, pastor Danny Givens of Above Every Name Ministry, publicly and peacefully challenged the Governor of Minnesota. He shouted into a microphone,
Your people keep killing my people. You keep telling me that you are going to do something. I just want you to put some action on it, put some respect on our people’s names. . . . This isn’t black anger. This is black grief![vi]
Pastor Givens wanted the governor to understand that grief, anger, and black joy are hard to separate. At funerals of young people slain by the police, expressions of black joy are common. This is not “joy” in the ordinary sense of the word. This is not the embodiment of the myth of the “happy Negro” dancing mindlessly. This is the communal performance of resistance and resilience through dancing and rhythmic movement. Funeral-car doors fly open, music is thumping, and the community dances its defiance of death and the society that produces it.
We are angry, we are grieving, we are performing black joy as a sign of our determination to survive. When my parents tried to pry my sister off my back, they were, in essence, letting her know that her behavior was inappropriate. My sister refused to respond to their commands because they had not intervened when I was excluding her. She was determined and so are we. She would not let go and neither will the most vulnerable among us. All we have is our tenacity and our refusal to passively submit to aggressions that threaten our existence. Until the killing of black and brown people stops, all peaceful methods of resistance are appropriate. Right now, our anger is our truth, and our anger is a sacred part of our humanity and our faith.
ONEING: Anger features Richard Rohr, Barbara Brown Taylor, Walter Brueggemann, Joan Halifax, Barbara Holmes, Brian McLaren, Mirabai Starr, and others.
[i] Cornel West, Race Matters (New York: Vintage, 1994), 118.
[ii] Barbara A. Holmes, Race and the Cosmos: An Invitation to View the World Differently (New York: T & T Clark, 2002), 15.