The Place of Rage

My guess is that many of you, like myself, grew up in Christian environments that suppressed anger. Particularly as children, we received the well-emphasized message that being angry was ungodly, would lead to sin, and had no place in the faithful Christian life.

As an adult, I often felt a lot of shame when I would get angry. The accusing whisper was always there to remind me, “A good Christian wouldn’t get frustrated and lash out.” Yet many of us have struggled to manage our anger.

Over the years many gay men have shared with me the impact of reading, “The Velvet Rage.” Author Alan Downs unpacks the experience of searching for validation that many LGBTQ+ people experience in unaffirming contexts. He says, “Rage is the experience of intense anger that results from failing to achieve authentic validation.” Downs goes on to say, “[Resolution is] complete acceptance of the self and elimination of toxic shame. Resolution is the manifestation of a gay man who is no longer holding the core belief that he is flawed and unacceptable, and consequently spending most of his energy managing, silencing, and avoiding shame.”

For those who know this journey to intrinsic validation through authentic embrace of the self know just how arduous of a process it can be – but also what a relief it is to feel released from the rage that seems to cause only harm to others and oneself.

Lately, I’ve been pondering a lot about a different sort of experience of rage. How might rage have a part to play in the ongoing work of pursuing justice? If our commitment to cultivate justice is in partnership with Creator, what does God think about our rage?

For a lot of my life in insular Christian community, I was relatively oblivious to the systemic oppression and injustice that pervades our culture, society, and faith communities. And to be honest, I’m mad about that. Why didn’t my pastors and teachers in my Christian schools teach me about these things?

There were likely leaders that had a part in shaping me who did try to share a justice-shaped message. But it would seem that they were drowned out by the overwhelming messages of “submit, obey, and stay away from worldliness.” It would seem that feminism, LGBTQ+ justice, and anti-oppressive frameworks were all assumed to be of the world rather than extensions of the liberation that Jesus embodied and taught.

I was naïve – and it felt like my faith community worked hard to keep me that way.

But this isn’t about blaming others for work I was responsible to do for myself.  That isn’t what my anger is primarily about.

When one begins to awaken, to be attuned to the ways that power, violence, and oppression have been knit into the very fabric of how our communities function, it arouses (or at least it should) an energy and passion that is most easily recognized in the emotion we call rage. At some point, you become sufficiently aware that it can be overwhelming. You see the impact and the implications at every turn. You notice the language people use. You see those who are passed over, erased, at a distinct disadvantage simply because of who they are and where they’re from. You see so much that is wrong in the world.

In “Rage Becomes Her: the power of women’s anger” author Soraya Chemaly asserts that anger is the language of justice and fairness. Her contention is that in policing the emotion of anger, the ability to defend oneself and assert your rights is taken away. She says, “In order to express anger, you have to trust that the person you are in a relationship with is going to respect you enough not to mock or dismiss you. Women don’t have that level of trust in a lot of their relationships and they worry they will be rejected if they express what is important to them.” I think it would be fair to say that many LGBTQ+ folks in faith-based communities feel the same way. It isn’t safe enough to actually express the rage that comes from the micro-aggressions of being othered, erased, and silenced or the macro-aggressions of having your life, love, and faith put up for a vote. And yet, when the expression of rage is prevented, how does one convey the impact? The harm?

It is also critical to note: when rage is not given a safe and healthy outlet – it turns inward. And it makes us sick. Emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and physically.

So how do we use the rage we feel to actually make a difference in the face of injustice and oppression?

Maybe one place to begin is to clarify what isn’t helpful. Relevant posted an article last year titled, “True Justice Work Isn’t Just Outrage”  that reminds us that armchair social-media rage-posting will carry little actual impact on the front-lines. And while this form of slacktivism is rampant, it usually only happens within echo-chambers of people who already agree with you on matters of social justice therefore influencing no one. The article reminds us, “Anger has its place. It can propel us into action, but it isn’t a healthy source to draw our energy from over time.” The article recognizes that being angry can drain us rather than sustain us.

I recently listened to an interview with Sister Joan Chittister, a bad ass nun who has spent her life advocating for justice. In it she said, “Use anger as a holy moment. Anger as grace. I’m a woman. Don’t tell me not to be angry about the suppression of women. I wouldn’t give up that anger for anything. It’s fuel. It will keep me going on behalf of women till ten inches from the edge of the grave. I will not stop.” Sister Joan, however, differentiates between anger as a fuel and pressing for change in an angry way. She calls us to work for change in open, loving, and peace-making ways. Now in her mid-eighties, I think Sister Joan has crucial wisdom for us.

The rage we feel in the face of injustice isn’t something to be ashamed of. It isn’t something to push down or suppress. Nor is it something to wound others with.

It is energy to act.

To speak up: with clarity and conviction.

To call in: those who want to participate but slip up

To call out: those who willfully turn a blind eye to suffering

To build relationship: with those whose experience is different than your own

To cultivate constructive dialogue: embodying peace-building practices with those you disagree with

To step in to ally someone: in situations where you can use your privilege to make way for another

To make the simple, but consistent choices: about language, about practices, about participation

When Jesus saw that people were being oppressed by greedy merchants at the vulnerable place of seeking compliance with Torah for the sake of worship, he acted. John 2: 14, 15 describes the scene: “In the temple courts Jesus found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money.  So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.”

Personally, I’m grateful this was included in our Scriptures. But it’s another “both/and” reality. Most of the time, this isn’t how Jesus responded. Jesus was “troubled in spirit” on many occasions. He knew the fuel of rage. But most of the time he didn’t flip tables. Most of the time, he brought mercy and grace and healing. Jesus was both energized by rage and he responded with the kind of open-hearted compassionate love that Sister Joan advocates.

A podcast called, “Vomiting Rage: Self-Responsibility and Self-Care in the Movement” with guest Rusia Mohiuddin reveals some important things to remember. “It is our duty to know ourselves. It is our duty to truly understand who we are and how we came into our ways of being. It is our duty to know and regularly reflect on our ability to accurately align our values and principles with our actions. We owe it to ourselves first and then to one another. Our individual change process is intertwined with our collective ability to change. This is how we create sustainable change in the world.”

In knowing ourselves, we need to know how we experience oppression and triggers. We need to know what is happening in our body when we experience rage. And we need to cultivate practices that will help us release and redirect the rage we experience in productive ways.

For me, there are two quotes that constantly draw me back to my values – and have been so internalized for me that they have a centering effect:

If I diminish you, I diminish myself. ~ Desmond Tutu

The harder I pursue justice, the blinder I become to the injustice I myself perpetuate. ~ Miroslav Volf

What do you most value? What will bring you back to center?

So, yes, be angry. Be filled with rage even. But don’t hurt yourself or others in your rage. Rather, let it energize you to participate with God in the work of making things right.