“Get Behind Me, Satan!” Anger as a Christian Virtue
It has been far too long since I have blogged!
Covid—not the virus, but the consequences of its broad scale havoc played out in our little world—has claimed our family’s attention, complicated by a significant three-fer brain, spine, and abdominal surgery for my son in mid-July, which happily resolved issues that have been causing us consternation and deep concern for about ten months.
We’re just now catching our breath, right in time for the breathless beginning of school—however that will look!
While I haven’t been able to write as I’d like, I do have several blogs in my mental queue.
But the below is the first of several in the upcoming weeks that I’ll put forth.
It’s a sermon I preached last Sunday, August 30th, at my beloved home congregation, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church.
You can find the video of the worship service here, although it is a trimmed version of what I have written below. The sermon begins at 33:30 into the service.
Here is also an audio link of the sermon, recorded while I was sitting crouched on the floor in a second-floor very Harry-Potter-esque and quite full closet, because my beloved 83-year-old father was downstairs, bamming nails into a floor he’s brilliantly installing for us, because he’s amazing.
So if you don’t watch the video, that scene can be your substitute visual!
In it, with great assists from Soroya Chemaly, Hannah Arendt, and, of course, the texts (found at the end of this blog, from Jeremiah, and the Psalms, and Paul, and Matthew) of the day and the contexts of the day, I fuss with the uncertain, uncomfortable relationship Christians have with anger.
Despite our reluctance to express, let alone recognize, our own anger, anger itself is a force for justice, a calibration to righteousness, and a rejection of acquiescence to the powerful and corrupt.
In the texts from the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, we hear that very notion powerfully expressed, in more ways than one, from Jesus.
Grace to you, and peace, from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Siblings in Christ, we Christians, we have an anger problem.
And our problem with anger, our anger issue, is that we have no idea what to do with anger.
And I am here to say that, at first blush at least, the texts for today are not in the least helpful to us to sort matters out.
Jeremiah, in not one of his most bright-spirited, optimistic moments, prays for retribution upon his enemies, and lays the reasons for his own indignation squarely at God’s feet.
And not mincing a single word or leaving anything to the imagination, the psalmist condemns the worthless—among whom, he makes a point of noting, he has not “sat” (using a Hebrew word which doesn’t mean, literally, to ‘sit’ with, like on a bus or park bench or coffee hour table, but rather “hung out with,” or, more starkly, “became like,”) nor did he cozy up with the deceitful, and moreover, the psalmist even ‘hates’—hates!—the evildoers!
That all seems to give anger some room to do its thing, and with some measure of divine blessing.
But then along comes Paul, far more placid, far more diplomatic—and far more pleasing to and resonant in our ears—who speaks not of hating the evildoers but of hating evil, and of living in peace, of feeding enemies and giving them refreshment, and of overcoming evil with good.
And yet along comes Jesus, who seems to have known the freedom of Jeremiah and the psalmist, and he steamrolls right in to our lectionary on this day, this paradigm of love, this model of benevolence, seen in our collective minds’ eye as laughing with his head thrown back, as gently carrying that lost and forlorn sheep, as gathering the (always well-behaved) children around him, we see this one whirling around to Peter, the one he’d just called the Rock, and up and call him a stumbling block, of all things, instead.
Like, clever as that is, what an epic slam: from rock to block.
But even more shocking, Jesus bellows out, “Get behind me SATAN!”
He called Peter Satan!
Were Matthew to have had a wide-eyed emoji at hand, he would have totally whipped it out onto the sheepskin parchment, right here, I tell you what.
Yet as often as not, we hear the text read, “Get behind me, Satan.”
But if you have enough energy to say those sorts of words, you absolutely have enough energy to yell them.
Get behind me Satan, said our Lord Jesus, the Christ, to Peter.
That is not Minnesota nice.
That is not tactful.
That is not “appropriate.”
How, we might wonder, as these days is often expressed with a shaking head and scolding finger and with wishes for civility instead of anger, how will Jesus win Peter to his side if he raises his voice?
If he speaks so bluntly?
If he speaks truth?
If he calls a thing what it is is?
He should just be nice.
So what’s the collective Scriptural take-away here?
Is anger ok or not?
Is rage holy or unrighteous?
It’s a question, of course, that’s presently pressing upon us politically, culturally, socially, and even within our own families.
En masse, we are in every one of those very spheres steeped in anger, like a bag of tea left too long in the cup, the hot beverage becoming thick and bitter.
But we tend drink it, we drink it anyway, lips pursed in both disgust and forced politeness.
“No, no, it tastes fine, really,” we say, swallowing the sludge down with a taut smile.
Everything is fine.
Everything is awesome, we say politely.
In fact, of course, everything is everything but fine, and few things are awesome.
So our ambivalence about anger has to do with many things, I believe.
Politeness, for one: it is not polite to be angry.
Anger is not nice.
And in the land famous (infamous?) for being nice, being angry is out of decorum, is a breach of ethic, it defies the code.
And anger causes conflict…though more precisely, this perceived emotional problem child is only recognizing and naming conflict.
Anger forces people to wrestle in the open with disagreement, to own what one says and to dispute that which is claimed by another.
Anger is neither pleasant nor pretty: red faces, raised voices, rapid pulses, and sometimes irreparable breaches.
And so it is better, we tend to think, it is in fact best, of course, to gloss the problem over.
To ignore it.
To pretend it doesn’t exist.
But here’s the thing.
The reasons for the anger do exist.
There are legitimate reasons, not least of all during these deeply troubled, troubling days, to be angry, and, like Jeremiah, like the psalmist, to be angry precisely in the very name of God.
See, I read Paul’s words and I worry about the women and girls who perhaps just last night, perhaps even this morning, have been abused verbally, physically, emotionally, sexually by men in their lives, by people who should be trusted but have squandered that privilege, and they come to hear the Word of God on Sunday which, they might think, tells them to bring their abuser another latte to them in the early morning and it will get better, promise.
And I want to say to them: wait! Wait!
No, no, that’s not what Paul meant.
That’s not what God meant.
You are not meant to be harmed.
You, too, are to be loved, to be tended, to be safe.
Instead Paul’s words are, in part, a promise to not doubt that God knows justice, and will wield it.
It’s a reminder to, as Michelle Obama so famously said, go high when they go low.
Do not sit with them.
Do not become like them.
Do not let your anger be denied so that you lose hope and lose yourself.
It turns out that the more that we suppress our anger, that we gloss it over, that we stay silent instead of speaking up with righteous indignation at wrongs in the world at large or in our small, personal world, the more we end up protecting those causing harm rather than those suffering it—including ourselves.
We write them a carte blanche, we give them a pass, there are no repercussions for their actions, we allow it and thereby endorse, and empower, whatever it is that in fact is reason for, gives root to, legitimate, righteous anger.
But even that, even that, isn’t quite the full story, because a competing truth is that the more that we suppress our anger, that we gloss it over, that we stay silent instead of speaking up with righteous indignation, we even leave the harm-causers vulnerable to their own harm.
Our silence, our fake smiles, our let’s-pretend-that-didn’t-happens, our it’s-best-to-be-nice-s, it all continues not only to allow the sufferers to continue to suffer, but it continues the harm-inflicters to continue to harm.
They never know it’s not ok.
They never see the pain that they inflict on others and therefore that they inflict on themselves.
The “pinned tweet” on the ELCA Twitter page says about the rampant killings of black people, “This is an existential threat to people of color. It must be an existential threat to white people too.”
So who’s gonna tell ‘em?
Someone’s got to tell them.
Recently, for some research on a project I’ve got before me, I picked up Soroya Chemaly’s book Rage Becomes Her. Chemaly has dived into the study of women’s anger: the way we suppress it, the way it is disdained and disallowed by the world, and how instead we, and the world, ought rather to pay acute attention to it.
In 2013, when George Zimmerman was acquitted after killing Trayvon Martin in 2012, Alicia Garza inadvertently founded the Black Lives Matter movement, simply by ending a Facebook post rueing the verdict with the words “black lives matter.” Seven years later, with the hashtag #BLM, adorned with T-shirts and pins and bumper stickers, people are walking the streets, kneeling in stadiums, postponing games, and, moreover, painfully, still needing to.
Chemaly spoke with Garza about her activism, and what inspires her to engage with the Powers That Be. Garza replied, “Anger at injustice is one part of what motivates me. But it is not a sustainable emotion in and of itself. It has to be transformed into a deep love for the possibility of who we can be. Anger can be a catalyst, but we cannot function on anger alone. When it’s not used properly, it can quickly become destructive. That’s why love is important: love connects us to what we most care about; what we yearn for,” (251).
See, says Garza, and Chemaly throughout her entire book, anger is an emotion that lets a person know that something is off: there is an unacceptable distance between what is and what should be. Justice is wanting, and righteousness is therefore too.
And anger is an indication that you care enough to notice, to react, and to do something about it.
But what is the ‘ït?’
What deserves anger?
Our texts today begin to give us some ideas.
The anger with which the texts dance is not capricious anger, is not petty anger, is not anger that is mistaken for aggression or unhinged, unfounded violence.
It is righteous indignation based not on our evaluations of what should be vs. what is, but on God’s.
Jesus hauled off and called out Peter, with the added nice-touch detail of calling him ‘Satan,’ because Peter didn’t believe that following Jesus means you’re going to run into discomfort, awkward moments, conflict, and even death.
He still didn’t grasp that Jesus’ ways are not the world’s, by and large.
Arguably, we who call ourselves Christians still don’t either.
Jesus welcomed strangers, and exhorted us to too.
Instead, we build walls.
Jesus said to let the children come to him.
Instead, we put them in cages and tear them from their parents.
Jesus said to feed the hungry.
Instead, we cut SNAP funding.
Jesus said to heal the sick.
Instead, we scream at employees who insist that customers wear masks, and we create policies which make access to health care an impossibility for the poor and unemployed.
Jesus said to love our neighbors, and instead we segregate neighborhoods.
It is outrageous.
While Jesus was informed by his heavenly father, let’s be clear: his earthly mama shaped him too, this woman who declared in the name of God that the powerful did not deserve their thrones but deserved rather to be thrown from them, that the rich would learn of emptiness while the poor would learn what it is to be sated, that the proud would be humbled and the humble would know pride.
She understood the agenda of God.
She spoke uncomfortable truth.
She lays out the grounds for righteous indignation: where you see disparity in any of these ways, there is reason to rise up in holy anger, because if you do not, you acquiesce to evil or succumb to a dangerous, willful obliviousness to it.
Peter, of course, Peter knew the risks.
He knew that the powers that like things the way they are do not like to have holy, and contrary, truth pointed out.
Peter knew that if Jesus felt it incumbent upon him to, as years later brother Martin Luther would say, “call a thing what it is,” he’d die.
And we can’t have that.
But here’s the thing: one of the most harmful tendencies of the Christian Church is to spiritualize death, or at the least, to restrict it to “taking a last breath.”
Any of us know, however, any of us who have an aversion to, say, anger, we know you don’t need to croak to die.
Speaking out, calling out, being outraged at injustice will cause death.
That’s a promise.
Righteous anger can and will cause the death of friendships, of love relationships, of familial relationships, of collegial relationships, of Facebook friends, of security on any number of levels.
But here’s the freeing thing: naming evil can also bring death to evil.
You expose evil for what it is.
Rather than allowing injustice to prevail at the expense of the least of these, who depend on your voice—and let us not forget that you yourself might deserve your anger on your own behalf—, rather than trusting the power of death more than you are trusting the promise of life, rather than ceding death a win, your anger can recalibrate a situation so that it is aligned not with evil, not with death, but with gospel hope and life.
See, here’s the thing that Jesus knew, and what he longed that Peter knew, and that I long for Christians to know is this: the Gospel is not “be nice.”
The Gospel is not “avoid conflict.”
The Gospel is that Jesus is risen from the dead.
And, if that is true, as my mentor Walt Bouman said time and time again, “Now that you know that death doesn’t win, there is more to do with your lives than preserve them.”
“Now that you know that death doesn’t win, there is more to do with your lives than preserve them.”
When, that is, when we refuse to give expression to our anger, we are preserving our lives, and we are preserving, we are protecting, the power of death.
That’s no way for a Christian to be, for we are resurrection people.
We live according to the call of Jesus, which, as this text makes clear, will call us to death, but which also calls us to life.
Jesus was angry with Peter because when push came to shove, quite literally, in the end, Peter trusted death rather than Jesus.
When our mouths stay silent, when we let dysfunctional systems stay intact, when our silence, our our apathy, or our pleasant smiles allow leaders and those who support them to, for example, pass white supremacists as very fine people, we are no better than Peter.
And you can bet that Jesus is not saying to us gently, sweetly, nicely, “Get behind me Satan.”
He’s bellering it out! To us! “GET BEHIND ME SATAN!”
Because Satan, the ambassador of death, lives off of benign silence and feigned politeness.
That’s how Satan gets its power.
A Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt spoke of that very thing when she detailed the Nürnberg Trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of Hitler’s Nazis, and an architect of the Holocaust.
Arendt coined the term “the banality of evil,” as she mused about how ordinary people, folks like you and me, can empower totalitarian regimes of hate, racism, bigotry, and violence.
Evil can become, and in some cases arguably has become ordinary. The norm. Tolerable.
But not if you follow Jesus.
Chemaly writes, “Anger has a bad rap, but it is actually one of the most hopeful and forward thinking of all our emotions. It begets transformation, manifesting our passion and keeping us invested in the world. It is a rational and emotional response to trespass, violation, and moral disorder. It bridges the divide between what ‘is’ and what ‘ought’ to be, between a difficult past and an improved possibility.” (xx) “In anger, whether you like it or not, there is truth…Anger is the expression of hope” (295).
Anger is the expression of hope.
Now there’s a plot twist.
Sort of like the dead guy rising again.
See, when we are angry, whether we realize it or not, we are announcing to ourselves and to the world both truth and that there must be a better way.
And as Christians, we announce to ourselves and to the world that we know that there is a better way, for our selves, for those crushed by systems of violence, degradation, bigotry, racism, misogyny, classism, and self-absorption, and also by those who wield such things with finesse, willfulness, and neither compunction nor consequence.
Anger, that is, is just as Chemaly, just as Jeremiah, just as the Psalmist, just as Jesus, and if you squint, even Paul in this text says, anger is an indication that something is not right.
And if it is not right, it is not righteous.
And if it is not righteous, it is an ambassador of some form of death.
And Christians, in contrast, are ambassadors of life, are those who defy death, are those who call a thing what it is, are those who get angry, and in so doing, do not reward evil with evil, but rather reward it with goodness and truth and life.
The Texts for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, August 30, 2020
FIRST READING Jeremiah 15:15-21
15O Lord, you know;
remember me and visit me,
and bring down retribution for me on my persecutors.
In your forbearance do not take me away;
know that on your account I suffer insult.
16Your words were found, and I ate them,
and your words became to me a joy
and the delight of my heart;
for I am called by your name,
O Lord, God of hosts.
17I did not sit in the company of merrymakers,
nor did I rejoice;
under the weight of your hand I sat alone,
for you had filled me with indignation.
18Why is my pain unceasing,
my wound incurable,
refusing to be healed?
Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook,
like waters that fail.
19Therefore thus says the Lord:
If you turn back, I will take you back,
and you shall stand before me.
If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless,
you shall serve as my mouth.
It is they who will turn to you,
not you who will turn to them.
20And I will make you to this people
a fortified wall of bronze;
they will fight against you,
but they shall not prevail over you,
for I am with you
to save you and deliver you,
says the Lord.
21I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked,
and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.
PSALM Psalm 26:1-8
1Give judgment for me, O Lord, for I have lived | with integrity;
I have trusted in the Lord and | have not faltered.
2Test me, O | Lord, and try me;
examine my heart | and my mind.
3For your steadfast love is be- | fore my eyes;
I have walked faithful- | ly with you.
4I have not sat | with the worthless,
nor do I consort with | the deceitful.
5I have hated the company of | evildoers;
I will not sit down | with the wicked.
6I will wash my hands in inno- | cence, O Lord,
that I may go in procession | round your altar,
7singing aloud a song | of thanksgiving
and recounting all your won- | derful deeds.
8Lord, I love the house in | which you dwell
and the place where your glo- | ry abides.
SECOND READING Romans 12:9-21
9Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
GOSPEL Matthew 16:21-28
21From that time on, [after Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah,] Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
24Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? 27“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”