‘Tis the Season to be Angry
Have you ever been flicked?
You know what I mean, and some of us might remember exactly the scene: you’re minding your own business, maybe just sitting at a school desk, when someone next to you, or behind you perhaps, flicks you on your shoulder, or your hand.
Just thinking about it makes me tense up.
You ask them to please stop.
They go back to work, you do too.
And then, sure enough, they flick you again.
You glare at them, and again, maybe with a firmer voice, you ask them to stop.
They smile sweetly at you, and then return to whatever they were doing, and you do too.
And then they flick you again.
And it goes on like this for a spell of far too long until you finally raise your voice and holler out, “KNOCK IT OFF!”
Your anger, though, your righteous indignation, your claim that your body is yours and they may not infringe on it, is met with a “Sheesh, no need to get so upset. Can’t you take a joke? Just chill.”
And to finish off the scene, they scowl at you, as if you’re the one with the problem.
There are all sorts of variations to this theme, right?
Dysfunctional work environments where people in power silo, distort, manipulate, and intimidate; an employee adapts, accommodates, offers humble suggestions for a different way, and finally finds the courage to stand up and assert some healthy boundaries…and then is promptly fired for insubordination.
Marriages where one person routinely disparages, demeans, disrespects, abuses a spouse and family; pleas are offered, counseling is tried, and finally the limit is reached and divorce is filed…which is met with a “It’s supposed to be forever! You can’t do that! You’re destroying me!”
I just had a circumstance in my world: for six months of having my critical correspondence and communication ignored by an organization, a meeting was held to attempt some resolution. During this little tête-à-tête, I learned that the refusal to acknowledge me was actually an administration-directed intentional tactic.
Yes it was.
To find this out, I needed to repeatedly ask why each and every email since last May was met with utter silence, and as I asked again, and again, and my question was avoided, and deferred, which only caused me to become increasingly indignant and, in fact, downright angry, at which point we were informed that the meeting was “going off the rails.”
Going off the rails, I was.
I was not in line.
Made me think a little bit of the words of advice born out of a story much more tragically potent than my woeful tail of being ignored, the one that the star of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” actor Alex Borstein, retold after winning her recent Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actress:
“To my mother … to my grandmother,” she said. “They are immigrants, they are Holocaust survivors. My grandmother turned to a guard. She was in line to be shot into a pit. She said, ‘What happens if I step out of line?’ And he said, ‘I don’t have the heart to shoot you but somebody will,’ and she stepped out of line. And for that, I am here and my children are here. So step out of line, ladies, step out of line.”
Step out of line.
The thing of it is, of course, that when you step out of line, when you go off the rails, you upset the order of things.
And the order of things, of course, is established by people who have the power to create the order.
The deal these days, though, the deal is that people are upset.
People of color, women, the GLBTQIA community, immigrants, the poor, the uninsured (for starters), people who have suffered a mess of Scheisse for a really, really long time, who’ve been flicked one too many times, they are upset.
And they don’t mind if the figurative meetings go off the rails, because they didn’t like the rails that were set in the first place.
I’ve been noticing, these days, an increasing call for people to unite, to be nice, to be calm.
And I’ve been noticing too that when people don’t, a couple of things happen:
a) the people who are responding to unjust circumstances or are simply done with micro-aggressions that create a sum total of a macro-problem are judged to be acting out of line;
b) their anger gets more attention than the source of their anger.
c) their anger is judged more than the source of it is.
This dynamic seems to reveal in turn another series of observations.
a) People don’t like anger;
b) People do like reliable systems;
c) People in power prefer reliable systems to any expressed anger about those systems;
d) But interestingly, the people who benefit from the systems, or haven’t really noticed or cared about how the systems don’t benefit others, are actually angry in their own right: they are angry that they are losing their power.
Now, speaking quite widely and broadly, the people who have had the most power are white men.
Second to that are privileged white men.
After that comes white people in general.
And then we have the wealthy.
And then the cishet community.
And generally speaking, and with different emphases, these collective groups really don’t like the anger of the people of color, women, the GLBTQIA community, immigrants, the poor, the uninsured (for starters), people who have suffered a mess of Scheisse for a really, really long time, who’ve been flicked one too many times.
But different reasons and to varying degrees, though, these latter groups have some crossover grounds for fatigue, for irritation, for indignation, and for outright anger.
And it’s not just to being merely flicked.
For example, this one, this one makes me cry every time: Black Senator Stephanie Flowers in Arkansas, being told to be silent by a white male Senator, and informed that the debate over Stand Your Ground legislation would end, this righteous woman yells, swears, and points fingers.
The patronizing quieting voice of Sen. Alex Clark only infuriates her more.
Please, if you do nothing else today, click the link for the summary of the entire exchange, but at least look at these stills, which are anything but still.
In the video, you can tell that she is furious from the get-go, but where her voice really begins to rise is when she says, “And I have a son.”
I have a son.
He is my son, and he is also victim of a system of racism that might kill him.
This system might kill him just as it has and might continue to kill all sorts of other black boys and black girls.
Because of that history and because of them I will not be silenced.
This, of course, is exactly what Sen. Clark seeks to do.
It’s so achingly powerful.
But it is also achingly illustrative about how unprivileged people, how people who are there to upset a system that upsets them, are not allowed to be upset.
Of course, they aren’t allowed to be upset in the name of civility and all.
But I’ve come to decide that when certain people call for civility, what they are really calling for is passivity.
A few more examples—and there are so so very many that for the sake of space and time I selected just a few:
The misogyny directed at Prof. Pam Karlan, who testified at the Impeachment hearings, as experienced vicariously and detailed by Prof. Richard Primus, Constitutional Law Professor at the University of Michigan.
We have articles like this one, by Michael Harriot, who uses language some might call offensive to call out decisions and speech that, well, that some might call offensive. (It’s worthy of note that Buttigieg replied to the article by ringing up Harriot: you can find how that played out here).
We have Joe Biden, who was impossibly rude to a questioner at a public forum the other day. In response to the voter’s questions about politics, Biden personalized his retort which became an attack, both body-shaming the man and telling him that he was a ‘damn liar.’
This post asks whether women and people of color could ever have a right to be as angry as Joe Biden, even for matters of justice.
The other day, I saw this tweet, a pre-Thanksgiving Dinner tweet, a singular tweet elegantly styled in keyboard characters of a person poising almost as if in a dance, with the words, “‘civility’ is a luxury of privilege call out ur relatives.”
Instead of anger, that is, people who are harmed are urged these days to be kind.
Now, I understand the impetus: Donald Trump and the culture which he both represents and fosters is toxic.
Kindness is good.
Meanness is bad.
There is too much meanness in the world.
Buuutttt that’s fairly simplistic, it turns out.
Even the deservedly beloved Ellen DeGeneres doesn’t seem to get the nuance.
She initiated a bit of a kerfuffle with a monologue she offered, in the face of a picture taken of her smiling with George Bush at a pro-football game. After a mess of blowback she received about the photo, she opted to use some time with her audience to emphasize kindness.
“Here’s the thing,” said DeGeneres. “I’m friends with George Bush, in fact I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have. We are all different and I think we’ve forgotten that that’s OK that we’re all different…Just because I don’t agree with someone on everything does not mean I’m not going to be friends with them. When I say be kind to one another, I don’t mean only the people that think the same as you do, I mean be kind to everyone.”
Gosh I bristled at that, and then I happily found that I was not alone.
Take this article about the matter, written by Shannon Keating, who is having none of it. She writes:
Ellen’s defense might make it seem like people were expecting her to shove Bush out of his box seat on sight, when in reality the majority of her dissenters aren’t advocating against surface-level agreeability and politeness. Rather, they’re asking her to rethink the choice to elevate a cordial interaction with the former leader of the historically anti-gay Republican Party to some kind of admirable act of rising-above-it kindness. But the more powerful and insulated a celebrity gets, it seems, the less likely they are to do the work of distinguishing between the demands of petty trolls and good-faith critics.
That last part, there, that distinction between “petty trolls” and “good-faith critics” is a crucial one. Far too often, people who express worthy anger are dismissed as being either petty about the issue at hand, or too-much-free-time-too-tightly-wound trolls.
But that, says Keating, was far from the issue with people’s distress at DeGeneres happily sitting and smiling next to George Bush, nor to their distress as DeGeneres’ reaction to people’s dismay.
Instead, angry critics of DeGeneres are agitated because in her worldview, kindness becomes a virtue, and the call for justice is reduced to an angry vice.
Because Trump’s bread and butter is discord and division, Cillizza argued, anyone who now dares to be divisive — including Democrats — are “unwittingly giving his worldview that much more power.” To pundits like Cillizza, and everyone else celebrating Ellen’s call for unqualified kindness, the supposed antidote to Trumpism is not justice at the expense of “niceness,” or what in politics is often called “civility,” but niceness at the expense of justice.
See, the anger that is expressed by the Sen. Flowers’ of the world, the Serena Williams’ of the world, the April Ryans of the world, the Elizabeth Warrens of the world (times two—this one also as the recipient of, curiously enough, Joe Biden [who may in fact have an anger issue?]), the Michael Harriots of the world, GLBTQIA anger, female clergy, righteous anger is not an expression of meanness.
Righteous anger is an expression of justice.
This tweet captures the point: it was offered in response to a brilliantly generous thread idea about listing the best advice gleaned at therapy, so “that way everyone else can get free therapy!” It reads:
“The best way to abuse or oppress someone is to tell them that they are not allowed to get/appear angry. Anger is what motivates you to leave or change your situation. That’s why we tell women and POC, especially black women, that anger is specifically unacceptable for them.”
Oddly, as mentioned above re: Joe Biden (twice), it seems there there is (sit down, I’m sure) a double standard here, as we have seen when contrasting the composure of women under pressure in, say, Congressional hearings, such as Ambassador Hillary Clinton, Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, Dr. Fiona Hill, and Prof. Pamela Karlan, vs., say, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Rep. Jim Jordan, Rep. Matt Gaetz, and Senator Lindsey Graham.
Dr. Fiona Hill herself noted, “I have to say that when women show anger it’s not always fully appreciated.”
No, no it is not.
Righteous anger rarely is appreciated, at least by those to whom it is directed.
This afternoon, a pastoral colleague and friend of mine, Pastor Brendan Johnston, came by to help me figure out some techie stuff. I told him about this blog I was working on, and (in addition to mentioning this NPR podcast, “It’s Been A Minute,” which in this episode addresses women’s rage), he reminded me of this blog from Sojourners Magazine, “A Woman’s Rage is a Holy Thing,” written by Dr. Nancy Hightower.
In it, she says:
Rage is probably the most terrifying emotion for a Christian to negotiate given the bad rap it’s been given. While there are sermons and verses warning us against the dangers of unrestrained anger, there are few, if any, that argue how righteous rage can be the most revolutionary emotion.
Remember that Jesus used his rage to purge sin from the temple (John 2:13-16). He didn’t politely ask the merchants and moneychangers to leave or bring his complaint to the elders. Instead, he overturned tables and used a whip to drive out those who turned the temple into a business. It was spirit-filled rage that enabled Samson to kill one thousand Philistines using only the jawbone of a donkey (Judges 15:14-17). When outnumbered or outmatched, directed rage can be a great equalizer for the marginalized.
Perhaps now, more than ever, Christians need to redefine their relationship to rage — particularly women’s rage. The nation watched Dr. Christine Ford testify about her alleged assault while maintaining a gracious demeanor whereas Brett Kavanaugh was allowed to rant about his supposed mistreatment. This double standard stems from centuries of social conditioning, as well as a rather sexist interpretation of the Bible that argues women are to be silent and submissive.
Senator Flowers is here to tell us that she will not be silenced, and I’m here to tell you that she is not alone.
In fact, she’s got a great cloud of witnesses who are loud and angry right with her.
So into this mix, we have these texts for this Sunday, the Second Sunday of Advent.
I took the liberty of highlighting a few passages.
11A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 3His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 6The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
10On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
1Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son.
2May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice.
3May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness.
4May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.
5May he live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
6May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.
7In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more.
8May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.
9May his foes bow down before him, and his enemies lick the dust.
10May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts.
11May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.
12For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper.
13He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.
14From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.
15Long may he live! May gold of Sheba be given to him. May prayer be made for him continually, and blessings invoked for him all day long.
16May there be abundance of grain in the land; may it wave on the tops of the mountains; may its fruit be like Lebanon; and may people blossom in the cities like the grass of the field.
17May his name endure forever, his fame continue as long as the sun. May all nations be blessed in him; may they pronounce him happy.
18Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things.
19Blessed be his glorious name forever; may his glory fill the whole earth. Amen and Amen.
20The prayers of David son of Jesse are ended.
3In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” 4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
I don’t know about you, but as much as I love “Don’t Worry, Be Happy!” and “Keep on the Sunny Side of Life,” I’m telling you what: It sure sounds to me that neither Isaiah, nor the psalmist, nor John the Baptist are humming these tunes.
They are angry.
And guess what:
They are angry at the very people and the very systems and the very things that people of color, women, the GLBTQIA community, immigrants, the poor, the uninsured (for starters), people who have suffered a mess of Scheisse for a really, really long time, who’ve been flicked one too many times, are angry about too.
We have holy role models, that is, people!
Righteous anger is in our history and on our side.
Advent is a time of waiting.
I get that.
It’s exactly why, as for me and my house, we fiercely and joyfully protect Advent from an encroaching Christmas, waiting until the very last minute to decorate our tree, and in the meantime, we hang lights, and we place about angels, and we find the perfect spot for our Nissemann filled with Advent treats, and we light candles, and we deck our railings and outside walls with wreaths and garlands.
We’ve learned, that is, that you can wait, you can anticipate patiently.
But for a variety of reasons, we have also learned that you can just as righteously wait impatiently.
Sometimes even at the same time.
Sometimes, that is, despite Advent expressly being a time of waiting, it can also be a time of expressly being completely over waiting for what should already be.
Perhaps Advent is a time to be impatient; a time to clamor for righteousness; a time to call the power-brokers the vipers that they are, to tell them that if they continue in their ways of unrighteousness they will be but chaff, to announce that their tongues should get really moistened because they are going to lick a hell of a lot of dust, that they will be crushed, that the very breath of God which gives life has come to take it as well, when they opt to use their lives to oppress others; a time to be enraged.
If it’s good enough for John the Baptist, seems to me…
Now, when people like me point to texts such as these, and the implications of passages such as these, at this juncture, we are accustomed to hearing words of tempering: that is not the way of Christians, we are told, and we (in contrast to those…biblical folks?…) are about forgiveness.
At that juncture, I like to remind such people of Jesus.
Turns out that he turned over some tables in his time, and called people vipers just as well as John the Baptist did, and who, in Matthew 25, pointed out that those who do not feed, offer drink, offer welcome to the stranger, clothe, heal, and visit the least of these, are goats.
Specifically, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’”
Make no mistake, I am all about forgiveness.
I believe it will be for all.
But it is entirely possible that there will be some righteous dust to lick before we get there.
I have, that is, no time for cheap grace.
Neither did Bonhoeffer.
Neither, I believe, does God.
Advent might just be the very time, the perfect time, the time for which we have been waiting for the Church to come to terms with holy anger, righteous indignation, and the grace of fury.
In related news, a word to the wise: don’t flick with me.
Also, unquantifiably moreso, don’t flick with God.
And don’t flick with people of color, women, the GLBTQIA community, immigrants, the poor, the uninsured (for starters), people who have suffered a mess of Scheisse for a really, really long time, who’ve been flicked one too many times.
We are stepping out of line, because the line is yours, and not ours, and not God’s.
Because this stuff about which we’re angry, about which Isaiah was angry, about which the psalmist was angry, about which John the Baptist was angry, about which Jesus was angry?
We can’t take a joke that, in fact, isn’t one, and we are not laughing.
Instead, we’re angry, in a holy, righteous, ‘tis the season to be angry sort of way.