Anger: To Build a Bridge or Burn it Down

The other day I saw a sample ballot on the Internet where you could check a box if you are a Republican or a Democrat or Pissed off. Of course, whoever designed this ballot also provided their personal answer.

This morning I want to talk about anger because there seems to be a lot of anger in the air these days. In Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 Step programs they have a way of describing those moments when we should pause before doing something stupid. We should pause when we are hungry, angry, lonely or tired, H-A-L-T halt.

We’ve just been through a very angry election season and this weekend we’ve experienced the inauguration of a new president, a moment marked by both ceremony and protest, both of which had elements of anger. So it occurs to me that now might be a good time for America to halt, or pause before we do something stupid.

We live in an age of polarization, a time when we have to make a choice; shall we build a bridge or burn it down? Let’s at least pause before we make that decision.

Anger has always been a powerful emotion but we live in an age when anger can be amplified. With the invention of the Internet anger has found a major megaphone. It is so powerful it sometimes feels like anger can overpower all other emotions. For instance, recently the Defense Minister of Pakistan got so angry over a fake news story he read on the internet that he threatened nuclear war on Israel. For this reason, we might be tempted to paraphrase the words of the poet T.S. Eliot,

“This is the way the world ends – not with a bang or a whimper but with a tweet.”

 However, anger and the Internet have this in common, they can be used for good or ill.

In many ways anger is like fire. Fire can be used to warm a home, prepare a meal, feed a family, illuminate the darkness or it can become a raging out of control conflagration that devastates an entire community.

Anger can help us meet opportunities or miss opportunities. It can help us build a bridge or burn it down. So as we pause or halt, let’s consider some of the ways that anger can lead us off course and make us miss opportunities.

This week I saw a picture of someone on Facebook who described herself The Passive Aggressive Witch. Her post read, “I don’t curse anyone, I just bless everyone else around them.” I think we’ve all met someone like that and maybe we can all be that way sometimes as well.

One way to deal with our anger is to repress it but when we do this we miss the opportunity to be authentic. Honestly is always the first step to spiritual growth.

Here in the South we know that a great deal of aggression and anger can be disguised by good manners. A good friend from a congregation I served in South Carolina who once said to me, “In the South we love you, we love you, we love you, UNTIL WE HATE YOU!”

Since I am a Southerner you will not hear me say an unkind word about good manners but I will say this, it is better for all concerned if we do not use politeness to let anger build up until the point of explosion.

At this point I do want to apologize to the environmentalists among us because I am aware that when I describe anger as a fire I am not using a carbon neutral metaphor, and to make matters even worse, I am going to say we can also compare anger to the workings of a internal combustion engine. Anger can either be an uncontrolled explosion that blows up the entire car or it can be controlled explosion that moves the car forward and helps a driver arrive at a desired destination.

However, as global climate change science reveals, even a controlled explosion can have damaging consequences that are not immediately apparent. Just as there are climate change deniers there are also anger deniers. We may think we have our anger under control but everyone else can see that our polar ice caps are melting and our sea levels are rising. Anger is hard to hide.

Anger can be damaging to both our bodies and our spirits. Anger can lead to increased stress, high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes. Our anger, more often than not, damages us more than it damages anybody else. This is why I say during every election cycle, “If you don’t like a particular political candidate don’t let your emotions put you in the hospital.”

Anger can be damaging to the spirit. Anger can make us magnify the faults of another while minimizing our own.

Recently I was reminded of a line from the 1973 movie the Exorcist where two priests are about to deliver a young girl from demon possession, and the older priest says to the novice, it is especially important “…to avoid conversations with the demon… The demon is a liar. He will lie to confuse us. But he will also mix lies with the truth to attack us. The attack is psychological…and powerful. So don’t listen to him…do not listen.”

While these words were meant to describe the exorcism of a demon they also sounded like a lot of rhetoric surrounding Election 2016, where the primary difference between opposing camps seemed to be a disagreement over whether the demon was a he or a she or could be described using gender neutral pronouns.

The only response I know to the politics of demonization is what we might call the politics of humanization. Bill Sinkford, a former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, has said that in order to understand the anger in our culture we need look for the hurt beneath the hate because it is hard to hate someone after we’ve listened to their story.

This applies to self care as well. Zen Buddhism teaches that anger is a very destructive emotion but also teaches that instead of repressing our anger we should look at our anger the way a mother looks after her child. In other words when we become angry we need to look within ourselves for the hurt behind the hate; to soothe the angry and hurt child within us.

This is why the civil rights activist and social gospel theologian Ruby Sales tells us that the most important theological question for our time is not, “What do you believe?” but “Where are you hurting?” Anger is often a secondary emotion. We must look for the hurt behind the hate, the vulnerability behind the vitriol.

Ruby Sales is African American and a left of center activist but she argues that one reason that the Trump campaign had so much power is because he spoke to people’s pain. He did not try to speak the language of the academy or of policy institutes but the language of emotion and outrage. He spoke to where people were hurting.

The slogan for the Trump campaign was “Make America Great Again” but perhaps we need another slogan that will speak to all of us across a broad political spectrum, “Make America Safe Again.”

Make America safe for the transgender kid who needs to go to the bathroom and the young adult in Appalachia who is watching all the good jobs go away.

Make America safe for Black Lives – for nonviolent citizens pulled over by the police -but also make America safe for the police officers, 12% of whom are black and 87% of whom will never ever draw a weapon in the line of duty.

Make America safe for women from verbal abuse, harassment, sexual assault and a heavily fortified testosterone poisoned glass ceiling and make America safe for young men like Zaevion Dobson and his cousin Jujuan Latham through the Save Our Sons movement.

Make America safe for the native and the immigrant, for healthcare providers and those who desperately need their services.

Make America safe for this generation looking for jobs and for future generations who will depend on a good environment.

So let’s make America great by making America safe and secure and filled with mutual respect so that we can live out the full meaning found in the Pledge of Allegiance that there will be liberty and justice for all.

Anger can be spur to action or it can be a pathway to Armageddon. Our anger can be a slow burning fire or it can consume us. Being angry over injustice is not a bad thing. We want that fire to illuminate the world, illuminate our understanding of justice, illuminate our conscience. We want a refining fire that will refine us like silver is refined and gold is tested.

This is why Ruby Sales says we need to learn to make a distinction between redemptive and nonredemptive anger. To bring her concept close to home let me say that when we say “love is the spirit of this church” on Sunday morning it needs to be love that leads to outrage so that we will be outraged by injustice, outraged by cruelty, outraged by bigotry, outraged by all the of hurts in our world that can so easily turn to hate.

Lately, I have been meditating on the life and example of Nelson Mandela in South Africa who could emerge from 27 years in prison without bitterness, resentment or uncontrollable rage but with a clear vision of the good of the country and a willingness to build bridges with others when it would have been just as easy to burn them down. I don’t think I can be that good. Anyone who’s seen my Facebook page knows I am capable of counterproductive snarkiness. But I can aspire to be that good. There is no question that Nelson Mandela had a creative relationship with his anger and everyone is his country and the world benefited from his refined fire.

Anger can empower us. Even so anger can be compared to that prescription you heard about on television. The prescription that offers a cure to a disease but also comes with a long list of side effects. Somewhere in my imagination I can hear the TV announcer say, “Anger: It can empower us to work for justice. Side effects may include nausea and vomiting, feeling tired, drowsy, irritability, high blood pressure, accelerated heart rate, loss of appetite, lack of sleep, insomnia etc. etc. etc.”

So let me say to you, whenever you hear me speak about redemptive anger, whenever you hear me give that prescription – remember to first consult your doctor. For I want you to make the best decisions for your life, your body, your mind and your spirit.

I went to the Women’s March on the campus of the University of Tennessee on Friday and to the one on Market Square on Saturday. I marched not because I want us to re-litigate the past but because I want us to re-imagine and re-envision our future.

Someone was handing out signs that said “Why I March” where you could fill in your own reasons for marching. I realized in explaining “Why I March” I could write a long detailed treatise in very small print or I could answer in one word – Mom.

My mom knew how to be angry. But she did not always use that word. She was a Southern woman who knew how to be gracious and polite but on more than one occasion I remember her using the term “pissed off.”

But she got angry about the right things. She got angry about injustice, angry about oppression, angry about unnecessary war, angry about poverty, angry about misogyny and racism. And let’ be honest sometimes she was angry with me. But hers was an anger filled with love – the love that leads to outrage. And this weekend I knew if she were alive today she would be marching just I marched in Knoxville and her granddaughter Sally marched in Washington DC in one unbroken circle of commitment to social change.

Anger is a powerful emotion. Anger is a fire like the Holy Spirit is a fire. I could write a long treatise about anger but if my mom were alive today she might summarize this entire sermon in one word – love – and that’s why we march just like the suffragists marched at the inauguration of a Democratic president in 1913 and so many women marched at the inauguration of a Republican president this weekend because the work of democracy is unfinished and no one can be free until everyone is free. So let’s remember the suffragists. Let’s remember our mothers. Let’s remember our sisters. Let’s remember all the other activists of blessed memory and faithfully continue their work. Presidents come, presidents go, the work of love continues. Let’s build a bridge illuminated by an unforgettable fire.

(This sermon was preached at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday June 22, 2017 by the Rev. Chris Buice)

pissed

 

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