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Seeking Sophia

By Christine Burton

11/12/2014
Christine Burton

I have an uneasy relationship with anger. Oh sure, I can get angry, and I do. And I always regret it and am filled with self-recrimination — how can I call myself a follower of Christ if I am not always filled with the love and forgiveness of God? I am pretty much convinced that if I’m going to be a “good Christian” I should be peaceful and peaceable, I should always be filled with compassion and understanding and an angry feeling or thought or word should never cross my mind or my lips.

Yes, love and peace and sweetness and light, that’s how I am going to change the world, that’s how I’m going to bring about the City of God, that’s how I’ll manage to “earn” my pass into heaven.

That view is extended to the world. I march in peace demonstrations, condemn violence and physical aggression in all its forms, I agonize about Canada and the world and questions of war, even when it involves heinous crimes like those of ISIL. So, mostly, I swallow my anger.

This approach is quite common in “Vatican II Catholics.” We “absolve” the “angry God” of the Torah as being old covenant and culturally appropriate to the time, but we’re all about the affable, loving, forgiving God who regularly tells us, in each of three persons, to love perfectly, to forgive as God does, to turn the other cheek.

Which really makes the Gospel of Jesus and the money-changers in the temple difficult for me. Because we encounter an angry Jesus. One so angry that he took a cord and made a whip and was lashing at things. Wow. That is not what the water-coloured pictures of my childhood portray, not the example I thought I was supposed to be following.

This story is often described with the term “righteous anger.” Jesus’ anger was understandable, it was justifiable — he saw something that was wrong, became angry and took immediate and concrete action to change it. But it is critical to note that the anger was not whitewashed or hidden in the telling, because anger itself is not the problem. It is what we do with and as a result of that anger that can be an issue.

Anger is an animating force that can impel us to action. Anyone who’s been truly angry can testify to the energy it generates: we bristle, shake, we yell or slam doors, we are filled with energy, sometimes to the point of exploding. This comes as a result of reacting and allowing our emotions to overrun our compassion. That’s anger as a destructive rather than constructive force and that’s a problem. And that’s where Jesus is again an example. In the temple in Jerusalem, Jesus let that angry energy move him forcefully, but he did not condemn or blame, he simply intervened to stop what was wrong. In the use of force, he did not harm the people or animals; rather, he overturned inanimate objects — the tables — freed the birds, drove the animals out and told the sellers to leave and change their ways.

While I sometimes wonder about how much selling of things goes on in contemporary parishes, I’m pleased that we’ve pretty much gotten out the plenary indulgences business and don’t have quite the same market going at the back that the temple of Jerusalem had. But our modern understanding of God means that we also understand that God doesn’t just dwell in “temples,” in “houses of worship,” but rather, that God’s “temple” is the whole of society and the whole of creation.

Which means that even if we aren’t selling sheep at the back, there are still lots of things to be angry about: child abuse, domestic violence, poverty, abuse of the planet and creatures of the earth, human rights ignored, armed conflict at home and abroad.

These, and so many other issues, are worthy of our anger. They merit a call to concrete and immediate action. They are based on presumptions and assumptions and patterns that should be overturned. They involve people who should be driven out — of office, of their complacency, of whatever social paradigms allow them to look at creation, God’s Temple, as merely a source of goods to be exploited and consumed. They warrant loud calls for people — others, us, everyone — to change their — our — ways.

We may not use a physical cord like Jesus, but we have tools at our disposal. Our words, spoken and written to friends, family, co-workers and neighbours, to politicians, the media, the community at large, in public and in private, can be sharp as whips, and can sting us into leaving old ways behind. Our words cast open the doors of cages, freeing others and ourselves from oppression. We have cords we can pull, people we can influence, tables we can up-end. Our voices can call for change and our coins can be spilled in the service of a more just society.

And all this can be done in a constructive way that is compassionate and open to the transformative power of God’s love in the lives of any and all of those who may have been part of the marketplace we seek to change.

In backing away from destructive reaction, let us not back away from constructive anger. Instead, may we be filled with a holy anger that inspires and energizes us to tear down the social structures that hold the People of God captive, and to rebuild a community where every need is fed by rivers of love that flow from the temple of God that exists in each of us.

A Saskatchewan soprano, Burton has sung praises to the Lord in Regina, Saskatoon, Winnipeg and now at St. Joe’s in Ottawa, where she is a chorister and cantor at two masses.