Classically Christianity has listed seven sins as “deadly” sins, meaning that most everything else we do which is not virtuous somehow takes its root in one these congenital propensities. These are the infamous seven: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth.
In spiritual literature the first three, pride, greed, and lust, get most of the ink and attention. Pride is presented as the root of all sin, Lucifer’s primordial defiance of God as forever echoed in our own lives: I will not serve! Greed is seen as the basis for our selfishness and our blindness toward others and lust has often been given the ultimate notoriety, as if the Sixth Commandment were the only commandment.
Not to deny the importance of these, but I suspect that the sin which most commonly afflicts us and is not much mentioned in spiritual literature is wrath, that is, anger and hatred. I venture to say that most of us operate, however unconsciously, out of anger and this shows itself in our constant criticism of others, in our cynicism, in our jealousy of others, in our bitterness, and in our inability to praise others. And unlike most of our other sins, anger is easy to camouflage and rationalize as virtue.
At one level, anger often rationalizes itself as justified indignation over the foibles, stupidity, egotism, greed, and faults of others: How can I not be angry given what I see every day! Here anger shows itself in our constant irritation and in our quickness to correct, criticize, and make a cynical remark. Conversely we’re very slow to praise and affirm. Perfection then becomes the enemy of the good and since nothing and no one is perfect, we’re always in critical mode and we see this as a virtue rather than for what it in fact is, namely, an inchoate anger and unhappiness inside of ourselves.
But our unhappy cynicism isn’t the biggest problem here. More seriously, anger too often parades itself as Godly virtue, as righteousness, as prophecy, as a healthy divinely inspired militancy for truth, for cause, for virtue, for God. And so we define ourselves as “holy warriors” and “vigilant defenders of truth,” taking justification in the popular (though false) conception that prophets are angry people, on passionate fire for God.
However, there’s a near infinite distance between true prophetic anger and the anger that today commonly parades itself as prophecy. Daniel Berrigan, in his criteria for prophecy, submits (and rightly) that a prophet is someone who takes a vow of love, not of alienation. Prophecy is characterized by love aching for reconnection, not anger pushing for separation.
And love isn’t generally what characterizes most so-called prophetic anger in our world today, especially as it pertains to God, religion, and defence of truth. You see this in its worst form in Islamic extremism where, in the name of God, every kind of hatred, violence, and random murder puts on God’s cloak. Blaise Pascal captures this well in his Pensees where he writes: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” He’s wrong on one thing; mostly we aren’t doing it cheerfully, but angrily. One only has to read the letters to the editor in our newspapers, listen to most talk-radio stations, look at social media, or listen to any debate on politics, religion, or morality to see raw hatred and anger justifying themselves on moral and divine grounds.
There is such a thing as healthy prophetic anger, a fiery response when the poor of God, the Word of God, or the truth of God are being slandered, abused, or neglected. There are important causes and boundaries to be defended. But prophetic anger is an anger that emanates out of love and empathy and always, regardless of the hatred it meets, still exhibits love and empathy, like a loving mother in the face of a belligerent child. Jesus on occasion exhibits this kind of anger, but his anger is antithetical to most of what masquerades as prophetic anger today, where love and empathy are so noticeably absent.
Someone once said that we spend the first half of life struggling with the Sixth Commandment, and then spend the second half of life struggling with the Fifth Commandment: Thou shalt not kill! We see this illustrated in the famous parable of the Prodigal Son, his older brother, and his prodigal father. The younger son is effectively out of his father’s house through wrestling with the seductive energies of youth. The older brother is just as effectively outside his father’s house, not through sin, but through wrestling with anger.
As a young boy I was catechized to confess “bad thoughts” as sinful, but bad thoughts then were defined as sexual thoughts. As we age, I suggest, we might continue to confess “bad thoughts,” but now those “bad thoughts” have to do with anger.
A cynic, it’s said, is someone who has given up, but not shut up! He’s also someone who has confused one of the seven deadly sins, wrath, with virtue.
Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.