In the early spring of 1977, the residents of Greenfield, Massachusetts, with a population of 18,000, received a curious survey in the mail. It came from James Averill, psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the recipients were invited to consider such prompts as, “Try to recall the number of times you became annoyed and/or angry during the past week.” “Describe the angriest of these experiences.”
The questions continued: “In becoming angry, did you wish to get back at the person, or gain revenge?” “Afterward, did you feel triumphant, confident, and dominant” or “ashamed, embarrassed, and guilty?”
The survey was 14 pages long and as Averill describes it, it “sought almost a voyeuristic level of detail.”
You might wonder, did Greenfield have a history of violence, abuse, or aggression in the community? Quite the contrary. As a middle-class town with a prosperous tool-and-die factory, churches outnumbered bars two to one, and there was little evidence of animosity, hostility, or resentment. According to Averill, “this very placidity was why Greenfield had been chosen for the study.”
This study and the academic discipline focusing on anger that launched from it some 45 years ago is described in a recent article in The Atlantic, titled: “The Real Roots of American Rage.” I say recent, but the piece is from January 2019, before the caustic election cycle of 2020, before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, before the insurrection at the Capital on January 6, before the murder of George Floyd, before the no-knock entry that resulted in the killing of Amir Locke, before the shooting death of 15-year-old Deshaun Hill.
We have all seen the news coverage on Americans’ propensity toward Covid-era anger, seemingly staid individuals screaming at retail employees, road rage taken to a whole new level, people beating each other up on planes. It can certainly feel like the dial on anger has been turned way up of late, but maybe it is just reminding us of the complicated relationship many may have with anger.
What fascinated me about The Atlantic article was how relevant it is for today, even in light of all we have experienced since it was written, but I was also struck by the notion of looking back four decades at Averill’s research, to the beginning of trying to understand anger. Averill assumed that most of the residents in Greenfield would say they lost their temper only every once in a while. “He expected respondents to say that they were embarrassed afterward.” He expected they would say in hindsight that their sudden violent expressions had only made things worse. He figured most people wouldn’t give the questionnaire a second look. Most would toss it in the trash.
As it turns out, it was the best-performing survey he ever conducted. He said, as some people turned it back in, they “even attached thank you notes. They were so pleased to talk about being angry.” “People were eager to talk about their indignations, in part because they felt angry so frequently. Most people reported becoming mildly to moderately angry anywhere from several times a week to several times a day.”
Averill didn’t find that people were experiencing or instigating long fights or blow ups, rather the angry episodes were typically short and restrained, and they did not tend to make bad situations worse, rather they resolved tensions instead of exacerbating them.
He found that in the vast majority of cases, people were more willing to listen, more inclined to speak honestly, and more accommodating of one another after expressing anger. He concluded that anger is one of the densest forms of communication. He found, “it conveys more information, more quickly, than almost any other type of emotion. And it does an excellent job of forcing us to listen to and confront problems we might otherwise avoid.”
If anger really is so prevalent, if people are feeling mildly to moderately angry as much as several times a day, if it can actually be positive and productive, why aren’t we talking about this beyond just naming it as a cultural phenomenon or ill? Why are we more likely to connote feelings like sin and evil with anger, rather than feeling like anger might be productive, creative, and have the power to make change and even bring about justice?
Averill’s scholarship and that of those who followed him does make the point that ordinary anger has the danger to become “sharpened, manipulated, and misdirected,” and that it can be difficult for us to resist this process. There is a difference between moral indignation and a desire for revenge, to inflict punishment rather than reaching agreement and harmony through anger. That distinction is important to make.
There is anger all over the Bible and well, it’s complicated. We hear of God’s anger toward Israel, the prophets portray God’s anger, and the Psalmist writes of a God being filled with wrath. On the other hand, Psalm 37 advises to refrain from anger, and Proverbs 14 says, “whoever is slow to anger has great understanding,” while Proverbs 19, says “good sense makes one slow to anger.” Perhaps we have taken comfort in the passages that tell us God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
If we feel more comfortable with a God who is slow to anger, is that to mean that we should be also, slow to anger? If we aren’t careful and practiced with anger, we run the risk of losing or pushing down anger as part of our identity. How we get angry and how we express anger, good anger, matters as people of faith. And all of that is informed by how we understand God’s good anger, as well as Jesus’. Divine anger in the Bible is not the same as human anger, but it can teach us something. Divine anger emerges when God’s people are violent toward one another, when powerful leaders oppress, when covenants are broken.
Like God, we can feel angry when yet another person of color is killed because of racialized violence, or at the news of another school shooting. We can be outraged when we see families separated at the border and children held in cages. We can be furious when voting rights are restricted or when LGBTQ+ siblings cannot move safely and fully through society. We rage when a loved one is robbed of life and a future because of disease.
But what are we doing with all this anger? Part of looking at anger is also wondering what else is in the mix: sadness or grief, anxiety or fear, a loss of control…
In the passage today from the book of Mark, of Jesus “Cleansing the Temple,” as it is often referred to, we hear of Jesus turning over the tables of the moneychangers. The story is told in all four gospels, but this passage never appears in the lectionary of suggested Scripture for preaching. Matthew, Luke, and Mark place it nearer to the end of Jesus’ ministry, while the Gospel of John places it nearer the beginning.
In all honesty, it is a story I have shied away from, because I wasn’t sure what to do with an angry Jesus. I grew up in a wonderful and nurturing suburban Detroit church, where I knew I was loved and where my leadership in the church was encouraged. But when I think about that community that helped raise me, one of the words that comes to mind is, “polite,” well intentioned, but courteous and quiet, shying away from making waves. Because of that, I think the Jesus of my childhood was polite, and my understanding of the good news of the gospel was more subdued, discreet. I don’t remember hearing much about social justice in the church growing up, and when there were opportunities to take positions on movements happening in the church, especially around the inclusion of LGBTQ+ individuals, there was more of a wait-and-see mentality. I mean no disrespect to the community that launched me into a life of faith and service, but I have a different perspective on my home church and suburban Jesus as my faith has continued to deepen and grow. I give thanks that young people at Westminster, including my own children, are exposed to a dynamic God, who relates to and expresses a range of emotions, and that they are encouraged in their own faith to do the same.
If we see Jesus as angry in Mark 11, it is important to note he commits no act of violence against anyone. Jesus is protesting, showing he is more than a pilgrim visiting the temple, and he is proclaiming his authority to disrupt systems. In doing so, he is showing that without a doubt, he is the Son of God.
As I have been thinking and praying about all of this in preparation for today, in light of the theme of Belonging for this year together as a community of faith, I found myself wondering:
How do we belong to anger, our own and our place in collective anger, and how does anger belong to each one of us as people of faith?
How does focusing on these sides of ourselves and the anger of our marginalized and criminalized siblings inform our sense of belonging?
Is our limited relationship to anger stopping us from listening, from taking part in change?
Could reorienting ourselves to anger actually empower us and others?
Theologian Thomas Keating distinguishes between the feeling of anger and the energy of anger. The feeling of anger, Keating explained, is usually thought of as a way of defending oneself or beating up other people or enacting revenge. In contrast, the energy of anger is that powerful energy in the body which enables us to persevere in the pursuit of the difficult good. He goes on to say that the difficult good is part of the spiritual journey, and having patience with it is an incomparable gift. Keating believed the energy of anger ought never to be repressed and when we don’t distinguish between the feeling of anger and the energy of anger, we miss the very thing which gives us the capacity to serve others.
Jesus has the energy of anger, and he uses it to disorganize and interrupt, not to wreak havoc for the sake of aggression and power. The authorities are the ones who lean toward violence, the chief priests and scribes are looking for a way to kill him. In contrast, Jesus doesn’t yell or use weapons, rather he teaches, and people are spellbound by his words. What we might assume ends as caustic and volatile situation actually concludes when Jesus and his disciples, at nightfall, quietly walk away, having made their point. Jesus is good and angry, and uses his anger for good.
This past fall, the young adults of WestConnect and I began a book study called We Cry Justice: Reading the Bible with the Poor People’s Campaign. It has challenged our understanding of poverty and abundance, racism and equality, and most especially changed the way we are reading and understanding Scripture through a new lens of justice. I am grateful for the opportunity to learn and explore alongside these incredible young adults. One of the chapters, written by Janelle Bruce, who is the founding pastor of Church Without Walls and was also an attorney with the Poor People’s Campaign, offers a reflection on today’s Mark 11 text. Bruce frames our call to action as a call to participate in holy disruption as nothing less than a mandate for those who follow Christ for “those who profess love as their religion, and those who believe in justice.” In Bruce’s words, “While comfort leads us to accept more of the same, our faith calls us to disrupt that which harms God’s people. For far too long, churches have depoliticized the gospel of Jesus that demands love and justice in action….”
Bruce goes on to say, “When we have fewer voting rights than we did fifty years ago, we need holy disruption. When seven hundred people die every day from poverty in the United States while the richest amass and hoard wealth, we must engage in holy disruption.” According to Bruce, “Holy disruption demands that people be treated justly…If we walk in the radical nature of Christ when we step into spaces of injustice, people will think, here comes trouble: good, liberating, loving, Christlike trouble!”
This is the energy of anger, the power of collective, active, creative and organized anger to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.
Botswanan feminist theologian Musa Dube talks about the church and creative anger in this way, “I don’t think a church can fully become anti-racist or anti-sexist, or anti-homophobic or anti-tribal until every member of the church is able to express creative anger at injustice, reflecting the character of God. It is ultimately, angry worshippers that change the culture of church, creating a space for all, not just a few.” As much as it might challenge our “Minnesota nice” to our very core, the angry faithful is not an oxymoron, and if we embrace it as a mandate, as part of our call, we might become part of creating space for all.
This is not easy to do, especially if we don’t have much practice participating in holy disruption, in the good energy of anger. In a few minutes, we will sing a piece from the Justice Choir Songbook, which was curated and co-edited five years ago by Abbie Betinis, Ahmed Azaldua, and Tesfa Wondemagegnehu. With an aim of starting local and staying vocal, the Songbook offers people of various traditions a way to sing together toward a world that is more peaceful, just, sustainable, loving, and joyful for all. We will sing Liberty and Justice for All, by Brandon Williams, which names this tangled mix that may be part of our practice of embracing good and energizing anger.
“We are frightened; we are angry; we are rising/ We are hopeful; we are peaceful; we are striving. We won’t stop fighting, won’t stop marching, won’t stop dreaming. Won’t stop loving and proclaiming and believing. Our voices are united louder than hate; we have gathered here; we’ve had all we can take. The time has come; you will hear our call. We’re fighting for liberty and justice for all.”
We are called to be angry about what is happening on our watch. We are called to belong to our own anger and the anger of those who have far less power to change systems.
Before we rise and sing, let me close with an invitation from Janelle Bruce:
“May we remember Jesus the revolutionary, the refugee, the prisoner, and the table turner. May we embody Jesus who fought for the poor, questioned corrupt religious establishments, and challenged evil policies of the government. Just as Jesus disrupted the Roman Empire, we are the moral witnesses of today, and we are called to disrupt the unjust empires of our time.”
May it be so. Amen.
This quote and the following references to James Averill’s study on anger are taken from: Duhigg, Charles, “Why We Are So Angry: The Real Roots of American Rage,” The Atlantic, January/February 2019. Obtained online: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/01/charles-duhigg-american-anger/576424/
Heartfulness 22: Meekness and the Feeling of Anger vs. the Energy of Anger, obtained online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xenkx6167Kw
 Bruce, Janelle, “Should We Sit at the Table- or Turn it Over?,” pg. 90. We Cry Justice: Reading the Bible with the Poor People’s Campaign, edited by Liz Theoharis (Minneapolis: Broadleaf Books) 2021.
 “Racial Justice: What’s It Got to Do with Me?” Racial Justice Sunday 2022 Resources, Published by Churches Together in Britain and England. Obtained online: https://ctbi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/RJS-2022-edit.pdf.pagespeed.ce.nU7KxSg95M.pdf
 Liberty and Justice for All, by Brandon Williams, from the Justice Choir Songbook. Used by permission under Creative Commons Copyright BY-NC-ND 4.0.
 Bruce, Janelle. Pg. 91.