Righteous Anger

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Aggression and rage is almost always understood as negative, and often equated with violence.  Yet feminist writes such as Kathleen Greider call for a proper reappraisal of aggression and its place.  She points that the Latin etymology of ‘aggression’ lies in the verb aggredi, meaning ‘to move towards’, and she uses an intriguing working definition that is significant for our discussion here. 

Greider sees aggression as a central part of human nature present from our earliest infancy. It is as important as love in the human capacity to survive and thrive.

‘aggression is one primary expression of the life force, of the drive to survive and thrive, embodied in positive and negative movement toward and engagement with goals, persons, objects, and obstacles…These two primary forces can be seen in infants who have at birth both the sentiment (love) to engage others and the force (aggression) especially through their ability to cry, to influence the powerful others around them to meet their needs.   K. Greider, ‘Too Militant? Aggression, Gender and the Construction of Justice’ in Moessner, J., (ed.), Through the Eyes of Women: Insights for Pastoral Care (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), p. 125

Thus for Greider, aggression and love are interrelated.  They are both deeply connected to the importance of building and sustaining relationships that enable self and other to flourish:


‘When functioning in this essential unity, aggression and love cannot be fully differentiated.  However, an approximation of their particular contributions might be that love is “desire” and aggression is “movement”. …. Aggression enables love to move toward the thing desired, love enables aggression to desire the thing toward which it moves.  Love has gumption in it, aggression has affection in it.  Without this intermingling, love might be passive, aggression might be only self-serving; with this intermingling, aggression is more likely to be constructive, love is more likely to have backbone’. Greider, Ibid., 1996, p. 127

This working definition of aggression alters our perception of the term.  It relocates it as a neutral given in human and organizational relating that can be expressed positively and negatively.  In its positive form it is about drive; about the activity that moves things forwards so that love and relationship might flourish.  In its negative form, it reacts with violence to those things that appear to deny or destroy the self.  Thus, ‘aggression is used negatively when it is directed toward wasteful and or unconscious violence; aggression is used positively when it is directed toward the affirmation of life and well-being in both its personal and collective dimensions’. Greider, Ibid., 1996, p. 129

Greider’s ‘aggression’ is what others might call ‘assertion’.  Celia Hahn writes that ‘assertion means moving outside oneself, reaching out with vigour and initiative, acting on the world’  C. Hahn, Growing in Authority, Relinquishing Control: A New Approach to Faithful Leadership (Washington DC: Alban Institute, 1994), p. 21.  Hahn draws a clear distinction between aggression and assertion, seeing the former as negative; but Greider argues that sometimes it is the very strength of aggression that is needed.  She reflects on the fact that on the rare occasions where aggression is defended, it is because it is utilised on behalf of others, or constitutes a creative push.  So what is needed is a reappraisal of aggression for the sake of self, and the value of its destructive as well as constructive power:  Greider talks of the possibility of ‘creative destruction’.   Greider, Ibid., 1996, p. 133

As Lytta Bassett notes, Lyssa Bassett, Holy Anger: Jacob, Job, Jesus, (London: Continuum, 2007, pp.70jf), Jesus does not repress the irrepressible feeling of anger which can often spiral up within us, and finds expression in insults and other forms of aggression.  Instead, Jesus’ condemnation is of a more distant kind of anger: that which treats another as a ‘fool’ or as ‘mad’.  Because this kind of labelling refuses to encounter a person face-to-face, and consequentially maintains the inner violence we feel, since the possibility of an appropriate or equitable relationship is now severed.  As Bassett notes, strikingly, Jesus does not say ‘you have no reason to be angry’; nor does he investigate whether the anger is justified or not.  Rather, what matters is what is done with this boiling rage.  And this when Jesus appeals to us to turn to the other person: the object or subject of our wrath.  Hence, we are invited – indeed implored – not to offer a sacrifice or gift until there can be some kind of reconciliation with that other.  Only then can the sacrifice be liberating.

We are starting to encroach on some fairly familiar Girardian territory.  The anger that we have and feel must be purposefully directed and responsibly communicated.  It cannot be hurled at those we feel might merit our fury.  As Girard explains,

‘Instead of giving back more of the same, we must leave the matter at hand to the potential rival.  That is the unique role of the Kingdom… To protect themselves from their own violence, humans ended up channelling it towards innocents.  Christ does the opposite.  He offers no resistance. He does not devote himself to sacrifice in order to play the sacrificial game, but to put an end to sacrifice…’. See R. Girard, Violence and the Sacred, (London: Athlone Press, 1995), p. 76.

Jesus, does not refute or oppose the anger of the abused or marginalised.  Nor does Jesus deny his own anger; or soft-peddle the anger of God.  Instead, Christ invites us into his relationship with God the Father, which does not model competitive desire, thereby providing us with a pattern that does not have space for mutual destruction.  This allows Bassett to argue that holy anger is therefore not an appropriation of God’s anger ‘in the divine mission against others’. Bassett, Ibid., 2007, p. 210.  For God’s anger is something altogether other than human anger.  Rooted in judgement and love, and in the overcoming of idolatry and injustice, God’s anger is a positive and purposeful force that always seeks justice and peace.  Indeed, the quest for perfect love, says Bassett, must always pass through anger. Bassett, Ibid., 2007, pp. 263-64.

So discovering how to acknowledge and give voice to raw experiences following abuse – in ways that can enable radical working together for the growth of all – is a challenge that the Church needs to heed.  In his ministry, Jesus listened to the voices of the marginalised all the time.  Indeed, not only did he listen, but he assimilated such voices into his ministry, and often made the marginalised central, and placed those who were central on the periphery, thereby re-ordering society, forcing people to witness oppression and the response of the Kingdom of God to despair, anger and marginalisation.  In the Church, we need to allow the experiences of the oppressed and abused to challenge and shape the way we hold power and broker relationships. 

Thus, the churches need to continually learn from the veritable panoply of liberation theologies: that marginalised people should not simply be made welcome in the church, but that their anger and aggressive desire for justice might be allowed to reform the manners of the church.  Learning to listen to narratives that convey strong, powerful feelings and experiences of abuse and marginalisation, rather than seeking to dismiss such stories as ‘uncultured’ or as ‘bad grammar’, is a major and costly task for ecclesial polity and pastoral praxis.  Ultimately, the aggression of those who seek justice may help the churches to move on from its ‘tamed and domesticated’ valuing of crucifixion and suffering for its own sake, and work instead for the abused: ‘not to perpetuate (more) crucifixions, but to bring an end to them in a world where they go on and on’. Harrison & Robb, Ibid., 1985, p. 19

I am more than conscious that an argument for a church in which raw experiences of abuse and marginalisation are allowed to be given their full vent is potentially dangerous and irresponsible.  We are all well aware that there is rightful place for reticence, and for the withholding of emotional speech.  All of us understand that a temperate ecclesial polity can, to some extent, depend on finding a non-emotive language for expressing views and communicating across divisions.  But I am also struck by how many churches deliberately disenfranchise and marginalise the proper expression of feelings and experience.  Moreover, they have developed ‘soft’ and ‘coded’ structures for asphyxiating such speech, and pasteurising raw, strong, vernacular language.  I find this not only to be poor ecclesial and pastoral practice, but also theologically weak and urbane, rendering the church into some kind of semi-detached realm, in which all the correct probity of politeness and a polity of civility are observed, but ‘real’ feelings and experiences are never mentioned or aired. 

This cannot be a proper reification of a strong incarnational theology, and neither can it make for the church being an especially genuine community of the redeemed.  If one of the tasks of the church is to make it possible for people to truly face one another, then strong feelings and raw experience must be properly addressed so that they can be appropriately located in the body of Christ, and not suppressed as part of some kind of artful process of subordination. 

How, though, do we discern when anger is a legitimate call for justice, and when it is a petulant reaction to simply not getting one’s own way?  Here we need to look at patterns of power and the motivation of anger.  The good news of the gospel is about the accessibility of God: the welcoming in of the religiously marginalised, and the breaking down of barriers.  So in any kind aggression and anger, we need to be clear whether or not it constitutes a move towards a vision of the kingdom, and how it is motivated by the radical mutuality of love.  The command to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves ultimately defines the place of our aggression and anger.  It demands action, and that action demands drive, which at times requires generative anger and aggression.  The church needs to find a way of holding and utilizing the strong feelings that are part of human loving, remembering, as Harrison and Robb put it, that ‘the important point is that where feeling is evaded, where anger is hidden or goes unattended, masking itself, there the power of love, the power to act, to deepen relation, atrophies and dies’. Harrison & Robb, Ibid., 1985, p. 15

Part of the ministry of Jesus involved the expression of anger, and was occasionally constituted in acts of wilful aggression.  It is hard to imagine some of Christ’s words being spoken in anything other than simmering rage.  There can of course be something like a creative rage – the kind of rage that the poets and the prophets speak of – which is markedly impolite, but utterly godly.  The task for the Church, therefore, is to find ways that do not to suppress or block out strong feelings of anger, or hurt and the aggression it arouses, but to help discern how to channel the energy they bring into the work of the gospel. 

So all of this means listening to the experiences of abuse and marginalisation that have led to aggression and anger, and seeing them as far as possible from the perspective of those with less power.  It means humility on the part of those who hold power, and an acknowledgment of the fear of losing power and control.  It means a new way of looking at power relationships that takes the gospel seriously.  It means churches and church leaders getting in touch with our feelings, and developing an emotional intelligence – the kind that can lead to a new kind ecclesial intelligence.  And this, surely, is what we want from our leaders.  People who can receive and handle feelings – even strong ones – and sometimes communicate the same when necessary. 

It is under such circumstances that one can begin to conceive of the possibility of ‘truth speaking to power (structures)’.  For this speech to happen, the power structures and framework of the institution must be both robust enough and sufficiently humane (i.e., compassionate and empathetic) to understand that a ‘theology of reception’ requires churches to receive coarse, vernacular and strongly articulated feelings.  Moreover, that such feelings cannot and should not be silenced or pasteurised as a pre-condition of receiving pastoral care – and, ultimately, justice.  Where care and justice are denied, the church has a prophetic task to foster ‘loyal dissent’ until such time as the church is faithful to its incarnation and vocation – namely, to be the feeling, sensing body of Christ that proclaims the Kingdom of God.  A Kingdom, moreover, of justice and restoration.