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Can rage be holy?

04 February 2021

From Old Testament prophets to the present day, it can be, says Jarel Robinson-Brown


Demonstrators march through Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August after the shooting by police of Jacob Blake, which came in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minnesota

Demonstrators march through Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August after the shooting by police of Jacob Blake, which came in the wake of the death of George F...

MY LOCATION in the world, as someone who is Black, gay, and Christian, has meant that there has been little refuge from the violence and injustice that brings an emotion like rage to birth in a person’s life. This has rendered rage not only necessary, but means that it comes to me endowed with a certain utility: survival.

I also have the very real experience, the beauty, of being Jamaican and among the descendants of those who, in St Thomas, on 11 October 1865, raged and rebelled against White colonisers in Morant Bay, led by a Christian preacher who knew that rage and rebellion could be holy.

Rage is an old friend — certainly, no stranger — and those who are keen to condemn rage as inherently unchristian do so, I suspect, because life has not (yet) necessitated rage either as a form of expression or, more essentially, as a weapon of survival. To those who know what it means to be human in the face of death, rage is no foe.

Rage functions on many levels. There is the rage a young boy feels when, looking out on the world, he realises that his father is absent and feels this absence uniquely. That rage is directed to the universe, perhaps even to God.

There is the rage I knew walking into school one day and seeing Billy Cox’s chair empty in the classroom — murdered, shot dead, just 13 years old, in his bedroom by two other boys. That anger was directed at our teacher, who wanted another boy to sit in Billy’s seat that same week, as though nothing had happened.

I raged, wanting to know why it was that bodies could vanish without explanation, without interrogation. Without rage.

Then there’s the rage directed at systems. The kind of rage I felt innocently walking the streets with a group of schoolfriends only to be singled out by my Blackness: pulled aside and frisked publicly. Like property, not a human, just an “IC3 male”.

There is the rage I felt leading Lyle Tulloch’s memorial service in Southwark. I raged wanting to know who it was that caused those 13 stab wounds, and why I lived in a world that, although it eventually sentenced his murderers, seemed utterly uninterested in what made a knife or a gun the chosen language of young Black men like myself in a racist, capitalist, and unjust world that saw us as nothing other than inherently violent — boys who grew up and who sometimes knew the intruding intimacy of a White uniformed touch more than the tenderness of those who helped bring us into this world. No, to us, rage was no stranger.

It was the thing that kept us alive before we knew we truly wanted to live, though we came to our parents as children born Black, male, and endangered. All our boyhood plans — of wanting to be music stars, astronauts, medics, or the one who found the cure to cancer — were cut short because of the cancer we might call the wilful neglect of a too often apathetic majority.


THERE is a litany of people I have left behind who did not make it: many who endow my rage with a generational consciousness. They make the rage I feel today not my own, but theirs, a rage rooted in the desire for life and all that pertains to it; rage rooted in a commitment to the fullness of life, for every life — because it is a rage which has seen and known the omnivorous nature of death.

Somewhere between Black nihilism and Afro-pessimism, rage situates itself as a necessary response to the present culture, in which resisting Empire and establishing alternative visions of this world are the only things that speak to me of the possibility for hope, peace, justice, reconciliation, and redemption.

AlamyBlack Lives Matter protests in London in 2016

In this world, where love is in famine, and the inadequacy of Christianity as an institutional system is clear, I hear the raging words of the prophets deeply: “For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, ‘Violence and destruction!’ For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.

“If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name’, then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jeremiah 20.8-9).

The prophetic is clearly something physical. Prophets feel. They feel both the power of God’s Word and the desperate agony of the world in their bodies. Sometimes, this agony is so deep it causes them to walk around totally naked, if you’re Isaiah, or, in Micah’s case, to threaten nakedness.

You could say that the prophet’s heart and God’s heart become one. The prophet feels what God feels: prophetic sympathy, prophetic solidarity is the assimilation of the prophet’s life with the divine life. When the broken-hearted and downtrodden declare that “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,” the prophet reminds the world that God knows, sees, and feels, and is not indifferent to human agony.


IT IS always really God who rages in the prophetic word, and because the rage is God’s, any prophetic rage always finds its end in the communal. It’s always a rage shaped like advocacy before God for the weak and the persecuted.

Jeremiah finds that the Word of God restlessly inhabited him — we could say that, for the prophet, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow. . .” (Hebrews 4.12).

But Jeremiah doesn’t entirely embrace this feeling. In fact, he hates it, and who can blame him? Only a few verses earlier, Jeremiah is slapped in the face and beaten. He’s put into stocks, left overnight by Pashhur, son of Immer the priest. He may have been dangled upside down for some time, and yet, when released, is not fatigued, but still defiant.

When that little ordeal is over, he’s clearly not happy with God. He’s been publicly humiliated, regrets his calling, yet finds himself telling truth to power. “You, Pashhur, and all who live in your house, shall go into captivity, and to Babylon you shall go; there you shall die, and there you shall be buried, you and all your friends, to whom you have prophesied falsely” (Jeremiah 20.6).

No, Jeremiah cannot shut his mouth. Like Socrates in Plato’s Apology, Jeremiah discovers that “Parrhesia [bold speech], was the cause of [his] unpopularity.” The prophet’s vocation is mostly one it seems of unending wrestling, of grief and of torment — wrestling with the world, wrestling with injustice, wrestling with God. Jeremiah, though, has a prophetic reluctance which, unlike other prophets, he doesn’t seem to ever outgrow:

“Before I fashioned you in the belly, I knew you, and before you came out of the womb, I consecrated you. A prophet to the nations I made you” (Jeremiah 1.5).

So begins the prophetic life, inherently personal, deeply individual. Like the voice of God calling Samuel asleep in the temple, so the voice of God to Jeremiah says: You have a purpose, and therefore everything around you might just have a purpose, too.

At the simplest level, the prophetic is the awareness that life and all that pertains to life has a meaning — a meaning that the prophets exist to constantly remind us of. Like the empty chair of a murdered schoolboy in a south-London classroom, the prophetic points to the vacant places where life once was, and could still be, if only the world were different.


WE COULD say that the prophetic life is rooted in the awareness that nothing exists that is not imbued with the dignity and worth of God, and that you might just know and understand nothing else, except that everything around you is filled with divine value.

It is in the presence of this God, who calls and consecrates you before you know anything of rage, anger, or injustice, that the prophetic life, of which rage may be a large part, begins.

It’s a prophetic life rather than a moment, because it demands everything. The prophetic life, if Jeremiah is anything to go by, is therefore not chosen, and it is a life for which the one who is called is woefully ill-prepared: “Alas, O Master, Lord, I know not how to speak, for I am but a lad”(Jeremiah 1.7).

“And the Lord reached out His hand and touched my mouth, and the Lord said to me ‘Look, I have put My words in your mouth’” (Jeremiah 1.9-10).

The prophet, it appears, is now both a speaker and a witness, one whose mouth has been filled and whose eyes have been directed. “Look,” says the Lord. “I have put My words in your mouth” — words which are not the property of the prophet, and a gaze now which is no longer their own.

They live, now, in fellowship with the feelings of God, in communion with the divine consciousness, and inhabit an existence in covenant not with other people, but with the truth — a truth which will summon not just society to maturity, but also themselves.

The prophetic individual has now only two companions: love and truth. They are often a person of agony whose reputation is at stake in everything they say because it is God who has filled their mouth with the words which no one else can speak.

To even talk about prophetic rage might be to begin to undermine what the prophetic is. There is, when honestly interrogated, nothing prophetic about an anger which finds its limit in the realm of speech. We can easily neglect that one of the defining qualities of rage is its connection to violence.

The dictionary defines rage as violent and uncontrolled anger, and violent action. Rage is oxymoronic with the prophetic whenever we conceive of rage as mere energetic speech or passionate feeling. In our world, both the loud and the busy — so long as they are loud and busy doing good — might be described as “prophetic”.

Rage, in the proper sense, transgresses its own contours, redefines its own borders, pushes language beyond itself into action, so much so that it finds itself moving us — the body, in rhythm with God — until it speaks in the key of heaven.

While there are those who criticise the injustices of the day, but for whom they fundamentally remain tolerable, those who are in the prophetic tradition find that injustice assumes cosmic proportions. Whilst the world, so often in denial of the catastrophic, is fast asleep, the prophet feels the call from heaven: “Wake up, sleeper!”


IT WOULD be easy to associate what might be imagined as prophetic rage with strength and violent action of the worst kind. Jesus’s flipping tables wasn’t, in my view, his most prophetic act. Jesus was at his most prophetic washing feet, showing solidarity with those about to be stoned, and breathing his last breath beside criminals on the cross to whom he offers eternity.

In each of those actions, Jesus identifies himself, like a true prophet, with the last, the least, and the lost, with the weak and the suffering and the disinherited. Jesus proves the possibility of an alternative world by where he puts his body.

AlamyThe prophet Jeremiah, an image taken from a Bible from the St Vojtech publishing house

The prophetic dynamic of rage demands that our theological commitments do not remain silent in the face of evil, that they speak to the moment in accordance with the will of God. Our vision of the alternative world awakens us to the reality that only prophetic rage can penetrate the depths of human despair, because prophetic language is both intimately divine and eerily human.

There is no such thing as a prophetic life which is content to be prophetic in language only. Prophetic living, if it is of God, moves us to ask not just what must be said, but, more crucially, what must be done. This is the question that burned in the hearts of those who raged before us. What must be done:

about this evil,
about this injustice,
about this hunger,
about this poverty,
about this corruption,
about this oppression?

Prophetic rage is specific and relentless. It encourages us not simply to name our fears or to face our enemies. Rather, it asks each person: “Where does it hurt, and who made it hurt, and where are the people or the systems that hurt you, and how can they be stopped?”

”Anger”, St Thomas Aquinas said, “is the passion that moves the will to justice.” For me, anger coupled with discernment is always a sign of hope, because anger begins to move us to do something about what has caused us to rage.

Angry people, who find themselves at the edge of speech, know that mere language cannot solve the fire within. The prophetic quality of rage causes you to realise that silence, complacency, lack of anger is not virtue, but sin. It is a rage born of consciousness.

At the Black Lives Matter protests in London last year, I saw more than one placard that read: “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.” Prophetic rage is more than a momentary knee-jerk reaction to injustice: it is a rage born of attention, and attention is born of love.

Simone Weil says that “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. . . [It] is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Attention to God is what enables us to pay attention to the world, and to pay attention to the world is to be postured towards the world in love.

Prophetic rage is about adopting God’s posture towards the world as those who are in the world. It is a rage born from wrestling with a God in prayer who “has said that he would dwell [not just in light but also] in thick darkness” (1 Kings 8.12-13).

It was attention to God that led to the rage of the prophets. It is a rage born in prayer and solitude, and let us remember that Jesus had to go into the wilderness before he could march into the temple and flip tables.

Moses has to commune with God at Horeb before he can face Pharaoh. Ezekiel and Isaiah have to pay enough attention to the God who gives them scrolls to eat (Ezekiel 3.3) and who rests burning coals against their lips (Isaiah 6.7) before they can prophetically open their mouths against the disorder of the world. They have to enter the depths of empty valleys.


THERE can be no prophetic rage without encountering God in prayer and mystery. And perhaps we come to know the true source of our rage when we examine our brokenheartedness before God in prayer, in a world in which God seems so often to be absent.

Walter Brueggemann touches on how the “kings” of this world — the principalities and powers — try to convince those of us who feel rage that nothing can change. He writes: “Passion as the capacity and readiness to care, to suffer, to die, and to feel is the enemy of imperial reality. Imperial economics is designed to keep people satiated so that they do not notice.

“Its politics [are] intended to block out the cries of the denied ones. Its religion is to be an opiate so that no one discerns misery alive in the heart of God. Pharaoh, the passive king in the universe, in the land without revolution or change or history or promise or hope, is the model king for a world that never changes from generation to generation. That same fixed, closed universe is what every king yearns for. . .”

Sometimes, rage is the only thing that disturbs and disrupts the palaces of these societal kings. Sometimes, rage is the only thing that gets the high and mighty to notice the manifold sicknesses at work in a disordered disunited kingdom.

Sometimes, rage is the only thing that gets the rich to notice the poor, the White to notice the Black, the straight to notice the gay — and to stop and think: “Why are they so angry, and why does this rage appear to involve me?”

Dr Martin Luther King said that “a riot is the language of the unheard,” and so many are unheard. In this world which has, through oppression, looted the linguistic arsenal of the poor and the oppressed, prophetic rage puts both its mouth and its body where its heart is.

Prophetic rage is that love of God in action. It is the raging love of our ancient God moving in this modern age. It is God’s liberation power, Christ’s revolutionary vision, and the Holy Spirit’s courageous fire that moves those who remain maladjusted to injustice.

It is the exegesis of exegesis — praxis, not prose. Through it, we realise that so much of what we see as “final” is a myth — that there are no race issues, or gay issues, or gender issues. There are just people and systems and institutions that refuse to give up power and privilege and wealth — and who are, because there is a Kingdom of God and a kingdom of evil — quite content to have their knee on other people’s necks.

As the descendants of those who were renamed and purchased, branded, and brutalised, suspected, and fetishised, I know that it was rage and love that set us free. And, in this world that still despises our freedom, it is clear that prophetic rage will never be redundant, but even more necessary, until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream”.

 Adapted from a talk given at the How to Rage: Theology, activism and the church online conference, hosted by SCM Press, on 30 January. The full talk is available on the Church Times Podcast. Tickets for a recording of the entire conference are available at www.scmpress.co.uk/events.

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