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(When) Thou shalt be angry

by
20 May 2022

Jonathan Romain explores the part played by fury in faith

Rapp Halour/Alamy

Cain Fleeing from the Wrath of God (c.1805-09) by William Blake

Cain Fleeing from the Wrath of God (c.1805-09) by William Blake

WE ARE living in a very angry society. Anger fuels many of the posts on social media, while fear of the anger that any responses might provoke inhibits many from replying, or even initiating their own posts.

Ask most people which are the sayings that they most associate with religion, and they will probably reply “Love your neighbour as yourself,” or “Turn the other cheek.” For them, Christianity is about selflessness, while the ideal person is meek and mild. It will come as a shock to them — though not to those more familiar with biblical texts — that alongside the love is a large amount of anger. Some of it is, unfortunately, part of human nature when people fall out, as in the example of Cain and Abel. But, whereas this and other instances can easily be condemned as the result of pettiness, greed, or miscommunication, much more challenging is the righteous anger that often blazes forth.

This is particularly the case in the prophetic literature, where there is a constant cry that moral values are being ignored. Isaiah and Jeremiah lead the Angry Brigade, lambasting those who oppress weaker members of society. The incandescent rant in Isaiah 1.11-13 is strikingly relevant to today’s ills. To translate it colloquially: “I am sick of your false piety. . . I am fed up with your public displays. . . Don’t bother keeping up the pretence. . . I am blocking my ears to your so-called prayers.” Jeremiah’s fury can be equally excoriating (7.33, 30.23-4).

 

ISAIAH’s tirade concludes by urging his listeners, then and now, to make positive action the key measure of how religious they are: “Learn to do well, pursue justice, support the oppressed.” This also provides an answer to the age-old question whether religion and politics should mix. Whereas some, both lay and ordained, are adamant that they should not, biblical precedent suggests that they can — and, indeed, should — mix.

Faith cannot be limited to talking about flower arrangements or the Sunday fete. Isaiah (1.23), Amos (5.7, 10-11, 8.4-6), and others all thundered against the social injustices of their time. They exposed the shortcomings of the political hierarchy, criticised the corruption of the business community, and castigated those who trampled on the rights of others. Similarly, Jeremiah berated those who “sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes” (2.7). In this light, the command to “let justice roll down like water and righteous as an everlasting stream” (Amos 5.24) is a direct prescription for political and social activity.

 

A BAN on politics would mean that the clergy did not speak out on current issues that affect the way we live, such as climate change, racism, homelessness, and fair trade. Clergy do not have a monopoly on ethical sensitivities, but nor do politicians, and, while neither should dominate the debate, neither should be silenced. The only caveat is that the clergy should not to go in for party politics and push the manifesto of one particular party. It means that, whether or not you agree with what the Archbishop of Canterbury said over Easter about plans to send illegal immigrants to Rwanda, he surely had the right to say it (and others had equal right to answer back).

Turning the other cheek is fine for hurts against oneself, but not for those against others. To quote the once popular car-bumper sticker, “If you aren’t angry, you aren’t paying attention.” The ills and fault-lines around us cry out for a religious response.

Caution is necessary, however. There is a danger that holy fury can be self-indulgent, a personal bleat rather than a justified concern. In addition, it is all too easy to ascribe one’s own agenda to God, and harm others in the process. We need the capacity to distinguish between righteous anger and narcissistic rage: only the former is in line with the prophetic voices of old. It is the difference between cold anger — the type of anger, born of moral imperatives, that propels us to fight for social justice — and hot anger, a self-centred response that can paralyse us and consume us from the inside.

 

THE most intriguing question is whether God gets angry. In the Bible, the answer is Yes — often! Sometimes, it is with individuals; at others, from the days of Noah onwards, it is with the people as a whole. In fact, if Psalm 7.12 is to be believed, “God is angry every day” (given the many evils in the world, that is not surprising). The references are plentiful and back the claim of the Psalmist: Moses warns the people to behave well “lest the anger of the Lord be kindled against you” (Deuteronomy 17.11), which God then echoes (31.17), and Joshua later reinforces (23.16).

It is clear that these cautions were not heeded in the time of the Judges (2.13, 20, 3.8, 10.7); Isaiah provides graphic details of the divine rage (5.25), as do Amos (8.9-10) and Micah (5.14). Eventually, severe misdemeanours provoke God’s wrath to the point of using the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem, and Lamentations bewails “how the Lord in his anger has set the daughters under a cloud” (2.1, 4).

This holds a practical question for you and me: if we are created in the image of God and aspire to imitatio Dei, what implications does that have for us? Is it good to be angry on a daily basis?

What distinguishes divine anger is its cause: grief for those being hurt. That should be the litmus test for us: is our anger the result of compassion for others and how they have been treated, or is it a selfish anger arising from what has been done to us, and how we feel slighted? But there can be no doubt that today’s faithful should regularly be lifting up their voices in anger and railing against contemporary evils, whether online abuse, social exclusion, or international conflict — and whatever else they are sure makes God angry, too.

 

Dr Jonathan Romain is Rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue, a writer, and the editor of What Makes Me Angry, published by Reform Judaism at £9.99. Copies are available from Marcia Singer at msinger@rjuk.org.

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