On Anger and Building a Movement

Solidarity Forever Poster - Movements fueled by anger

Outrage and Resistance

Early in my career as a director of religious education, I developed a class I called “Outrageous” that was designed to help children and youth figure out how to turn their outrage into practical solutions, such as providing service to the homeless or writing letters to senators. Maria Harris describes a version of the curriculum in her book Teaching and Religious Imagination: An Essay in the Theology of Teaching

You start with an evening of outrageousness. Hold after a party where kids eat gooey tacos and goofy sundaes, listen to wild music, share the most outrageous things they’ve done, play silly games, and talk about crazy teachers they’ve had or eccentric people they’ve known. The next time you meet, talk about what outrageous really means. The root of the word is “rage,” making the term akin to outrage. What are the kids outraged about? What do they see as unfair, unjust, and unkind?

“Soon,” Harris writes, “everyone begins to see the connections between a Live-Aid concert and outrage against world hunger.” [1]  In their enthusiasm, they decide on causes they want to support, develop strategies, and make plans for justice-seeking activities they can carry out during the rest of the year.

Solidarity Forever Poster - Movements fueled by anger

For various reasons, including my inexperience, my adaptation of her idea didn’t work very well. Nonetheless, I learned about the connection between outrage and resistance. We need a certain amount of anger to rebel, to stand up, to say “no.”

Anger and Love

When I think about anger, I usually think back to Beverly Wildung Harrison’s essay on the importance of anger in the work of love in which she points out that “Christians have come very close to killing love precisely because we have understood anger to be a deadly sin.” Instead of being a sin in and of itself, anger is a sign that something is “amiss in relationship,”  and the emotion can give us the energy we need to act for the good of ourselves and the world. [2]

Indeed, the Dalai Lama goes so far as to declare that we should feel anger when people are harmed. “When faced with economic or any other kind of injustice, it is totally wrong for a religious person to remain indifferent. Religious people must struggle to solve these problems.” [3] He describes two types of anger, one based in compassion, and one motivated by hatred. The latter is destructive and only destroys; the former “is a good anger that is worth having” because it can spur social movements to free and provide care for an entire people. [4] That’s why Carol P. Christ, in She Who Changes, writes about the power of anger to heal “when it allows us to react against injustice – both personally and politically.”

The Risk of Anger

Obviously, anger is not all bad. Not only can anger, if used skillfully, help us mend ruptures in relationships, but it helps us stand up to dangers when we, or those we care about, are harmed or threatened. The risk, though, is that when we get mad, we have a tendency to feed our outrage. We tell stories in our heads about the other person, thinking we know why he did what he did and labeling her as stupid or nasty. If, because of deep shame or neglect, we need to feel powerful, we will probably cling to our anger. We may even start a fight with a person who offended us or take out our indignation on our spouse, children, or pets.

Neither Hildung nor Christ are encouraging that kind of anger. While that kind of seething anger does give us energy to do something, it is hardly healing, and it cares only about itself. For anger to lead to healing, we must examine it, temper it, then act carefully. The Dalai Lama, to explain what he means by anger that arises out of compassion, gives an example of a parent yelling at or slapping the hand of a child who is holding a bottle of poison. I would suggest that the parent, in such a case, is acting not out of anger, but out of fear. In my experience, when I have reacted to my children in anger, the outcome has never been good, and it certainly hasn’t been wise.

The Determination to Act

So what about anger that arises out of compassion? What about the political injustice, as when a person is targeted because of race or gender, or personal oppression, as in the case of intimate partner violence or child abuse?

In as much as the anger gives us the determination to act, to stand up for and stand up to, anger has its place. Unfortunately, I’m not sure anger is the best emotion to sustain social action and compassionate response. Anger, after all, gets in the way of rational thought.

One political group that has used anger to its advantage is the religious right. Starting from a small band of “moral majority” proponents, this group rose to power by harnessing outrage. Anger that may have started out as righteous and compassionate morphed into an aggressive movement fueled by jibes, hatred, and lies.

Although we on the left have our stories of injustice, so do they. You may find it ridiculous, but the stories of victimization that the wealthy and the white tell to one another make sense to them, and because of their stories, they’re angry. In anger, they fight back.

Now we’re mad. As we did when Bush was president, we are making fun of the man in the White House now, denouncing him and calling him names. Yet does that really serve us?

Solidarity, Compassion, and Love

I am not suggesting we kiss and make up. Sometimes you leave abusers and put them in jail. Sometimes you fight, resist, and speak out for justice.

Generations before us used their passion to fight for rights, such as those who freed the slaves, got women the vote, reformed orphanages and mental institutions, and won the right for same-sex couples to marry. Justice movements have been successful. Yet I don’t think it’s name-calling that gave them energy, nor do I think righteous indignation helped.

I think what made those movements possible was solidarity. If I hadn’t spent the day writing this column, I would have marched in the Women’s March. Not because I’m mad, but because I love my sisters and brothers and want to support them. I would have marched because I care.

Beneath our anger is almost always fear, sadness, or shame. We don’t notice those more vulnerable emotions. We prefer feeling angry, because anger makes us feel powerful, gives us energy, hides our insecurity, and is a great way to pretend we don’t feel vulnerable or nervous.

Harnessing Our Emotions

What do you feel under your anger? This morning, after reading in the Oregonian about President Trump’s plan to put “America first,” I felt afraid sad. In the same paper, I read quotes from individuals who feel excited about the Trump administration and are eager to see what our new president will do next. They aren’t the villains. Not even Donald Trump is the villain. To blame and shame them doesn’t help me, nor does it help anyone else.

I’m all for holding people responsible and calling them to account. Still, anger’s not really that good at doing that. For the religious right to plan, develop, and lead a movement, for them to influence masses of people and build a base of power and wealth, they had to stop being angry and plan.

Now we need to develop an effective strategy, and we may not be as good at doing that as we think. Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking Fast and Slow, and Shankar Vedantam, in The Hidden Brain, have described how most of our thinking, feeling, deciding, and doing is influenced more by our habits, longings for community, and need for love than our rational mind and logical reasoning.

Regardless of complete their ideas are, our anger, like all our emotions, does arise out of our unconscious mind. We feel the heat before we even understand what went wrong. Clearly, in our personal and our political lives, we need to act. Yet to do so in anger only feeds more anger.

Building a Movement for Love and Justice

Perhaps, through the power of love and solidarity, we can build a movement larger than that which the moral majority built. I don’t suggest we will ever create a world without pain and suffering, a world without injustice. Nor do I think it possible that any government will forever be true, just, and honest. Dictators will always live among us.

At the same time, as the Rev. William Barber reminds us in his video, “Strategies for Hope,” “This is not the worst we’ve ever seen.” [6] Things have been worse in the past, and even though most of us are likely to struggle and suffer more than in recent years, life will get better again. Probably far better.

Yet we won’t to better with anger. While anger may spur our initial rush to resist, if we cling to anger for the long haul, it will destroy not only us, but also any movement we may create.

So notice the emotions that lie under your anger, listen to what we tell yourself about the “enemy,” and slow down your brain. Meditate, pray, and pay attention. Listen. Sit with others, in silence and in camaraderie. When we can feel the warmth of compassion rise within us, when we can laugh and celebrate the joys we share, then it’s time to power the resistance and bolster the movements that will bring us together and return kindness and generosity to our world.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits:

  1. Harris, Maria, Teaching and religious imagination: An Essay in the Theology of Teaching, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1987, 180.
  2. Harrison, Beverly Wildung, “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love” Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality, eds. Judith Plaskow and Carol P. Christ, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1989, 214-225, 220.
  3. Udea, Noriyuki, “The Dalai Lama on What Matters Most: Conversations on Anger, Compassion, and Action,” VA: Hampton Roads, 2013, 98.
  4. Ibid, 98.
  5. Christ, Carol P., She Who Changes: Re-Imagining the Divine in the World, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003, 219.
  6. See his Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/revwilliambarber/.

Photo Credit

Photo by Judy Seidman, poster by Anita Willcox – photo by judy seidman of League for Industrial Democracy poster by Anita Willcox, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14973948