From anger to action

The Centre for Theology & Community l

CTC’s Co-ordinating Fellow, the Revd Dr Simon Cuff, gave a talk to clergy in south London on the anger – and action – of Jesus. The full talk is online here, and a condensed form is given in this blog.

Whatever God’s anger is, it is identical with his love. God’s anger is God’s love.

In doctrinal terms this stems from ‘the doctrine of divine simplicity’. The philosophical theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff notes the extraordinary prominence medieval theologians – Jewish, Christian, and Muslim alike – gave to the doctrine of divine simplicity. This is the belief that God is simple, in him there are no distinctions whatsoever. All of God’s properties: his justice, his mercy, his anger, his love are identical. God is simply God. God is God. God is simple.

If one grants that God is simple, then God’s anger is God’s love. Unlike human anger or human love which differ because they are different properties or states within the loving woman or angry man. Divine anger is identical to divine love and differs in how it impacts upon its object. The same God’s action in the world is perceived as love by some and anger by others, depending on their standing in relation to that action. God’s grace is simply God. In some understandings of judgement day, God’s doesn’t burn some whilst welcoming others to heaven, God simply acts so that he is all-in-all; what is outside of Christ doesn’t survive the fire of God’s love; only what is in Christ will remain, all within the one-and-the-same action of God.

Our problem is that we’re not very good at working out what God loves and what makes God angry. Until we see God face to face, we won’t be sure that we’ve correctly identified the object and extent of God’s love and of his anger. God knows, and that’s enough.

God is simple. God’s love is God’s anger. Divine anger differs from human anger. Human anger affects the person who is angry – raised pulse, red face, high blood pressure. Divine anger transforms the object of God’s anger.

As a final word on the theological basis I’m trying to sketch out, I want us to look again at Christ’s anger. We know that if want to see God most clearly in this life, we look to Christ. We know too – how many times have each of us preached – that it’s okay to be righteously indignant, because Jesus was righteously indignant in the Temple. We see Jesus turning the tables on the money-sellers and we teach others that there are some things we can be righteously indignant about. But we shy away from saying it’s ok to be angry, because Christ could never be angry.

The best example of our image of Jesus driving our reading of Scripture, rather than our image of Jesus being challenged by it, is in the raising of Lazarus in John. It doesn’t start well. You can almost sense Jesus’ frustration with the disciples.‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’… Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead.’ Then, Jesus arrives at Bethany and Mary and Martha are grieving. He sees Mary crying tears of grief, and the Jews with her weeping. And he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He weeps. He arrives at the tomb and is again greatly disturbed. Jesus is sad at the death of his friend. Lovely Jesus.

Except when we look at the Greek, our image of Jesus is challenged. What’s translated here as ‘greatly disturbed in spirit’ and ‘deeply moved’ are more usually rendered ‘snorting with anger’ and ‘deeply agitated’. We let our image of Jesus drive our translation. We can’t bring ourselves to say ‘Jesus is angry’. We water this down: Jesus is ‘greatly disturbed in spirit’. We don’t let our view of what it means to be good be challenged by the Jesus that actually meets us in Scripture.

And what happens when Jesus gets angry? Stuff happens. Jesus’ anger transforms the situation. Lazarus is raised and through this many believe – in Jesus, and that death, though inevitable, is not the end.

All this shouldn’t surprise us. We believe Jesus is the Incarnate God. If we believe in a God whose anger is identical to his love, then we shouldn’t be surprised when we see Jesus exhibiting a kind of anger and when that anger looks a lot like divine anger – that anger which transforms not the person who is angry, but the object of his anger. Jesus’ anger transforms the death of Lazarus, bringing him back to life and many to believe.

There’s one more thing I want to draw our attention to in this passage. Jesus weeps. Jesus’ tears occur between two references to his anger. Jesus’ tears aren’t divorced from his anger, they are bound up with it. Jesus is crying as much at the disbelief of his friends as at the death of one of them. Jesus cries with and because of that which makes him angry. His grief is tied up with his anger. Grief and anger are intimately bound. Our word ‘anger’ comes from the Old Norse word for grief.

If nothing else, our anger is our sadness that the world in which we live is not the world as it might be, that the world in which we live is not the world which God ultimately intends it to be. We can and should get angry at those things which grieve us in the world, that make us sad that they are not as they might be.

What makes us angry are also those situations in which we feel powerless to do anything about. When I was a curate, I was involved in discussions with developers about the levels of affordable housing in a number of developments in and around the parish. There was a public consultation about the development around a local football stadium and we went to ask how much of the proposed new housing would be genuinely affordable. The consultation was full of people with considerable wealth from just over the river who were concerned about parking on match days. Almost no-one was there from the community in which the new housing would be built, who wouldn’t be able to afford any of the homes – even the so-called affordable ones – that were about to be built in their own backyards. The consultation was a tick-box exercise that wasn’t really hearing the views of those for whom new housing was desperately needed. I was angry.

We met with the developers, with the landowners, and with the football stadium. We asked how much genuinely affordable housing there would be. We were told that the financial viability of the project meant that there could be very little, and any that there was would be under the legal definition of affordability – 80% of the market rent. We felt helpless, and powerless. And we were angry. And at the official end of almost every meeting, we would be taken aside – a developer or a landowner would tell us exactly what we needed to do in order to get genuinely affordable homes in the next development to come along (but never theirs), that often they had got into the industry through working in social housing at the beginning of their career, and that they too wanted to see more genuinely affordable homes but they were helpless to do it in this particular development because of what the job demanded of them. If we were angry before, we were usually fuming by then.

Fuming anger isn’t any use to anyone. Fuming anger, hot anger, makes bad decisions, and says and do stupid things. But cold anger, the kind of anger that stays with us even when the incident which gave rise to our blood pressure has past – this has the potential to be transformed into a divine anger, and this sort of anger has the potential to transform.

We shouldn’t just stop at getting angry. Martin Luther King put this well: ‘It is not enough for people to be angry – the supreme task is to organize and unite people so that their anger becomes a transforming force’.

No matter how big or small your church, as you walk through any large development you can’t help but feel small and insignificant in the face of budgets you could only dream of, and as you struggle to work out exactly who it is you need to talk to to bring your vision of what your area might be to fruition behind faceless walls of various corporations, landowners and development boards.

In some sense this is deliberate. Just as our cathedrals were designed to make us realise our place in the majesty of God’s creation, so these new developments are designed to make us recognise that this world of global capital is simple the case. There’s nothing that we can do except minister within somebody else’s vision of corporate space and community.

Is this so? How can we make our helplessness, our grief, our anger at this like God’s anger? How can we cultivate a holy anger, a divine discontent that might begin to speak into our communities and transform them?

Martin Luther King helps us again here: ‘Now, we got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realisation that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.’

King reminds us here that for our anger to be transformative it needs to have impact – ‘it is not enough to be angry – the supreme task is to organize and unite people so that their anger becomes a transforming force’. And if it’s to have impact we need power, without it all our efforts, risk being sentimental or anaemic.

Talk of power often makes Christians itchy, and ‘power’ can all too quickly be dismissed as an un-Christian notion. But this is lazy thinking that plays into the hands of those who have power in our world.

Our power should be like God’s power, just as our anger should be like God’s anger. And just as God’s anger is transformative, so obviously his power. Christians shouldn’t be afraid of power, but they should be afraid of holding power in a human way and not in God’s. Power is simply the ability to act – to do, or to get others to do or stop doing something. And King has already told us what power looks like when it’s exercised like God’s, when we might become a transforming force.

We have power when we organise and unite people. Human power organises, controls and divides. God’s power unites. Christian’s utilise this power when they organise and unite people around God’s vision for community, and not a vision of our own devising.

If we organise and unite people around our holy anger, around God’s vision for community, and around that sense of anger or grief or frustration where the world falls short of this vision, where it is not what it might be, then we begin to build our capacity to act, to live out that vision. We build our power. We build communities and institutions and churches motivated with a common discontent that the world is not as it could be. A common anger that there are more who have yet to hear the good news of Jesus, that there are those in our parishes not living that life in all its fulness which God intends, that there are entire families and communities which are not free to live the lives which God wills them to live. A common anguish that there are those in our parishes held in bondage by the chains of poverty, or by the greed, selfishness, and idolatry of others, of those with the ability to act in such a way as those chains might no longer hold them back. A common grief that there are those in our midst who might even today begin to share in the abundance of the Risen Life.

If we cultivate this holy anger it has the potential to a transforming force in our community and a means to realise the power we already have to make those voices heard. Like God’s anger it has the power to begin to transform our community around us.

A final word on power. God’s power, the power we’re called to have, relinquishes and transforms. Human power takes for itself and maintains. God’s power builds up and is eternal. Human power holds up, corrupts and, this is why it’s so vital we act as a community of faith, all around us, is, literally, decaying.

Power is the ability to act. And these shifts in power have both undermined the ability of the Church to utilise the power it once held (however justly or unjustly it used that power) but these shifts also prevent the Church from fulfilling one aspect of its vocation. The decay of power has limited the Church’s ability both to be a buffer to the forces and worldly powers which effect the lives of our parishioners, but also her ability to be a training ground for how individuals should hold power and act in a way that God intends. These shifts in power have undermined the ability of churches and other intermediary institutions to train their members in how to organise and bring people together to transform their communities with a common vision of what the world might be.

Matthew Bolton in his How To Resist notes: ‘In times past, the churches played perhaps the most significant role. If we think of some of the great institutions we benefit from today – hospitals, schools, housing associations, trade unions and charities – these were often developed in, or sponsored by, local churches. As the primary gathering place of a local community, connecting with each other around a tradition of hope and service, the churches gave birth to many of the great social innovations and also many of the great social justice campaigns, such as the abolition of slavery… We still desperately need faith communities to play this role’.

And how do we this?

By cultivating holy anger – by allowing ourselves to be frustrated where the world is not what it might be and not how God wishes it to be. By sharing and spreading that holy anger. ‘Stirring up divine discontent with wrong’. By building up communities who share our dissatisfaction that the world is not as it might be, and not as God wills it.

And finally, by utilising that holy anger. By using that as a source of energy and transformation to contribute to our vision of community and transforming our communities and the objects of our anger.

What happens if we do this?

For one, those developing our communities have a better sense of what the Church wants from development and what a Christian vision of community might looks like. I remember a particularly infuriating series of meetings in which a developer made clear that all he understood of the church was that we were a group of people who needed a space big enough for our old ladies to play bingo during the week. Through having conversations across our church and community about what we actually wanted and needed from a proposed community space, we developed relationships but also gave the developer a better understanding of what it meant to be a member of the Church.

I want to end on a note of hope. We’re in our local communities for the long game. Power is decaying. The world as we know it is passing away. Even the faceless development and regeneration corporations are passing away, and will, likely, pass away sooner than the world around us. The luxury developments and new communities of the sixties and seventies and eighties across this city have communal spaces once serviced by an array of concierges and service-providers now lying dormant as the developers moved on and the new owners no longer provided the same level of luxury promised in the brochures. The same will be true here at some point when restaurants and cafes are difficult to run and lose their popularity in a particular area or the gated-gyms and private gardens prove costly to maintain.

Here, we can be ready to step in. As churches with a vision of our community, a shared vision of what the world might be, we can position ourselves to step into those spaces where earthly power decays and which might otherwise be left to rack and ruin. Even if we feel powerless in the face of all this now, we know that nothing in this world last forever. In the mean time, we’ve got quite enough to be angry about.

Leave a Comment


Email* (never published)


Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.


Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: