With anger fast becoming the emotion of choice today, learning to handle the new volatility has become a priority for Christians.
The acronym WWJD, though rather clumsy, has quickly become the best known of all in today’s world. What would Jesus do? There are a whole range of issues which people can use this probing question to cast light on. If you want my opinion, I prefer the question: what would Jesus have me do? However, WWJHMD doesn’t quite trip off the tongue in a way that’s likely to catch on. What would Jesus have me do? isn’t a question you can always answer with any certainty, but I think it is easier dealing with your own conscience than trying to imagine yourself into Jesus’. After all, when Jesus walked into the Temple at Jerusalem one particular day, who could have predicted he would end it guilty of assault and criminal damage?
The attack on the temple traders is just one example from the life of Jesus where we find him doing inexplicable things. Comparing a Gentile woman to a dog licking up crumbs under the table is another, though we have lost the raw impact this must have made by co-opting it into our liturgy: ‘we were not fit even to eat the crumbs from under your table’. God is unpredictable and he is untamed power. Scripture tells us he always acts in ways which are consistent with his character, but this doesn’t mean that we can anticipate it.
Why did Jesus behave in such a violent way then? It appears at two different points in the Gospel accounts. John places it early in Jesus’ ministry after the first miracle, while the other writers place it after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, shortly before his arrest and execution. Commentators have speculated long and hard over his purpose. The claim that an otherwise legitimate trade had no place in the Temple precincts is sometimes made. Others assume the prices must have been extortionate, part of an organised racket abusing the solemn business of atoning for sin. However, Mark’s Gospel shows Jesus to be driving out the buyers as well as the sellers and the idea anyway of Jesus being some kind of ‘Watchdog’ consumer champion is harder to swallow.
His attack can’t have been extensive, otherwise the religious leaders would have found grounds to try him for blasphemy there and then. It looks more like a symbolic assault on the spiritual corruption that had eaten into the rituals of Judaism. But this was more than a carefully organised photo-opportunity, the kind of stunt where an overweight figure dressed as Batman hangs ungracefully from a public building in Westminster. This anger was tangible and fearless – and it was designed to hurt. Jesus may have been slow to anger, but like many such people, when his anger was roused it was fierce.
Anger is fashionable today. A few years ago I read a book by the journalist Gavin Esler about his time as the BBC’s Washington correspondent. He called it: ‘United States of Anger’, pondering how the richest society in human history could also be one of the angriest. I feel now more than when I read it that a similar rage has gripped Britain too and there are most likely several triggers.
A rights-based consumer culture educates people to expect that services will deliver just what they want and when they want it, making them intolerant of delay or failure. The rootlessness and anonymity of modern life means there are fewer social restraints on people exercising self-control. The crowdedness of urban areas enlarges the scope for dispute. The pace at which we live, demonstrably quicker than even a decade ago, makes people impatient with anyone who gets in their way. Our materialism has also contributed to us viewing relationships instrumentally: ‘I could use him’ or ‘I don’t buy that’ are just two of the calculations we make about others. If we invested more time in fewer people we would probably be less angry, but modern urban life is made up of many superficial and transient relationships which must work for us if we’re not to lose our cool.
Handling anger is a big challenge for Christians. It is mistaken to think that anger is always wrong. The prophets described God as angry with his people on several occasions, although he is ‘slow to anger’, implying that we should be too, if we are to reflect his character. But the emotion is so volatile and potentially destructive, and so deeply embedded in the human heart that many of us really struggle to handle it. Expressing anger liberally is no answer at all for the Christian because temper fits bully others and gain control over them aggressively. Burying it under a surface veneer of politeness is usually how we cope. This isn’t quite as contemptuous as it sounds because at least it means others aren’t hurt directly and is evidence of an attempt at self-control which is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.
Three components of anger are: anger on behalf of others; anger on behalf of ourselves; and anger on behalf of God. Anger can be a wonderful emotion when it is used to oppose injustice in life and we are at our most reliable as angry people when we feel it for others. This doesn’t mean our anger is unimpeachable when expressed on behalf of others: we’ve all seen how some people are unfairly targeted for the suffering of others just because they are convenient scapegoats. But I wish that I and others had more anger over the terrible injustices that profane our world. If we did, we might have less need to justify God’s goodness in the face of preventable human suffering.
Anger on our own behalf is not wrong just because we feel the hurt more personally. To swallow anger is not the same as offering forgiveness though. When we swallow anger we are less likely to understand the scale of forgiveness required and it means the other person may get no real sense of what they have done wrong. But the Bible explicitly cautions us against being habitually angry for ourselves because it usually stems from pride and selfishness and ends up hurting and controlling other people.
Anger on behalf of God is what Jesus showed in the Temple. There is much less of this today as we try to fit into a society which is more openly contemptuous of God than for generations. Some Christians have accommodated themselves by saying that God is in need of no human defence from human profanity. But then why did Jesus lose his temper in the Temple if liberal irony and indifference is all we are called to?
These are big and complicated questions. If Christians are tempted to bury this subject then the account of Jesus overturning the tables at least brings it into the open where, with other human emotions, it surely belongs.
What would Jesus do? Sometimes it’s to get very angry indeed.
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