“When you can’t control what’s happening, challenge yourself to control the way you respond to what’s happening. That’s where the power is.” - Unknown Author
Like so many others I watched media reports this week of angry protests against lockdown, mask-wearing, mandatory immunisations, and closed workplaces. The scenes shown were violent. I was horrified — and I caught myself thinking, “this kind of thing happens in other places, not in Australia!” It has led to a reflection on anger and how do we express our anger safely in ways that respect others.
I grew up with a belief that anger was wrong for a Christian. Whether that was what I was actually taught in church, or that is how my child-like thinking construed what was said around me is unclear, and it really doesn’t matter. No one disabused me of the idea that, if I was calling myself a Christian, I could not show anger. And so, I developed an anger management issue. I would bottle up my anger. I recall spending many hours in my room pretending not to be angry as I played my guitar (very poorly!). I would emerge when I could face people again in the facade of calmness I thought was required.
The story of Jesus getting angry in the temple, overturning tables and sending merchants running (John 2) did not seem to feature in my Christian education. I was labelled by people I loved and respected as a peacemaker, and I piously wore the badge with honour. But the outcome was an inability to be my full self in healthy, holistic ways. I was 19 years old when I “confessed” to someone that I was angry about something. The actual cause of my anger is very trivial now, although at the time it was significant, and the culmination of a series of incidents that built over time. It was only then that this person tried to teach me that there is something called “righteous anger,” and they drew my attention to Jesus’ anger as expressed in the scriptures.
The teachings of those early years of my life have left a permanent mark on me. I still struggle to express anger in healthy and constructive ways. And that is where my reflections on the angry protests have led me to this week. Violently attacking police, marching threateningly toward a particular building (whether it be Union headquarters or government offices, or anywhere else) is not helpful or healthy. Nor is it ever likely to bring about the desired change. So how do we express our anger?
For many years I went walking along a particular beach in Adelaide close to where my ministry placement was located. Every day I would see broken glass on the sand, and I would get angry about it. Children and dogs played on that beach, people would walk and run bare footed along the shore line. The glass would cause significant injury if trodden or fallen on, and if it washed out with the ebbing tide, sea life could also be injured or killed. How could people be so thoughtless and inconsiderate to leave broken glass at the beach? Left unexpressed, the anger was futile. So I looked for a healthy way to express my anger. Each time I walked I would look for the glass pieces and pick them up. Of course I never managed to get all the bits of glass, but I got some. And it helped manage the feelings of anger because I was doing something constructive and helpful: I was making a positive difference whether other people saw it or not. And I didn’t need anyone else to see or acknowledge what I was doing. It was enough that I was doing something.
There is much in our world today that might make us angry. Whether it is the same things the protestors marched about this week, or the actual protestors who turned violent. Whether it is because we are still in lockdown, or because the restrictions are not easing quickly enough for us, or because the messaging of “freedom for the vaccinated” riles us up as an injustice… We may be angry about human rights abuses, climate change, disparity between First and Second Peoples, and many, many other things. And if we are not angry ourselves, we most likely know someone else who is.
It’s ok to be angry. God makes space for anger in our world. In fact, anything that is not of God, anything that is unjust or unloving should make us angry. What I keep learning as I continue to grow up and learn how to be a faithful, faith-filled adult is that my anger should lead me into words and actions that advocate for justice and love, that bring about healing and redemption in the world — for all people, for all of creation. Sometimes we might not feel like we are making much difference, but one less piece of glass on the beach, one more letter to a political leader, one more reminder of the right, just and loving thing to do, one more action in the face of inaction makes all the difference. The truth is that we can’t control what is happening around us, but we can control and choose how we respond. Perhaps… maybe… this is the leadership we can offer in these times.
Blessings and peace,