Wrath

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Wrath” Acts 7:54-8:3; 9:1-5

New York Police are investigating what looks like a case of road rage in Harlem on Tuesday.  After a dispute between a motorcyclist and a driver, surveillance video shows motorcyclists surrounding the car and an argument ensuing.  The 63-year-old driver and his 35-year-old son were pulled from the vehicle, thrown to the ground, kicked, and robbed.

Last week, Atlanta Braves outfielder Marcell Ozuna told his teammates he was sorry for an arrest last year on charges of aggravated assault by strangulation and battery after police officers said they witnessed him attacking his wife. Ozuna, who attended court-mandated counseling, says, “I learned how you treat a person, how you be a better person, how you be the best daddy, how you be a human being. You learn everything from that.”  He hopes the public can forgive him.

In Fresno, a long-running feud between next-door-neighbors came to a head last month when a yard sale ended in violence.  According to witnesses, the two men were having a heated argument outside their homes when one picked up a pellet gun and shot the other.  When the police arrived, the shooter had walked away to cool down and the victim had broken his collar bone in a fall.

We all get angry.  It’s part of how we are hardwired.  Presented with threat, a part of our brain called the amygdala kicks into gear, telling us to fight or flee.  Anger can get us out of dangerous situations or motivate us to change.  Indeed, anger can be constructive, like Jesus turning over the tables in the Temple as a righteous protest against the exploitation of the poor.  Yet, anger, especially when it is long-held, disproportionate, or explosive is destructive, for ourselves and others.

Theologians have long called our uncontrolled feelings of anger wrath.  The Medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas wrote that anger is a good and useful passion, but becomes evil when the order of reason is set aside.  Aquinas described the daughters of wrath as “quarreling, swelling of the mind, contempt, derision, clamor, indignation, and blasphemy.”  Poet and philosopher Dante Alighieri said that wrath is “the love of justice that has been perverted to revenge and spite.”  In his Inferno, Dante imagined the eternal punishment for the wrathful: dismemberment while still alive.  16th century painter Hieronymus Bosch in his painting “The Seven Deadly Sins” depicted wrath as two drunken neighbors violently quarreling.  One has clearly been hit over the head with a chair.  The table is overturned, hats and cloaks are cast off, blades are drawn, and a long-suffering wife tries to intercede.  

Our Biblical example of wrath is Saul, that’s the Apostle Paul before his come-to-Jesus moment.  Saul saw himself as the ultimate defender of the Hebrew faith.  He once described himself to the church in Philippi as “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:4-6).  When the followers of Jesus demonstrated a new interpretation of the Torah, Paul got angry, and then his anger grew into hatred and violence. First, Saul sponsored the execution of the deacon Stephen.  Then, he rounded up and imprisoned followers of Jesus in Jerusalem and Samaria.  Next, unwilling to stop with the elimination of Christians in Israel, Saul traveled to the Roman province of Syria to launch a new program of persecution there.  It would take an encounter with Jesus himself to turn things around for Saul.

In our own lives, wrath has physical and relational effects.  When we are in the throes of wrath, our hearts race, our blood pressure spikes, and our blood courses with adrenaline and noradrenaline.  We lose our capacity to monitor our emotions and actions.  We lack objectivity.  We are incapable of empathy, prudence, and thoughtfulness.  Wrath behind the wheel of a car can escalate to road rage, yet it is also seen in speeding, tailgating, and flipping off another driver.  Wrath can explode in marriages with acts of domestic violence, yet it is also revealed in that same fight that we have over and over again for years. We’re a little like the late comedian Phyllis Diller who quipped, “Don’t go to bed angry; stay up and fight!”   Wrath between neighbors can devolve into a feud, but it can also look like someone with their anger button stuck on, who takes exception to anything and everything that someone else does.  We feel so self-righteous about it, too.  But it’s like author Ambrose Bierce once wrote, “Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.”

Although we all struggle with wrath, we have a powerful weapon for that spiritual battle: the virtue of patience. The Latin root of patience pati means to suffer or endure.  According to Aquinas, a person is patient because she or he is able “to act in a praiseworthy manner by enduring things that hurt” without being unduly saddened or troubled by them.  When we are patient, we keep control over the impulse that suddenly and naturally arises when something disagreeable happens to us.  Patient people aren’t doormats or victims who allow themselves to be steamrolled in conflict. Rather, those who are patient choose to control themselves amid difficult circumstances for the sake of what is right – they trust that a way forward can be found with time and effort.  You might even say that in patience we freely bear the small cross of facing someone’s anger and bad behavior for the common good that makes healing possible.

Our biblical model of patience is, of course, Jesus.  Just look at his relationships with the two apostles who would become the lions of the early church.  Remember Peter?  Peter tried to talk Jesus out of the way of the cross.  Peter would sleep through Jesus’ anguish in Gethsemane.  Peter would resort to violence when the Temple guard arrived.  And Peter would deny Jesus three times.  Yet the long-suffering Jesus saw in Peter the gifts of leadership that the early church would need.  With great patience, Jesus restored Peter to right relationship with the three-fold invitation to feed the flock that Jesus was entrusting to his care.  Likewise, Saul, that Hebrew born of Hebrews, that greatest of persecutors, got turned around by Jesus on the Damascus Road.  Thanks to the patience of Jesus, Saul was redeemed.  Saul became Paul, the great evangelist to the Gentiles.

The bad news about patience is that these days there is less of it to go around.  In 2012, UMass researchers Krishnan and Sitaraman determined in a study of 6.7 million internet users that we can lose patience in as little as two seconds.  Buffering leads half of viewers to abandon videos in ten seconds.  The faster our internet connection is, the more impatient we become.  Scientists theorize that the rapid pace of technology is rewiring human brains to be less and less patient.  Is it any wonder that road rage incidents in Texas have doubled in the last year?  Jesus, take the wheel!

The good news about patience is that we can cultivate it.  We can grow our capacity to stay patient amid all the experiences that can make us angry.  A good place to begin is simply thinking before we speak.  Whether we count to ten or we take a minute to gather our thoughts and make a reasoned response, a little time can keep us from responding in ways that hurt and escalate anger.  We can also think about how we express ourselves.  It’s okay to let people know we are angry, but we can do it in a non-confrontational way.  Be clear and direct with statements that take personal responsibility for feelings.  “I feel angry. . . I feel irritated . . . I feel frustrated . . .”  Identify some possible solutions to the conflict and try to work toward a mutual agreement.  Humor, not sarcasm, can deflate heightened tensions.  “George, I’m angry that you chopped down the cherry tree.  I may not ever win the Great British Baking Show, but you’ve set me back about fifteen years in my quest to bake the perfect cherry pie. What would you like to do to make this right?”

In addition to those strategies in the moment, we can use some simple skills that help us to manage the side-effects of our angry encounters.  Take a walk.  Give yourself a time-out.  Listen to music.  Write in your journal. Imagine yourself in a relaxing place.  Not only do these practices relieve the physical effects of anger, they equip us to observe and reflect upon our own behavior.  We begin to see that we can make different choices.

Finally, even when we are not able to successfully resolve our angry encounters, we can choose to not hold a grudge.  The practice of forgiveness releases us from bitterness and creates the graced space where a relationship can find redemption.  When we are clean out of forgiveness, we can always borrow some from Jesus, who had plenty of mercy for Peter, Paul, and for us.

Well, my friends, we all get angry.  This week will bring a fresh batch of headlines about road rage, domestic violence, and community feuds.  We’ll feel our hearts racing, blood pressure rising, and our tempers flaring when the car we are following stops dead at the intersection of Route 86 and Brandy Brook Avenue, or when someone forgets to put the trash out again, or when the neighbor hangs yet another banner airing their political opinions.  But we can take a deep breath and have patience.


Resources:

CBS News Team. NYPD: Driver pulled from car, kicked and robbed by motorcyclists in possible road rage incident, CBS News, March 17, 2022. Accessed online at cbsnews.com.

Jake Seiner. “Ozuna addresses Braves after domestic violence ban ends” in AP News, March 14, 2022.  Accessed online at apnews.com.

Nic Garcia. “Fresno man in hospital after being shot by neighbor, police say” in ABC30 Action News, Feb. 20, 2022. Accessed online at https://abc30.com

Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologiae. Accessed online at newadvent.org.

Krishnan and Sitaraman. “Video Stream Quality Impacts Viewer Behavior,” Amherst: UMass, 2012.  Accessed online at people.cs.umass.edu.

Adam R. Shannon. “The Sin of Anger” in The Seven Deadly Sins.  Accessed online at deadlysins.com

Charles Pope. “The Seven Deadly Sins: Anger” in Catholic Standard, April 4, 2019. Accessed online at cathstan.org.

Christopher Muther. “Instant Gratification Is Making Us Perpetually Impatient” in The Boston Globe, Nov. 2, 2016.

Mayo Clinic Staff. “10 Tips to Tame Your Temper.” Accessed online at mayoclinic.org.

–. “Control Anger Before It Controls You” in Journal of the American Psychological Association, January 2005. Accessed online at APA.org.


Acts 7:54-8:3; 9:1-5

54 When the elders heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died. 8 1 And Saul approved of their killing him. That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. 2 Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. 3 But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison. Then, Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”


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