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In our culture we tend to glorify violence and redemption through revenge in popular media, while simultaneously being expected to subdue or not even feel anger; to bottle it up, and medicate ourselves with self-help, religion, or substance. However, anger is a necessary human emotion that makes up a part of who we are. By ignoring this emotion we may turn to wrath to express ourselves. It becomes an unhealthy expression of this anger; holding onto it, hurting ourselves and others rather than choosing to resolve it.
Wrath is most directly linked with revenge. It is a longing to see punishment carried out, even a desire to escalate the violence, doing more harm to the one who has harmed us. It takes the shape of a vice in the way we learn to live with it, rather than resolving it. Peter Rollins says “war and violence are not conflict. They are the inability to have conflict.”
It is easy to gloss over the parts of the Judeo-Christian tradition that deal with wrath. They can be seen as no longer relevant to Christianity, part of an archaic culture without modern sensibilities. However, to ignore them is not to do them or ourselves justice. Perhaps they are descriptive of the human experience rather than prescriptive for humanity. An understanding of the culture they come from helps to contextualize the expression of anger that we see in them.
Wrath and rage, as well as breath are all connected in various ways, having to do with life. It is important to experience one’s anger calmly so that one can act wisely rather than being consumed by it. The righteousness one feels in a situation contributes to his or her anger. Being wronged or seeing it done contributes to our anger, but the “desire behind the desire” is towards justice. There is a precarious balance between the virtuous desire for justice and equality and the vice of seeking vengeance. It’s intuitive to lash out in our anger.
We are permitted to feel anger, but in a healthy way exemplified in passages dealing with anger, rather than being consumed by wrath. The Psalms are prayers that acknowledge the fullness of God within our anger and in a way that levels our playing field, by exposing the unjust as well as our own wrath to a God who loves and does justice.
Is it ever appropriate to feel angry? Is there a time when it is inhumane not to feel angry? Does our urge to righteousness require us to be angry? When we are faced with greed in the economy, school shootings, modern slavery, and hate crimes that persist into the 21st century, righteous anger is natural and even necessary. It can compel us to good works, but wrath compels us towards vicious acts.
In identifying the sins of the world and calling them out without fear of retribution, Jesus attempts to tell a story of different values and of a different life with a new end out of anger with the injustice of the world one faces. By modeling the way of honesty and anger bent toward justice, Jesus’ body is broken and his blood is shed. The tradition speaks to the cost of bending our anger towards life rather than death.
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