Love, Anger, and Ferguson

I think that sometimes we get the impression in Christianity that anger is the opposite of love. Some forms of anger can be, certainly. But the protests in the wake of the Ferguson decision remind me that anger can also be an expression of love.

Sitting in church pews, at times in the past I absorbed the message that all anger is sinful. (And that so is any rebellion against authority—and both are even more particularly sinful for women. The impermissibility of anger, or even of complaint, is deeply embedded in some Christian ideas of submissive femininity.) Any flame of human anger should smothered, to be replaced by the smooth coolness of mild serenity. After all, anyone who feels anger must be unloving and unchristian.

Anger, we are sometimes taught, is the divine prerogative of God alone, whose holy rage does not spring from love, but from a hatred of fallen humanity. We are all sinners in the hands of an angry God, lowly insects so loathsome that a wrathful God must actively refrain from destroying us.

But I don’t hold with this view of human and divine anger anymore. Anger at injustice, anger as a response to suffering, is not the opposite of love, for us or for God.

I’ve seen many responses to the Ferguson protests that imply that the protesters’ anger is invalid, and that the grounds for the protests are invalid because the protesters have shown that they are angry.

This kind of response seems to me like the tone argument writ large.

In conversations about justice—often about such issues as racism, sexism, homophobia, or transphobia—it’s extremely common for a passionate speaker to be told that she or he shouldn’t let slip that they are angry about the issue they are discussing. To be chided with the proverb that “honey catches more flies than vinegar.” To be dismissed with the statement that they obviously can’t think objectively, and so their thoughts don’t count. The tone argument implies that if a person cares about an issue, if it affects them personally, this negates the validity of anything that person has to say about the issue.

While no doubt there are some who truly do make such comments in a helpful spirit of constructive criticism, far more often this tone argument is simply a way of denying and distracting from the reality of the injustice being addressed. And it’s a method of dismissal that usually implicitly relies on racial and gender stereotypes. In a binary between the dominant and the marginalized, any marginalized group tends to be imagined as less rational, less capable of accessing a mythical “objectivity” (and that emotive subjectivity is constructed as a negative trait). That is then taken as grounds for continuing not to listen to the marginalized.

Similarly, some responses to the Ferguson protests have implied that the protests are invalid because the protesters are angry. If only they were more civil and appropriate, less disruptive, their message might be easier to hear (or to swallow).

Yes, there have been some instances of vandalism in some locations. Yes, vandalism is not a good thing. But no, such instances do not erase the violence and injustice of the systems that necessitate the protests. And if “a riot is the language of the unheard,” this doesn’t mean we should try even harder not to hear. And no, instances of vandalism or of “riot” don’t negate the validity of the anger of the protesters, including that of the many more protesters whose anger is displayed through nonviolent means.

That anger is certainly valid, and it’s an anger we should all share in. When “the whole damned system is guilty as hell,” we should all be angry because we all share in that system, whether in perpetuating it, suffering under it, or both.

And that anger at injustice is valid, too, not as a contrast to love, but as an expression of it. After all, these protests are happening because parents love their children. If a child is killed, a person who loves that child is angry not in spite of their love, but because of it. Who could claim that in that situation, feeling anger is invalid, or that showing that anger means that there must be nothing to complain about?

Similarly, when an entire group of people is systematically oppressed, a person who loves humanity is angry not in spite of love, but because of it. This anger is not less valid because more than one person has been hurt, or because the anger is due to a system of injustice, not just a single instance of it.

So I can’t see anger at injustice as sinful, or unloving, or unchristian. And I can’t see the Ferguson protests as invalidated by the existence of anger. Sometimes, this is what theology looks like. Sometimes, this is what love looks like.

I believe that God is love. I don’t hold with a sinners-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-God vision of God’s attitude toward humans. I think that when God is angry, it’s not because God hates us lowly insects—it’s not an anger at us, but on our behalf. If God is an angry God, it’s because God loves us, because our pain—the pain we cause each other and the pain our systems create—is God’s pain, too. Like the anger of a parent who loves her children, God’s anger on our behalf is due to love. And if we are attempting to follow God-in-Christ in loving the world, we will also sometimes be angry because of that love.

There are many people writing many responses to Ferguson right now. (As there should be.) If you are looking for some others who connect their responses to their Christian faith, Theology of Ferguson is a good collection to look through. (Though of course I don’t mean to imply that you must be a person of faith or a Christian in order to recognize the injustice that the protests are responding to, or that all Christians must have the same response to the protests in order to be “true Christians.” Not at all. But if you, like me, make that personal connection between Christian faith and social justice, you might be interested in the responses on Theology of Ferguson.)

[Photo credit: digitaldefection via photopin cc (cropped and resized)]

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