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Meet Me at the Corner of Joy and Justice

(A sermon about anger and activism)

Rev. Douglas Taylor


How long? That exact question is in the Bible no less than fifty times mostly on the lips of the psalmists and the prophets. And those psalmists and prophets didn’t pull punches, they expressed their heartrending questions without sugarcoating.

How long wilt thou forget me, O LORD? (psalm 13 asks) forever?

LORD, how long shall the wicked triumph? (psalm 94 implores)
How long shall the land mourn,
(Jeremiah questions) and the herbs of every field wither, for the wickedness of them that dwell therein?

O LORD, how long shall I cry, (Habakkuk beseeches) and thou wilt not hear!

How long? It is not a plaintive begging for mercy. These prophets and psalmists were angry at the injustice they and their people experience. Their anger fueled their outcry and their actions. It is interesting because most of our modern understanding of anger as it connects to the spiritual life is wrapped up in how negative anger is, how bad it is for our spirits.

I remember a comment a local politician made about anger being her motivation into politics. I think it was D. L., but I couldn’t find a source to corroborate that memory. What I remember is that someone asked her why she went into politics. She told the story of when she was younger and she had a defining interaction with an elder politician, I think it was one of the Kennedy’s. She said to him “I’m angry at what’s wrong with the world.” And he replied, “Yeah, me too. That’s why I am where I am, doing what I’m doing.” She then reflected that this interchange is why she went into politics. She was angry and decided to do something about it.

This has stuck with me because it runs counter to what I’ve known over the years about how unhelpful anger is for life. Anger, for me growing up, was tangled up with violence. My perspective on this has been deeply colored by growing up in an alcoholic home. I took in a clear message that anger was never a healthy emotion, that anger led to hurt. Over the years, as I’ve matured and processed a lot of the experiences from my childhood, I have learned to question some of those basic assumption now and then.

Which is why this story about the politician naming her anger as the positive motivation setting the course of her life has stuck with me. It didn’t fit my understanding of what anger does to us. The old Frederick Beuchner quote says, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Beuchner did not suggest that God calls you to there your deep anger meets the world’s injustice. And yet, that seems to be how it works for some people. And I don’t understand.

There is a song lyric that says:

You can gaze out the window, get mad and get madder;

Throw your hands in the air, saying “what does it matter?”.

This is from the song “Bruised Orange” by John Prine. It continues,

It won’t do no good to get angry, so help me, I know.

For a heart stained in anger grows weak and grows bitter;

You become your own prisoner as you watch yourself sit there,

Wrapped up in a trap of your very own chain of sorrows.

Spiritually, anger is terrible stuff. The Buddha, according to some sources, said, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” Another version compares it to drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. Mark Twain said “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”

I had done a sermon several years back in which, for preparation, I had asked several congregants why they were so committed and involved in social action. None of them said it was because they were angry. They said things like this about why:

“I have an overdeveloped sense of right and wrong. Therefore, Social Justice work keeps me both sane and out of jail.” (gm) “Like the Boy Scouts, I want to leave my “campsite” better than I found it.” (el) “Helping those less fortunate and those affected by widespread social injustice, goes to the core of my being and belief.” (tn) “I do social justice work because I firmly believe in fairness & equality for everyone.” (cn)

They list guiding values and central principles. They didn’t talk about anger. They referred to some passion, and I suppose that what the anger is for some people, a passion to make change.

One thing I’ve learned about anger is that it is rooted in fear. When we get angry, it is usually because we something we hold precious is threatened. Anger is rooted in the fear that something we love, something important, is at risk. So, there is a noble and just version of anger here. This is a perspective that has helped me a lot. I’ve learned to check in with myself when I’m angry or with others when they are angry. “What’s at risk, what is threatened?”

When we are looking at the how this impacts Social Action and Activism, it begins to make a lot of sense to allow anger to serve as a fuel for change. It can be corrosive if it sits; anger can eat away at you if you don’t figure out a way to make a change. But if the anger leads to movement and change, that’s different.

I was reading from a blog about anger and Social Activism.

The author Bharath Vallabha is a philosophy professor who revealed a few interesting distinctions. Most relevant is what he says is a shift from being angry at people to being angry at institutions.

Our anger at injustice usually begins with a focus on particular people, an ‘other’ often as ‘oppressors’ causing or at least contributing to the injustice. Our anger is often focused on people. Emotions are relational! Our emotions are rooted in how we are with each other. The transition from being angry at people about an injustice to being angry at institutions and systems is the way our anger shifts from draining to sustaining.

This is not to say there are never individual perpetrators of injustice, there will still be the racist, the rapist, the liar, and the fraud. But when I shift my anger from the individual to the system, I can see that all of that behavior happens within and is supported by a culture or system designed to perpetuate the injustice and the harm.

The author of the blog put it like this:

In such growth, there is a release from the toxic effects of the first stages of anger, where one emotionally still needs the category of the oppressor as the target of blame and vitriol, as if that other person or group still holds me captive because I need to push myself off against them, as opposed to them, in contrast to them, to feel my own will power and capacity to change.

I can be angry and even incensed at an individual bigot. And when I also look at the system around a single incident, I can get angry at institutional racism and white supremacy culture that continues to pervade our society and our lives. And then I can have compassion for the individuals caught up in the system, including myself.

When I can accomplish this shift my anger from a focus on individuals to a focus on systems and institutions, then I open myself to this remarkable paradox of having both anger and compassion at play. I open myself to the capacity to use my anger in a healthy way because it doesn’t consume me as I use it to motivate me to make change.

In the reading about “Justice, Equity, and Compassion,” Patrick Murfin suggested that we need to pair up and even triple up our values so they can balance each other. I am suggesting something similar. When you can pair up your anger with compassion, you can move forward.

We’ve talked about the Loving-Kindness meditation; we’ve done that meditation together. To have compassion toward those you are angry at does not mean the anger goes away. It means you can do something with it rather than allow it to sit and fester.

So, what makes you angry or upset? What is happening in the world that stirs you up? National politics? Hunger and homelessness? Police brutality? Anger can be the starting point when you realize how important an issue or a group of people may be to you. Anger is a signal. But it’s only the starting point. The role of anger in Social Action can be the fuel for motivation, a version of the passion to make change. But until it can be transformed and coupled with compassion, it will only serve to burn you up.

And remember, I’m talking about justice and social action now, not personal interactions. Anger in personal relationships does not play out the same way as in larger social issues. If I’m upset and angry with my spouse or with my friend or with someone I know from a circle of acquaintances – the work is to repair the relationship or prevent further harm by ending the relationship.

But if I’m upset or angry about, as a random example, the way the President of the United States is treating asylum seekers or women or any number of other marginalized groups … I don’t have a personal relationship with the President and there is no relationship to repair. The President doesn’t even know, probably wouldn’t care, that I have these feelings. So, the work is not about repairing the relationship. It is about transforming my anger so it can be of service.

The point is not to get rid of the anger. But neither is it to let the anger fester. When I was younger, I thought the point was to get rid of the anger – that all anger is negative and bad. I’ve heard others suggest the anger can be the motivation to make change, the drive, the fuel for resistance. Both are wrong while being almost right. The third way is to transform the anger. Shift it out of the personal and into the systemic perspective, and then couple it with compassion.

Our First UU principles calls us to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. I’ve heard people pull that principle out when arguing about President Trump, saying we should promote his worth and dignity. The counter argument is to lift up the Second Source – our living tradition draws from many sources including Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.

I am always a little perversely delighted when we discover the little conflicts like this in our principles and sources. When one source or principle is used as a counter-point for another source or principle. It helps me remember that we cannot use the principles and sources as doctrine or law. We don’t work that way. They are covenantal, not contractual. We look to them as guides and challenges, not as pre-cut solutions.

Of course, some of you may have already noticed, title of that reading we had from Patrick Murfin “Justice, Equity, and Compassion” is right out of the Second Principe in which we affirm and promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations.

What are we going to do? Or to frame the question to fit what I’ve been talking about … What are you angry about? What stirs you up? Do you see the injustice and social disharmony at play? Is there something precious to you that is threatened? Name it. Acknowledge that it makes you upset or angry. And then, as it is possible for you, shift your focus to the systems or institutions supporting the injustice – the ‘powers and structures or evil.’ And gently allow your compassion to grow for all of us caught in those systems.

And now we get started on making change. Now we begin again the work of building a better world in which we move with justice not because we are angry but because there is joy in our movement and in our becoming a more compassionate people.

How long? How long until we rise to help build a better world? How long will the people cry out and not be heard? How long, O God, until our anger will be blended with compassion in the service of the transformative power of love? How long will we wait to make the change? May we head the call. May we lean in, together, and grow!

In a world without end, may it be so.