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The Antidote To Anger

Gathering Up the Fragments
Preaching As Spiritual Practice
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a market place!" His disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for your house will consume me." The Jews then said to him, "What sign can you show us for doing this?" Jesus answered them, "Destroy the temple, and in three days I will raise it up." The Jews then said, "This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it in three days?" But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
-- John 2:13-22

The Academy Award winning film for Best Picture of 2005, Crash, tells the complicated story of race relations in America, with a car crash on the streets of Los Angeles as its central metaphor. Crash is also a story about anger. Nearly every character in the film is angry -- legitimately angry -- about something. The tragedy lies in the way their anger spills over from one realm of life to another, setting off ripple effects of violence that spread far beyond their awareness or intention.

There is a brilliant young African-American man who is angry at all things associated with white privilege. In response, he chooses a life of crime that he convinces himself is principled, even ethical, because he only steals from white people.

There is a Persian shop owner who believes that everyone in this country is out to cheat him, and he is angry at those who break into his shop and steal. We watch him attempting to buy a gun in a weapons shop run by a white man who is still angry about what happened to our country on September 11. The shop owner sees in the Persian man all those responsible for those heinous crimes. You can imagine what their conversation was like.

There is a white police officer who harbors deep resentment for the way his father was economically destroyed by city policies favoring minority-owned businesses. He's also angry at the way his father is now subjected to substandard medical care administered by an inept health maintenance organization that won't allow his father to be treated for what is probably prostate cancer. The policeman takes out his anger on a wealthy African-American couple he stops on the highway, in a clear case of racially motivated police harassment and, with the woman, sexual abuse.

There is the genteel African-American television director whom the white policeman pulls over. He seems to live a gracious and enlightened life until you realize how he has paid for that life with a steady diet of humiliation. He isn't quick to anger, but the poisonous way he is treated eats at his soul until he finally reaches a breaking point of rage.

There is the upper middle-class woman kept in an affluent lifestyle by her husband, the District Attorney for the City of Los Angeles, who is probably sleeping with his assistant, is never home, and who treats his wife alternately as a trophy and a child.

In one scene this woman is speaking to a friend on the telephone a few days after she and her husband were attacked and had their car stolen. She says to her friend, "I am so angry. I'm angry at my husband, at the housekeeper, at the man at the dry cleaners who ruined yet another silk blouse, and at the gardener for over-watering the lawn. I keep on thinking that one day I'm going to wake up feeling better. But then I realized that how I feel has nothing to do with our car being stolen. I wake up like this every day. I am angry all the time and I don't know why."

What do you do with your anger? How do you know when you're angry and how do you communicate your anger to others? Are you one with a long, slow fuse, able to take a lot before things get to you, or are you more volatile? Do you respond to what angers you with anger, or with another, more acceptable emotion? Does expressing anger truly release it, or does expression simply serve to rehearse anger, hone it to perfection, as it takes up more room both within and around us? Does anger serve a purpose, and if so what? How can we know and respect anger for the powerful emotion it is and yet not be driven by it, consciously, or even more damaging, without awareness? What is the antidote to anger?

The story of Jesus driving the money changers from the temple is memorable in part because it's one of the few stories in which Jesus is visibly angry. He expresses his anger dramatically, even violently. Not all versions of the story say, as John's version does, that he made a whip of cords to drive the money changers out, but the consensus is that he was really mad and that one way or another he threw them out -- all those that he believed were desecrating the house of God.

Why Jesus thought the presence of those buying and selling in the temple was an offense to God is a fascinating question, one of considerable debate. Jesus consistently opposed any practice that denied people access to God. The temple practice of selling animals for sacrifice meant that only those who could afford the price of an animal were able to participate in those ritual offerings that were, nonetheless, required by religious law. He was consistently critical of those in religious authority for their tight control of spiritual practice and for exacting often crushing religious taxes on those already oppressed by the Roman authorities.

By the time the author, John, gets around to crafting his gospel, probably sixty years after Jesus died, the lines between the followers of Jesus and other Jews are pretty well drawn. John could refer to the religious authorities in this story as Jews, as if that somehow distinguished them from Jesus and his followers, who were, of course, also Jewish. But that simply shows how in just a few years this amazing, troubling story of Jesus' anger became a symbolic story, a sign of the conflict between the ways of God and those of corrupt religious leaders. Jesus' words and actions remind us that there are some things worth getting angry about, and yes, that God gets angry at some of the things we humans are capable of doing to one another.

Still, it's striking how rarely Jesus responds in anger to what he sees and experiences. There are only two other stories in the gospels of Jesus getting visibly angry. In one, on a day when Jesus is hungry, he curses a tree that has no fruit on it. By the next day when he and the disciples pass by again, the tree has shriveled and died.

I'm not sure what to make of that one.

The second story also takes place in the temple, this time on the sabbath. Before Jesus heals a man with a withered hand, his reputation as a healer and troublemaker for the authorities is already established. He looks around and realizes that the Pharisees are watching him like a hawk to see if he will dare break the rules of sabbath and heal the wounded man. Jesus is quietly furious at their hardness of heart, a hardness that keeps them from seeing how healing a wounded man is precisely the kind of act God would rejoice in, especially on the sabbath. "Humankind is not made for the sabbath," he tells the Pharisees, "but the sabbath for humankind." "Hold out your hand," he instructs the wounded man and he heals him. There are some things worth getting angry about. Withholding compassion to another in the name of God is, in Jesus' view, one of them.

Again, these stories are the exception, not the rule, of Jesus' life, and even they are muted in their effect. After healing the wounded man, Jesus walks away, refusing to engage the Pharisees further. After cleansing the temple, Jesus doesn't start an insurrection. He goes back to his twelve core disciples and prepares them for his suffering and death. Whatever meaning we are to take away from the cleansing of the temple, it isn't that anger and violence are the means God uses to transform the world.

In fact, the opposite is true. Jesus refuses to engage the powers of the world with the tools of power. His power is of love and forgiveness. That's it. No vengeance, no retribution, no demands -- simply love. "Hatred never ceases by hatred," the Buddha taught, "but by love alone is healed."1 Jesus certainly lived that truth. We can say the same about how he dealt with anger. "Anger never ceases by anger, but by love alone is healed."

In a recent review of Gary Willis' book, What Jesus Meant, the reviewer, Jon Meacham, has this to say: "Jesus' essential message was that we are to love one another totally and unconditionally -- a message fundamentally at odds with the impulses of those living in a fallen world." As one who lived in this fallen world, Jesus was not above anger. But anger is neither the message nor the medium of his life. Love is. "One cannot engage Jesus," writes Meacham, "without seeing there is no life without love."2

Back to the movie: In Crash there are stunning examples of love overcoming anger. The love is not a response to anger, but is rather an experience that transforms those touched by it and it washes some of their anger away. The same police officer who had sexually molested the African-American woman is the first to appear on the scene of an accident that trapped her in a car about to explode. When she realizes who he is, she screams and tries to push him away. In the moment when her life hangs in the balance, he perseveres and promises that he will not hurt her. As he works to pull her out of the car, they share a moment of tenderness, and he frees her just as the car bursts into flames. That experience of love changes them both. Like the anger they have carried, the love begins to spread into other realms of their life.

The Persian man who believed that a locksmith was responsible for a robbery that destroyed his store, goes off in a rage -- with his gun -- to hunt him down. At the precise moment his fury drives him to pull the trigger, the locksmith's little girl runs from the house and jumps into her father's arms. All are frozen in the horror of an innocent little girl being shot, until it becomes miraculously clear that she isn't hurt. Unbeknownst to him, the only bullets the Persian man had, thanks to his own daughter, were blanks. Spared from murdering a child, the Persian man visibly softens and his anger leaves him. He throws the gun away.

The wife of the district attorney falls down the stairs and sprains her foot. No one among her friends and family is available to help. She can't reach her husband; her best friend is too busy getting a massage. But her housekeeper, a woman she has often verbally abused, finds her, takes her to the hospital and back again, and cares for her. The woman is overwhelmed by such love, and the love opens her heart. She is able to offer love, once again, to her husband.

Finally, the African-American thief makes the mistake of his life and attempts to steal the car of the African-American television director. Their lives collide just as the director can no longer contain his rage. He takes the gun from the thief and brandishes it boldly in front of several white police officers who now have every justification to kill him. Then one of the policemen recognizes him as the one unjustly stopped on the road, and he intervenes, saving the director's life, and unwittingly, that of the thief hiding in the front seat. Witnessing such courageous kindness from a white man on behalf of a black man changes the thief, and he goes off to commit an equally courageous act of love later on.

Anger is a powerful emotion, one that can be channeled in the service of good, but it's risky and the costs are high. There is plenty in the world to be angry about, justifiably so, and plenty that we get angry about whether we're justified or not. Some of us are better at expressing anger than others, but I don't know if how we express anger matters as much as how we experience and share love. Love is anger's only antidote. Love is what frees us to live.

The next time you find yourself really angry, you might take stock to consider how anger affects you. Then ask yourself: How can you love your way out of the anger you feel? How might the love of others and the love of God free you to let some of the anger go? And when you have a chance to be kind, generous, and loving to another -- do it. Your act of love may be the needed antidote to someone else's anger, breaking the cycle of rage that you aren't even aware exists, sparing others untold pain. "Anger never ceases by anger, but by love alone is healed."


1. Quoted by Jack Kornfield in The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace (New York: Bantam Books, 2001), p. 5.

2. Jon Meacham "The Radical," in The New York Times Book Review, March 12, 2006, p. 28.
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