On “Good Anger”

A pattern I’ve noticed in political and sometimes religious discourse lately is the concept of “good anger.” This isn’t the calm and measured, but firm response of Christ before the Romans or at the temple, but a deep antipathy with bite to it. The acidity of this anger is not considered a weakness, but is intentional; a feature, not a bug, justified because of the injustice that motivates the anger. 

My interest here is with the justification for the hate. In the same sense that there is a major difference between weaknesses of the flesh and open rebellion against God, the justification of social or political righteous anger is essentially an open revolt against the teachings of the Savior, even if it’s not seen as such. On the issue of forgiveness, the Savior is clear and direct. All people, everywhere, in any circumstance. It’s hard enough for those of us living in fairly comfortable circumstances to pull this off, but a few moments of pondering on just how horrible humans can be to each other makes one realize just how radical this command is. 

Lawrence Bittaker and Roy Norris committed what are considered some of the most horrendous murders in US history. I have no desire to go into detail, but the tapes they made of their tortures are used by the FBI to habituate recruits to violence, and by all accounts the perpetrators never showed real remorse for their crimes. I would never, ever blithely tell their victims’ families to simply forgive, or to point out that hate cankers their souls. Like the concentration camp prisoners who burned their sadistic guards alive or the Haitian sugarcane slaves who massacred their white slavers, some people undoubtedly deserve to hold and act on their hate. 

However, there’s a difference between feeling that you have the moral standing to tell somebody how to act and feel in those extreme circumstances and openly rebelling against the commandment, which again is straightforward (albeit difficult to embrace when you really sit on it for a while).  At the end of the day, Jesus would not have killed the guard, even if I wouldn’t think less of anybody doing the same. 

One reason I’m going straight for the extremes here is because people who justify their own political animosities and see them as virtues often draw some tenuous line between their political hobby horse and the extremes, yet even in these extreme cases the doctrine is pretty straightforward; ergo, while hatred and not forgiving can be a completely understandable response, at no point is what was identified as an evil (hatred, antipathy) good or a good (forgiveness) an evil. 

This does not mean that one should not protect one’s self or fight, with lethal violence if necessary, for a better, more just world; that’s not the issue here. The issue here is the open identification of malice with good, which we’re seeing more and more, and is a direct contradiction of the teachings of the Savior. 


11 comments for “On “Good Anger”

  1. I think anger is not the same as hate (I know you’re probably not really saying it is) and I agree that a lot of what I see online is hate. I would also say that anger does not equal not forgiving and the command to forgive does not mean we should overlook evil.

  2. Stephen, this is a good topic to dwell on, and I’m grateful for this post. I recall Rabbi Heschel’s words about anger: “Like fire, it may be a blessing as well as fatal—reprehensible when associated with malice, but morally necessary as resistance to malice.”

    It’s hard for me personally because we live in a really unjust world. Racism, partiarchy, and homophobia seem to be the forms of oppression that seem to most easily activate the Twitter mob and righteous malice. But so often the hate seems to miss the mark; after all, will drawing the online mob to this single person really do anything to fight the larger problems? Wouldn’t this energy be better focused on voting, or policy, or real-world activism rather than rhetorical silencing? Because THAT seems to backfire: it triggers a sense of oppression on the other side and only temporarily buries true feeling, it doesn’t remove it. So not only is malicious hatred (usually expressed online these days) reprehensible, but it seems to divert energy from actual things that matters. Does that sound right?

    I’ve also noticed the Bible says God is “slow to anger.” And I get the sense that people collectively feel “this has gone on too long” with certain injustice. Take racism: it’s gone on for centuries, and it’s been awful, and so we’re individually quick to anger because we’ve collectively been slow to anger. But by that logic, all our quick hatred is justified. All our quick anger is permitted. An ambient hatred and malice against oppressors feels justified. I don’t now if this “collective impatience” theory of anger is true—It’s me trying to make sense of the trend toward “good anger” you’re noticing—but if it is, it seems countered by Jesus, who grew up among a people who had been oppressed for centuries. Jesus resisted in cunning and incisive ways (i.e. “Turn the other cheek” and “Render unto Caesar”), but always loved and forgave.

  3. Also, I just saw E’s comment, which is great: can one be angry without hatred? I’m putting together your post, E’s comment, and the Heschel quote I cited above, and I think that may be a useful distinction. If anger is a proper response to injustice, and it can move us toward righting the injustice, then there IS a good anger. But it’s a different “good anger” than what you’re describing, Stephen. It’s an anger without malice, rather than with—which I think makes your point, actually. It’s an anger capable of resisting and seeking justice (like Christ) but also forgiving and caring about the oppressors and perpetrators of injustice we’re resisting (like Christ), who seek not just retaliation and retribution, but restoration of right relations.

    Not sure how this applies to the specific examples you cited above (i.e. Bittaker and the prison guards), but it’s the first time I’ve been able to write through these distinctions (anger, hate, justice, resistance) in a coherent sentence. So thanks! :D

  4. @ Brian and E: You make good points; I was a bit loosey-goosey with my definitions and was combining various sentiments together. There is the calm, collected, perfect “anger” of Christ where you don’t lose anything in seriousness or directness when you don’t also involve malice, but that is a hard needle for us non-Gods to thread. When, exactly, people start incorporating pointed malice or hate into their advocacy is a bit of a “I know it when I see it” issue.

  5. Thanks for this thought-provoking post.

    Since context is (almost) everything, I’m wondering if you can provide some examples of what you’re referring to (i.e., instances you’ve noticed lately in political and sometimes religious discourse of anger that has deep antipathy with bite to it, and/or instances where that anger is not considered a weakness but is intentional and justified by the angered person). I think examples will greatly help the discussion, even if just one or two.

  6. @ Hunter: I don’t want to name names, but let’s say as a rule somebody who consistently tells a person or group of people to “go f***” themselves”, etc. but who still identify as Christian. There are people before we get to that point who I would say would qualify as justifying their hate, but I don’t have the time or energy to hash out whether a particular case does, since again it’s a subjective “know it when I see it” situation and some may disagree.

  7. I have really enjoyed this post and comments. Many thanks.

    There is righteous anger. The most extreme example I can think of comes from my personal life. I was born in Germany in 1952 as an American, and did not move to the U.S. until I was 18. I have personal memories of visiting the Nazi death camps, which had been converted into shrines of remembrance. I felt an intense anger at what had happened in the camps.

    Too often, though, “righteous” anger is actually self-righteous. We are prone to justify our own anger, and reject criticism of our own ill-considered actions. Particularly vis-a-vis political issues. While not wanting to advocate both-sides-ism, I think that left and right are both culpable.

    Our favorite habit in the Church is often confessing other people’s sins.

    I recommend watching the Chosen TV series on Christ’s life. IMO, it does well in portraying Christ’s occasional anger as divine displeasure and/or sorrow, overwhelmingly overshadowed by His love.

  8. One of the sad results of not checking our anger can be that we oversimplify the reasoning of the person or group that we’re angry with. We might be too quick to invoke Godwin’s Law when the fact is–most folks tend to have a more nuanced position on politics, religion, and whatnot, than we would be willing to imagine them having. And so, if we’re not careful our unchecked anger might serve to codify people into distinct groups that would not otherwise exist–at least not to the extent that they become emboldened as enemies toward one another.

  9. Yeah, I don’t think the conflation of anger, hate, and non-forgiveness is justifiable, however common it is in a culture that often treats disagreement as Satanic “contention.”

    It would be better to limit this critique to people persistently wishing ill on others — and defending that point. You can be angry without that.

  10. I didn’t say anything about mere disagreement, but I will go farther than “persistently wishing ill will on others.” Unforgiveness or hate is in not a virtue in any context, period, despite some people wanting to justify their own online acidity.

    As noted, “anger” is more complicated (and as an additional aside, people who complain about “tone policing” do it as much as anyone else when it come people not on their team IMHO).

  11. Orson Pratt wrote once about anger:

    Anger is a passion wisely given to intelligent beings, intended for a good purpose but it is one easily perverted by fallen beings into an instrument of much evil. It is a passion pertaining to the Almighty who is angry with the wicked every day. Righteous anger is a feeling of indignation against sin, a feeling of justice, a feeling that the evil-doer merits punishment. This kind of anger is justifiable, whether it exists in the bosom of God, angels, or men: but anger founded upon any other principle is sinful, and when cultivated and indulged out of its proper channel, it brings misery and wretchedness upon all its unhappy votaries. Because we are so liable to sin through an improper indulgence of anger, is it right to pray for a destruction of the attribute? It certainly is not; for if man were dispossessed of this attribute, he would be unfit for a kingdom, where justice and judgment were the characteristics of the throne; he would be unfit for the society of the heavenly hosts, unfit for celestial, terrestrial, or telestial glory. Anger founded on justice and properly governed, is essential to the happiness of every kingdom; without it there could be no exaltation, no glory, and man would cease to be man, and dwindle into a non-descript something, beneath the animal creation.

    Millenial Star vol. 28:473-475; July 28, 1866

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