Anger Mismanagement

Sunday sermon from July 21, 2013
Texts: Genesis 4:1-16, Mark 3:1-6
Given at Amherst Presbyterian Church, Amherst, VA

I want to start today by talking about the Incredible Hulk. Now, I was never really a comic books guy. I watched a few afternoon cartoons, but even what I watched was really more Batman and X-Men, and the old Hulk television show was somewhat before my time. So I don’t stand here with much authority on the matter of the Hulk, or really of the whole Marvel universe; like most of mainstream America, what I know about the Hulk at this point comes more from the movies than from any of the original source material. So I apologize to anybody who decides to fact-check me later on.

But I think I have the gist of it: Dr. Bruce Banner is a brilliant and yet somewhat socially awkward scientist who, due to previous exposure to gamma radiation, has an unfortunate tendency whenever he gets angry to morph into this giant, immensely strong, immensely powerful green monster of a thing, the Hulk. By virtue of its near invulnerability, the Hulk is something of a force to be reckoned with, especially since it seems often not to be under Banner’s direct control; at times the Hulk even acts contrary to Banner’s own interests, a kind of superhero-sized version of Mr. Hyde to Banner’s Dr. Jekyll. While the ever-controlled Dr. Banner has a kind of meekish impotence about him, the Hulk exudes power and powerfulness, and, with them, the total absence of rational control.

As you might therefore imagine, quite a bit of energy is spent attending to Dr. Banner’s emotional state, because, after all, if you make him angry, you might find yourself face- to-face with an invulnerable raging chaos monster, and nobody wants that: as Banner is famously fond of saying, “You won’t like me when I’m angry.” One can hardly imagine going on a date with Dr. Banner, or riding with him in the subway, or God forbid carpooling with him during rush hour; the world has to tiptoe so quietly around him, lest the inner beast unleash itself with this episode’s version of apocalyptic furor. The whole point is to keep Dr. Banner as calm and pleasant as possible. It’s actually one of the major threads of the Hulk’s most recent cinematic appearance, when last summer he joined Iron Man and Thor and others as part of The Avengers movie. But in the climactic moments of The Avengers, it seems like the basic rules about the Hulk change completely. With the giant big bad guy bearing down upon them, Captain America suggests to Dr. Banner that this might actually be a good time for him to get angry, to which Banner responds, just before willfully transforming into the massive green beast, “Well, that’s my secret, Captain. I’m always angry.”

Of course, this is great dialogue, but, for fans of The Avengers, it’s also something of a tricky concept. From a storytelling perspective the thought of Banner not having to walk this fine boundary with anger is about as helpful as Metropolis no longer having any phone booths for Superman to change in. If Banner’s always angry, there’s just no more plot. But what’s more, the whole point of Hulk is the danger and power of letting oneself get angry, that anger takes you over, that anger takes control. This is the anger we love to demonize, and, moreover, the anger we love to pretend makes us into somebody else. For anyone who’s ever been told not to get their brother or sister too upset, or not to make mom mad, or that you won’t like father when he’s angry, this is pretty familiar territory: anger, the force that breaks its containment and breaks us wide open and unleashes upon the world the unrecognizable beast inside. But what if it works a little differently? What if we have a secret? What if we’re always angry?

I ask because I think the question deep at the heart of the gut-wrenching story of Cain and Abel is not first a question about violence, but rather a question about anger. Cain gets angry. Now, Cain’s not the only character in the Bible to get angry. It happens with staggering frequency. And it may be the case that Cain’s anger, could we measure it on some objective scale, would pale in comparison to that of some of his later Biblical colleagues. But Cain has the distinct honor of being the first character in the Bible, and thus the first character in Israel’s theological history of creation, to be angry. Cain has the first anger in the world. And the surprising thing about Cain’s anger is that it is a righteous anger. We are not at first inclined to think so; after all, the guy goes and murders his brother in cold, dispassionate blood.

With that stain upon his legacy it is almost impossible to read the beginning of this story without prejudice, even though the text says that Cain and Abel both brought offerings of their labor before the Lord, and even though their offerings were both in equal accordance with the rules for offerings laid out in the Jewish law, and even though the text makes no great distinction between the quality or quantity of their offerings, and even though the Lord nonetheless prefers Abel’s offering and grants Abel favor. Cain gets angry. And we are inclined to think that Cain gets angry because frankly, people who engage in fratricide, people who have that beast lurking within them, are probably more likely to get angry in the first place. But you have to do all kinds of narrative backflips to make that interpretation work. You have to read the second paragraph first. You have to pretend that the simplest answer isn’t really the truth. But the simplest answer, and the most truthful answer, and the most honest answer, is that Cain gets angry because God treats him unfairly. God treats him unjustly. So Cain’s is a righteous anger.

To say that Cain’s is a righteous anger is to say that his anger is not itself the beast, but rather that his anger is a natural opposition to the injustices of creation. And in that regard scripture abounds with examples of righteous anger. Moses is livid with the Israelites following the construction of the Golden Calf. In our Gospel reading today, Jesus tells off the pharisees in the synagogue because they wanted to chastise him for healing on the sabbath; the texts says that he speaks to them with anger. But of course it’s one thing to hold anger towards other people; it’s quite another to be angry with God. And yet Jeremiah shakes his fists at God time after time, for the injustice of calling him to prophesy to a people whose ears God has himself closed. And more prominently, the Psalms overflow with examples of Israel’s righteous anger: “How Long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” “O Lord, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me?” Time after time, page after page, the Psalms give witness to Israel’s anger, Israel’s anger with God, the Psalmist’s anger in the face of the injustice of her present circumstance. Time after time, page after page, some of the most heart-wrenching and most honest and most faithful examples of Biblical worship and discipleship come in the form of anger, of being angry for a purpose, of seeing with anger the vast difference between the world that is and the world that God calls into being. Cain’s anger is just the first in a long history of faithful Biblical anger.

But we don’t do this. We don’t acknowledge it. We don’t like to talk about it. We don’t like being angry. We don’t like us when we’re angry. As far as I can tell, we’ve done one of two things with every scriptural example of people being angry with God: either we just don’t read those parts of the Bible, which is how you get the abridged version of Jeremiah, or, like Cain, we demonize the people who bother to express that anger in the first place. All in the service of a life in Christian community that doesn’t have to talk about anger, that doesn’t have to think about anger or preach about anger or sing in anger or pray in anger, all in the service of a life in Christian community that never has to worry whether any of us will turn into the beast. I doubt any of us have ever wandered into church and gathered for the Prayers of the People and heard the pastor say something like, “Heavenly Father, creator and ruler of the universe, hear our prayer: we are so mad at you right now.”

We bring everything else with such relative ease: our thanksgiving, our celebration, our suffering, our petition, our relief and joy and sorrow: We are so good at bringing so many of the corners of our lives, so many of the corners of ourselves into this place of worship and before the throne of the Lord and then we leave anger at the door. But I know it’s there. I know it’s there because the world is an unjust place. I know it’s there because the world doesn’t always follow its own rules and God doesn’t always follow his own rules. How much have each of us offered unto the Lord and have we each received favor in proportionate response? Have you been sick in proportion to your discipleship? Have you been in sorrow in proportion to how much you have given? Or perhaps we ought not think first of ourselves: tell me, how much did Trayvon Martin offer at the AME church where he worshipped? And wherein was God’s favor upon him? The world is an unjust place, and I know that beast is lurking inside each of us. That’s the secret. We’re always angry.

The problem for us, which is the problem for Cain, is that we can’t quite say it. We can’t quite name it. The Genesis text says that Cain was very angry, though he never says it for himself. And then God turns and asks him, “Cain, why are you so angry?,” but Cain never says it for himself. It would be intimidating, admittedly: after all, you are addressing the creator and ruler of the universe, without whom you never would have come into being; it’s difficult to imagine being angry. You should be grateful just to be here. And who wants to risk making God angry? You might not like him when he’s angry; just look what happened to Adam and Eve. But the problem is that Cain is angry, and instead of saying it, instead of speaking its name, instead of acknowledging it to himself he buries it, he pushes it somewhere deep inside, he plants its roots down in the fertile soil of the human soul. And when Cain’s anger reemerges, when the shoots begin to peak out above ground, then and only then has he truly turned into the beast. Then and only then does the story find him, out in the field, standing over the dead body of his own brother. We like to say that this story is about the inevitability of violence, that violence is the deep seed planted in the human heart. But nothing could be further from the truth. In this text, the violence isn’t the seed; it’s only the fruit of anger that never should have been planted there in the first place. In this text, violence is only what happens when Cain can’t bring himself to say “God, I am so mad at you right now.” In this text, violence is only what happens when we can’t speak our anger. I think Hulk’s got it figured out. The secret to managing anger isn’t deciding when to let it in. The secret is admitting that it’s been there the whole time.

Several months ago the radio show This American Life broadcast a heart-wrenching episode centering on their time with the students and teachers and staff of Harper High School in urban Chicago. They were drawn to the story of Harper because of the staggering fact that in the year prior to their reporting twenty-nine current and recent students had been shot. As they explain, Chicago police had been so effective in dismantling large-scale gang operations in the city that, in their wake, a thousand tiny gangs had come into existence, each seemingly gunning for all the others. In the neighborhoods around Harper, students didn’t so much join gangs as they were automatically enlisted, and guns just went quite literally with the territory. So that it was quite natural for a high school junior named Davonte to have a handgun in his own possession, and even more natural for him to be showing it to his fourteen-year-old brother in their home after school. Unfortunately that’s when the accident happened; that’s when the gun went off, and that’s when Davonte’s brother’s body slumped to the floor. At the hospital, Davonte’s brother was pronounced dead on arrival.

This American Life picks up six months later, when Davonte comes back to school for the beginning of the fall term. Once the class troublemaker, he’s now withdrawn inside himself. Once the life of the party, he’s now considerably more removed. He spends much of his time with the school social worker, who tries everything to get him to speak about the shooting, about the fact that he’s not sleeping, about his guilt, about his memories, about anything related to his brother, about what almost has to be an unbearable anger. But Davonte withdraws more and more. You see, this story isn’t really about violence. Davonte had no violent intentions towards his own brother. But it is about anger. Anger at the awful misfortune of the thing. Anger at the powerful injustice that would see two teenage boys training for a life of gunplay. Anger that may not have taken his brother’s life, but surely, in its own way, takes Davonte’s. Unable to speak its name, the anger consumes him. He disappears from school. Days later the social worker discovers that he’s been picked up for gun possession and then had literally run out of the courtroom, whereabouts unknown. At the time of the broadcast, and even as of my best research this week, there was still no information on where he had gone. But I suspect you would find him in that place that unspoken anger drives us, in that place where the beast takes us when we do not speak its name, somewhere East of Eden.

I want you to get angry. The world is a terribly unjust place; no fourteen-year-old should need to know how to use a handgun. You need to be angry. We need to be angry. We need to be angry at injustice, so that we can name it, so that we can fight it, so that we can marshall the forces of honesty and truth and goodness against it. And we need to be angry at God. Not just angry; of course we need also to be thankful and joyous and wondrous. But we still need to be angry, because creation can be a terribly unjust place, and being angry with God is just part of being in full and honest relationship, and God knows what anger is like, and God will still like you when you’re angry, and God will still love you when you’re angry. But I don’t just want you to get angry. I want you to speak it. I want you name it. Because if we can’t name it, our anger will become the beast, and one way or another, even if only by sitting and watching the world burn, we will become instruments of violence.

But if we can speak its name, if we can harness its power, if we can with the eyes of anger see the radical difference between this world that is and that the world that God calls us to be, then, friends, in our anger we will witness to the power of God, and in our anger we will testify to the righteousness of God, and in our anger we will fight for the justice of God,and our anger will be an instrument of mercy, and our anger will be an instrument of hope, and our anger will be an instrument of peace. So I want you to get angry. And I want you to speak it. Let it be no secret. Let it be said of us: we’re always angry. Amen.

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