Like most of us, my first reaction upon hearing of a six-year-old boy shooting his teacher with a gun at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Virginia, was outrage. How can a six-year-old get a gun? How does he know how to use it? How is he supervised? How did the school not have adequate protection? Why are there so many guns?
Like most of us, my reaction to the week-long, 15 vote marathon in the House of Representatives to elect a Speaker, was disdain. Fueled by continuous media reports, my disdain has occasionally morphed into outrage. How can twenty members hold the institution hostage and shut down government? How is it that these same outliers care only about their twitter followers and media access? How can they justify representing their constituents when all they seem to care about is their 15 minutes of fame?
My visceral reactions were of anger. Anger, yes, at the injustice of these and other situations. But beneath that – and before that, anger is a response of the ego. Anger is a common response when one’s sense of order and fairness has been challenged. We want somebody to pay for it, so things can return to normal.
During my first year of seminary, a classmate and friend was asked to leave the school after she had tried, for the second time, to commit suicide. I was outraged. How can a community, which is founded on Christian principles, dismiss someone so callously? Where was the compassion? I took my anger to the Dean, forcefully expressed my protest at what I thought was institutional injustice; and what I remember is some incoherent mumbling in response. Which made me even angrier. I then went to Henri Nouwen, who was a professor at the school and the unofficial chaplain, and to my mind is the most important spiritual writer of the 20th century after Thomas Merton. (Henri died in 1996). I laid out my case, and fully expected him to suggest that I leave the school and pursue another vocation where injustice and hypocrisy are less likely to occur. Instead, he looked at me and said, “What do you expect?” More than this, I thought. “People do the best they can”, he said, “which is often not very good….. get used to it.”
I have been working at his advice now for over 45 years.
Anger is an energy that is often hard to control. While it is unhealthy to dismiss or deny anger, it can be a challenge to figure out how to direct it in a way that has the best opportunity of redressing injustice. There has been a proliferation of forces and voices egged on by anger entrepreneurs, who want to keep the outrage stoked, which reduces the chance for change.
In 1990, MacArthur genius award recipient Ernesto Cortes, wrote a book called Cold Anger. A veteran community organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation, Ernesto has had a long career of effectively taking on power, exposing injustice, and organizing faith communities around common values. He made the distinction between hot anger – which is real and deep, but unfocused and ultimately self-serving; acting as a release valve which doesn’t lead to a positive outcome. I remember William Sloan Coffin, upon leaving his decades-long chaplaincy position at Yale, and who was a leader in the anti-war movement and the nuclear freeze campaign, saying, “80% of protesters don’t want to win. They just want to vent their spleen. They can get paralyzed in their anger.”
Cold anger is strategic. It is directed. Cold anger enables one to assess a situation and make an effective response.
How to get to cold anger? In recent years I have developed an appreciation for the ancient spiritual practice of lament. Distinct from complaint, which usually is an expression of anger, lament is an acknowledgement that the world and life in the world are filled with injustice and cruelty; and that, as Henri Nouwen said, “people do the best they can…which is often not very good.” And, he implied, some people don’t do the best they can. They are committed to meanness and cruelty
Lament is a form of mourning for the pain of the world. Acts of lament are intended to release the grief, so a person can be then freed up to take on the injustice and cruelty. In the latter part of his Serenity Prayer, Reinhold Niebuhr states, “taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it.”
Taking the world as it is. Which is often very hard to do. Lament can help – reading the psalms, engaging in a symbolic physical action like pounding the floor. Over time, acts and recitations of lament can redirect the heat of our anger to the cooler passion of taking on injustice.