Lament: A More Effective Way to Deal with Outrage

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.




Scams: Preying on Vulnerability and Violating Trust

I fell for a scam last week.  My computer froze, a pop up alarm appeared and said needed to call Microsoft immediately to protect all that was stored on my desktop, lest foreign hackers steal my data, documents and identity.  The Microsoft number was prominently...

Easter: Breaking Through a Contraining System

He broke out.  He got up.  In faith Christians proclaim that Jesus rose from the grave:  Alleluia!  Christ is Risen.  What follows are hymns of praise, expressions of joy, a profusion of flowers – all offered to gatherings that are double the size of a normal Sunday...

Ep 11 – “Passion and Patience” with The Rev. Dr. Amy Peeler

Amy shares about her journey of faith, path to ordination as an Episcopal priest, passion for and vocation of studying scripture, and the blessings and challenges she has experienced along the way.

Fake News, Misinformation, and Truth

When I arrived in Japan in late August, 1973, for a two year fellowship, the country was preparing to honor the 50th anniversary of the Tokyo earthquake, which upended the city for four minutes on September 1, 1923.  140,000 people were killed, many by the 7.9...

Reflections on Christian Nationalism

“The opposite of faith is not doubt”, a wise mentor once said to me, recalling a line from Christian writer Anne Lamott; “the opposite of faith is certainty.”  Religious claims of certainty have been surging on public platforms and in various political expressions. ...

Fighting Insults and Condemnation with the Power of Love

We were at the breakfast table.  My daughter, then about a year and a half, was in her highchair, scrambled eggs on the tray in front of her.  With an impish grin, she threw some of her meal on the floor.  “Don’t do that,” I said in a rather stern tone.  With an even...

Contrasting Interpretations of Discipline

“We will not allow for a policy of ‘anything goes’”.  So said the Chair of a plenary meeting of Anglican bishops in 2008.  There were about seven hundred bishops from around the world attending the once every decade gathering in Canterbury, England.  The plenary took...

Selling the Soul to the Ego

I don’t know people who have literally sold their soul, a metaphor that goes back centuries, but there are many of us who have abandoned, ignored, forgotten or dismissed the very concept of soul.  There are ancient and medieval legendary characters — Theophilus, a...

What Do The Risks of Aleksei Navalny and Jesus Say to Us?

When Aleksei Navalny returned to Russia from Germany in January 2021 after recovering from being poisoned, prison was certain and death was likely.   Navalny died on Friday, February 16 at the IK-3 Penal Colony, located 1200 miles northeast of Moscow in the arctic...

Aging, the Election and a Pathway Through the Chaos

Are Joe Biden and Donald Trump too old to be President?  This question is getting a lot of attention, with no end of commentary.  Assessments are being made as to each candidate’s physical stamina, mental acuity, and psychological health.  Recommendations have been...
Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join my mailing list to receive the latest blog updates.

You have Successfully Subscribed!