Anger in Church

Third Sunday in Lent


“The gesture in the temple is all the more poignant and prophetic when we imagine it executed by a man too slight to carry his own cross without assistance, a man whose idea of a workout is a forty-day fast.”

Garret Keizer, The Enigma of Anger

We live in angry times.

In our politics, anger can lead to cynicism and despair or it can energize grassroots movements for change. (Rush Limbaugh is now feeling some of the effects of the latter). More often, perhaps, our anger at the “broken system” we all lament leaves us somewhere in the middle: indifferent, disengaged, checked out.

In our family lives and our working environments, we are paying more attention to anger and its destructive ways. “Anger management” is not the butt of jokes it once was; it’s a set of skills that has saved many a job, many a marriage. We may not always win the battle against the buried fury or the passive-aggression that can wreak havoc on our personal and professional relationships, but at least the subject itself is no longer taboo.

In the church, however, anger is almost never talked about. The seething rage I may feel in a board meeting or Bible study is more likely to come spilling out afterward in a private conversation in the church parking lot (and thus my personal ire and the group’s larger discord will almost surely go unresolved). The “niceness” that Christians have taken to be our highest calling has us regularly avoiding conflicts both large and small, and leaves us bereft of the skills to distinguish between petty acrimony and righteous anger, between misplaced indignation and anger as both gift and necessity.

And then there’s Jesus’ anger. The textual variations in the gospels’ “money changers” scenes are interesting to consider: The Synoptics have Jesus throwing over the temple tables near the end of his public ministry—the action itself a clear impetus for his arrest, torture, and crucifixion. In John’s gospel, Jesus has barely begun his work—he has summoned a few disciples, carried out an impressive “sign” at a wedding in Cana—and now he’s in the outer courtyard of the temple losing his cool.

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus calls the temple a “den of thieves,” suggesting that it was financial abuse–outright stealing–that he objected to. In John’s account, the complaint is different. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”, Jesus says to the dove-sellers. Which is interesting since the outer courtyard of the Jerusalem temple was a marketplace, was a necessary commercial venue for exchanging currency so that the buying and selling of sacrificial animals could take place.

Jesus’ motivations and ultimate ends cannot be known with certainty. But certainly the interpretations through the centuries which have regarded Jesus’ actions as a repudiation of the Judaism from which he came have been wrong-headed and harmful. That Jesus understands himself to be both the ultimate sacrifice and the end of sacrifice–and thus the new temple, the meeting place of God and humanity–is at work here.

But back to the anger. I have found Garret Keizer’s reflections on anger (God’s and ours) more helpful than anything else I’ve encountered on the subject. If the niceness of Christians is rooted in the belief that God is nice, Keizer—without a trace of niceness—refuses such pieties:

I am writing in petulant resistance to the idea that anger is an emotion with no rightful place in the life of a Christian or in the emotional repertoire of any evolved human being. Darwinian evolution I can buy; most of the other forms, however, I can neither buy nor stomach. Darwin saw us linked with the animals, and therefore to the material creation as a whole; so do the Old and New Testaments. But the popular theology (most of it Gnostic) that portrays perfection as the shedding of every primitive instinct, and portrays God as an impersonal sanitizing spirit, is to my mind evidence of a satanic spirit. The Lord my God is a jealous God and an angry God, as well as a loving God and a merciful God. I am unable to imagine one without the other. I am unable to commit to any messiah who doesn’t knock over tables.

It  is also Gnosticism to insist that Jesus wasn’t really mad when he wielded the whip of cords in the temple courtyard. Such a view, says Keizer, is very close to the Gnostic idea that “Christ only seemed to suffer on the cross.”

Keizer also notes the opposite temptation: to see in Jesus’ temple actions an explosive anger indicative of a decisive (and desirable) masculinity:

American Protestantism especially has often seemed to regard Christ like an ex-Marine father regarding his overly bookish son, hoping he’ll bloody someone’s nose just once, wishing his appeal among women had some other, earthier explanation besides his appeal to them as human beings. But the gesture in the temple is all the more poignant and prophetic when we imagine it executed by a man too slight to carry his own cross without assistance, a man whose idea of a workout is a forty-day fast.

It’s the location of this text in the season of Lent that gives the followers of Jesus something to ponder in our own struggles to discern good anger from bad, to remember that God’s anger is the flip side of God’s love, and that in Jesus – the new temple, the meeting place of God and humanity – we are given both permission and sufficient grace to deal with the anger that will inevitably arise in us and in our churches.

2 Responses to “Anger in Church”

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  1. Thanks, Ive known anger is an needed impetus to act, that the teens in Florida have clearly shown the power and rationality of focused anger at terrible injustice. And discernment of when anger is a positive and loving force for change or a bitter brew is where there is a Cloud of Unknowing. The Gnostics have no room for anger, saying that anger is a function of the egoic mind.
    But any of us in the midst of a contentions vestry meeting, knows that anger must have a sacred meaning, to be able to sit with it and find whether itś of


  1. […] Good stuff here by Debra Dean Murphy, especially this quote from Garrett Keizer: I am unable to commit to any messiah who doesn’t knock over tables. […]

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