Pissed Off and Lonesome

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9

Psalm 15

James 1:17-27

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

On this lonely road, trying to make it home
Doing it by my lonesome, pissed off, who wants some
I’m fighting for my soul, God, get at your boy
You try to bogart, fall back, I go hard
On this lonely road, trying to make it home
Doing it by my lonesome, pissed off, who wants some
I see them long hard times to come…

–Gangstagrass, “Long Hard Times to Come”

If another sins, what is that to you?

When the sinful suffer publicly, do you

find secret comfort in their grief, or will

you also weep? They are surely grieving;

are you weeping now? Assuming sin is sin,

whose do you condemn? Who is judge? Who

will feed the lambs? The sheep? Who, the goats?

Who will sell and give? Who will be denied?

Whose image haunts the mirror? And why

are you still here? What exactly do you hope

to become? When will you begin?

Scott Cairns, from “Bad Theology: A Quiz”

I’ve been thinking a lot about anger lately, if for no other reason than it’s become all but ubiquitous. Anger and reports of anger pervade news cycles, as alienated souls fortified by the railing of television and internet pundits launch verbal and sometimes physical assaults on those they’ve been told are their enemies. So angry have we become that it’s worth asking whether we’re any longer capable of anything other than spleen venting. I use the word “we” deliberately here because I am far from immune to outrage. Truth be told, my own struggle with anger is the likely source of my noticing – and (ironically) becoming angry toward – the anger of others. I realized this was a problem one morning last fall, when I was reading an article about the horrors to which detained immigrants at our southern border were being subjected, including accusations that American physicians had performed involuntary sterilizations on some of the women who had been detained. Quite spontaneously I found myself yelling at my computer screen, “What the hell is wrong with these people? God damn them!” Later that day I sheepishly confessed my violation of the third commandment to a friend, who advised me, “Maybe you should pray for them.” Maybe, indeed.

To be sure, there is plenty to be angry about. The recently released report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change presented us with what looks to be a choice between things becoming incrementally worse before they stabilize somewhere between really bad and imminently cataclysmic, depending on whether we finally find the courage to pull our heads out of our rears, reduce consumption, and start paying the debt we’ve been accruing to Creation for the past 150 or so odd years. The exuberance attending our fleeting and ultimately illusory control over Covid-19 in June and July gave way by the beginning of August to overfilled intensive care units and escalated squabbles over local mask ordinances–reminders of how deep the opportunism, gullibility, and suspiciousness that have given us the mask wars and anti-vaccine conspiracy theories run. And this is to say nothing of myriad, less-reported tragedies, from the continued reign of an exploitative economy to the innumerable divisions wrought by racial and ethnic bigotry. How could any caring, right-thinking person not be angry about all this?

But there’s a line separating righteous anger from sanctimonious outrage. The latter is a form of self-deception, and its consequences are invariably unhappy. This week’s gospel text, from Mark, nicely illustrates the difference. In the story, a group of Pharisees, likely the leaders of surrounding Galilean synagogues, and some scribes from Jerusalem, ostensibly in the region to confirm (or challenge) what they’d heard about the new Galilean prophet, gather around Jesus and begin asking questions. These experts in the Law of Moses observe that Jesus’s disciples, who were eating, hadn’t first washed their hands, which they found at least offensive and perhaps an indication that Jesus was no prophet at all. 

Ritual washing of various types was a significant practice in first century Judaism, thanks primarily to the “tradition of the elders,” a collection of orally transmitted glosses on the Law, of which the Pharisees and scribes regarded themselves the custodians. In this passage, it becomes yet another point of contention in the ongoing argument between Jesus and his interlocutors about how best to understand and embody the Law, including its very point – what it is for. From the perspective of the scribes and Pharisees, ritual washing was necessary, either as an acknowledgment of one’s ritual or moral uncleanness or as a safeguard based on the presumed danger of becoming polluted by daily interaction with a world full of unclean things and people. Just so, they simply assumed that Jesus’s disciples were defiled by their failure to wash before eating, which they found outrageous, especially among the followers of a supposed prophet. 

Jesus’s response was not to attack the Law of Moses, nor even the tradition of the elders as such, but stridently to call out the hypocrisy of those experts who used the tradition of the elders to supersede the Law, often as a means of exercising self-interested social power (e.g., Matthew 23:1-26). His argument is predicated on an example having nothing to do with hand washing, which serves both to make his broader point about his opponents’ intentions and to divert attention from their undue concern with clean hands. The Decalogue, he notes, clearly tells the faithful to honor their parents (Exodus 20:12), an instruction that includes the obligation to support those parents financially when they become unable to provide for themselves. Yet the tradition of the elders frees those who follow it from this obligation by instead making a voluntary sacrificial offering – a “Corban” – to God. The point Jesus makes here is not that sacrificial offerings are wrong, but that using them to override the tenets necessary to maintain the integrity of the community and the health of its members is a giant case of missing the point of the Law, which Herbert McCabe describes as “an outline of friendship,” which “draws a boundary around friendship to show where it stops.” This is important, he says, insofar as “the Decalogue is part of God’s summons to be his people,” the first step of which “is to be human people, and that means living in friendship.”

The supposition that living in friendship is requisite to living as God’s people is entirely consistent with what Jesus says when he turns his attention from his interlocutors to the crowds gathered around them. “Listen to me,” he says, “all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” Later, explaining his assertion to his disciples, Jesus names some of the defiling things that “come out,” offering a list that seems more exemplary than conclusive. Either way, though, the point he argues with his interlocutors and the list he shares with his disciples suggest that those attitudes, words, and actions that divide us, those that alienate us from each other and harm the most vulnerable among us, are those with which we ought to be most concerned.

Which brings us back to anger, which comes from within us and which the epistolary, from the book of James, addresses by making a point not unlike the one Jesus makes in the gospel lesson. In James, as in Mark, the author is concerned to show a distinction between religiosity and faithfulness, between godliness and the mere appearance thereof. James also works with a contrast, not between defilement from without and within, but the goodness of that which comes from above and the potential wickedness of that which comes from within. Those things we receive as gifts – good things – James says, come from God, who is not simply the author of goodness, but goodness itself. Such gifts are to be used, he suggests, not simply for our own benefit, but for the benefit of our fellow members of Creation, of which the people of God are to be “first fruits.” 

The author of James is calling on his readers, then, to cultivate a disposition of gratitude and generosity, which he contrasts in what follows with anger born of certitude, resentment, and envy: “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” What matters most, he concludes, is performing, rather than merely hearing, the word. While the latter yields a religiosity that is not, one might imagine, unlike that of the scribes and Pharisees, the former produces a “pure and undefiled” religion, which consists in caring “for orphans and widows in their distress” and keeping “oneself unstained by the world.”  

What both of these passages suggest is that faithfulness consists in being a faithful member of a people, one constituted by the call to love: one another, our neighbors, and even our enemies. The name for that love, at least according to McCabe, is friendship, which is made impossible by the sanctimonious outrage that today passes as anger. For what I take to be the most significant consequences of anger, one often overlooked, is alienation, or, if you prefer, loneliness. Anger makes enemies, spawning and perpetuating alienation, which in turn fuels further anger, for there is no one quite so angry as the one who is isolated and cut off from the fellowship that makes us human. 

So perhaps a way forward in a world so divided as ours is to seek ways to hear, understand, discover commonalities, and perhaps even welcome those angry others whose outrage tempts us to anger – especially those who call themselves Christians, with whom we share a baptism. Nothing concrete may come of our efforts, but that is not really the point; or so says our friend and former EP board member Brian Volck, who asks

What would happen if I acquired the habit of listening to the other—even the ranter, the bigot, and the prig— with the necessary compassion to acknowledge that person’s adversities and brokenness, unique to them yet so similar to mine? What would it take to tell someone not only where I think they’re wrong but also what part of their truth I need to hear? What would I have to change in me in order to love my enemies? What, in short, must I do to follow the Christ I say I believe in? 

What, indeed. We’ll only know as we try. Let us begin.    

Image Credit: Christ Among the Pharisees by Jacob Jordaens

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