Peace (and justice) from anger

The first time I made peace with anger was deeply personal: I was deciding what kind of job to get after my layoff, and I had to admit to myself that I was angry I had worked so much when my kids were babies. I wanted to call it something other than anger, and it was – it was grief and regret and frustration and helplessness. But it was also anger – and it was the anger that catalyzed my gumption to start my own business and take more control over my working life. Acknowledging the anger let me learn from it.

“Anger is a catalyst,” Brene Brown writes in her new book, Atlas of the Heart. “Holding on to it will make us exhausted and sick. Internalizing anger will take away our joy and spirit; externalizing anger will make us less effective in our attempts to create change and forge connection. It’s an emotion that we need to transform into something life-giving: courage, love, change, compassion, justice.”

The last two years have given us plenty to be angry about at a systemic level. A virus spreading because people refuse to wear masks or get vaccinated. Kids in and out of school and living in fear. Continuing racism-fueled violence and poverty. An attempted coup. It was the anniversary of the coup that prompted this reflection on anger. And it’s chilling to think that as I write about using anger to catalyze change, people on the other side feel that same drive. So I like this framing from John Pavlovitz in his book, If God is Love, Don’t Be a Jerk:

“If there’s any kind of anger people of faith, morality, and conscience should aspire to it is redemptive anger, focusing on what results from our responses, the fruit of our efforts and our activism: Do they bring justice, equity, wholeness? Are more people heard and seen and respected in their wake? Is diversity nurtured or assailed because of them?”

Father Clay wrote about all of this way back in the 80s. This letter puts anger into the context of our response to poverty, and I think it applies across all the types of injustices we see today. I know there’s anger on all sides of big, hard issues. But if we start with a lens of love, I believe we land in a place of compassion, justice, and wellness. On a macro level this will influence policy and culture. On a personal level, learning to embrace and then learn from anger has helped me move past it and make more love-filled decisions. The anger could have festered into contempt, cynicism or hopelessness. That would have been tragic for my family.

I’m entering my fourth year of self-employment. I’ve never been happier than I’ve been these past three years. I am a better parent and more myself because of the way I work. I could not have gotten here without a spark of anger to teach me what I needed. On a macro level, if we let anger calcify into cynicism and hopelessness, we will slow our progress toward a more equitable, loving society.

Response to Poverty

The first stage is compassion for the poor, being moved by their suffering. Compassion is helped by learning that half the world is poor and that 800 million people are starving in one way or another. This information can help us become compassionate if we don’t block it by becoming callous, by saying it’s none of my business and so on.

Compassion is aided by seeing people in their poverty, by having immediate contact with
their pain, by seeing them freeze, by seeing children suffer from malnutrition. Compassion leads to action that is called relief work— providing food, clothes, money, blankets, etc. Another action is simplifying our lifestyle to save money to give to the poor.

The second stage begins with the gradual discovery that poverty is a structural problem. It does not come from bad luck, laziness or ignorance. It is the result of political and economic policies. Poor people are suffering a terrible injustice. This structural problem involves all of us. We are all its pawns.

The second stage of our spiritual development is indignation or, more bluntly, anger—anger
against those whose policies cause poverty and suffering. Anger doesn’t mean hatred. The
more that we understand that the problem is structural, the more we are able to forgive the individuals involved. When we understand that poverty is a structural problem, a political problem, we want to change the structure of the systems that create poverty and not just relieve the suffering of the poor. This knowledge can, however, lead to paralysis
and giving up.

The third stage develops with the discovery that the poor must and will save themselves and that they don’t really need you or me. Before this discovery, we think that we must go out and rescue the poor because they are helpless. In fact, the poor are more capable of solving the political and structural problems than we are. We must learn from the poor.

The poor themselves are the people whom God is going to use to save all of us from the crazy madness of a world in which so many people are starving in the midst of so much wealth. The danger of the third stage is romanticizing the poor, thinking that all they say and do is true and good.

The fourth and final stage centers around the experience of real solidarity with the poor and oppressed. It is no longer we and they. There is no gap between us. We are all us. We discover that we all have faults and weaknesses, though we all have different ones. We can work together and struggle together against our common enemy, the unjust policies and systems, without ever treating one another as inferior or superior. We have a mutual respect, while recognizing the limits of our own social conditioning. We are in solidarity with God’s cause, which is justice. This is the fruit of a long personal struggle filled with
pain, shocks, challenges, crises and dark nights.

The four stages do not follow rigidly one after the other. They do get mixed up. When we get stuck somewhere along the way, we are not able to appreciate others who have gone
farther. When we don’t realize that it is a process, we don’t appreciate and understand
those who are beginning.

Smile, God Loves You.
Father Clay

From “Response to Poverty,” in Dear People Whom God Loves, by Father John Clay (C) 1999

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