We’ve all seen the news stories and videos. There is a massive amount of anger in America. Whether on airlines, grocery stores, school board meetings, restaurants, or social media, anger is on public display. When anger is expressed in person, all too often, it leads to threats and violence.
Polling shows that many Americans think we are angrier as a country and that they have become more enraged. Many articles have been written seeking the roots of all this anger – common reasons include political polarization, stress due to the pandemic and its effects, resistance to public health measures, and more. But whether it has to wear masks, a store not having a desired item, or sharing political opinions at a family gathering, anger seems to be the default response.
Anger can serve good purposes. For example, to be angry at injustice is appropriate. Anger could be an honest response to a bad situation and be the catalyst for constructive dialogue. But what we see so much these days is not anger at conditions but toward persons.
John Wesley makes this distinction in discussing the Sermon on the Mount. There Jesus says, while it was told not to murder, “that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment… (Matthew 5:22, NRSV) As Wesley notes, “Our Lord here ranks under the head of murder even that anger which goes no further than the heart; which does not show itself by an outward unkindness, no, not so much as a passionate word.” (“The Sermon on the Mount, II,” ¶ I.8)
Some older English translations have Jesus say, “angry without cause,” but our modern translations omit it as not being in the original text. Wesley agrees with the omission because he believes the phrase to be “entirely superfluous.” “For if anger at persons be a temper contrary to love, how can there be…a sufficient cause for it?” (¶ I.8)
Sometimes people excuse their anger by saying they are simply being zealous for the truth, freedom, or some other reasonable purpose. Wesley will have none of it. Whatever the provocation, anger directed at others is not zeal, for “True Christian zeal is no other than the flame of love. This is the nature, the inmost essence of it.” (“On Zeal,” ¶ I.3)
Anger, in contrast, “is the flame of wrath. It is flat, sinful anger…And nothing is a greater enemy to the mild, gentle love of God than this.” (“The Wilderness State,” ¶ II.7)
God’s purpose is to give us love, peace, and joy through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. We can receive a calmness of spirit (which is how Wesley defines “meekness”) that can heal our tendency to take offense. We receive and grow in a love that encompasses even those who offend, the stewards on planes and the servers in restaurants which are often the targets of anger but have not offended us at all.
Let it be our prayer to receive this new life of love such that it governs our hearts and our lives. We can then witness that love is an alternative to a culture of anger.