Friday, October 1, 2010

I'm a Christian. Hear me roar.

One of the founding ideas of this blog was my thoughts on anger. The angry woman has long been a cliché of feminism, both in the jeers of opponents (“man-hater”, “feminazi”) and in the fighting words of women themselves (“hear me roar”).

There is pretty good reason for this anger. First-wave feminism used anger to fight blatant injustices that were enshrined in law; second-wave feminism needed the force of anger to make its point in the face of a society that refused to even see that injustices still existed; in the third wave and beyond, anger is still a powerful tool for the recognition of oppression. Many feminists feel that we as women have been socialized to be docile and unassertive and to avoid conflict in a way that men have not, and that we therefore need to reclaim our right to be angry and stand up for ourselves just as much as men.

In principle, I agree. I think our culture still presents boys with images of aggression and assertiveness as the ideal to aspire to, while the female model is still largely meek and mild, and that disparity isn’t right at all.

But – hey, meek and mild; what does that remind me of?

“Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” – James 1:19

“Do not let the sun go down on your anger... Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you” – Ephesians 4:26, 31

“Everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” – Matthew 5:22

That last one was said by Jesus himself, and in context he’s basically equating anger with murder. So does this mean that, while as a woman I want to assert my right to anger, as a Christian I should never be angry? Is this a case where my Christianity means I have to sacrifice my feminist principles?

That’s the question I started out with. Luckily for me, those passages from James, Ephesians, and Matthew all have a little more to add.

The full sentence in James 1:19-20 is: “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” Ephesians 4:26 starts with the words “Be angry and do not sin”. The parallel in Matthew 5:21-2 contrasts “Whoever murders will be liable to judgment” with “Everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment”.

The implication? Anger itself is not always and inevitably a bad thing. Jesus himself got pretty angry on occasion – with the traders in the Temple, with the Pharisees and members of the religious establishment – and the caveats in these Bible passages seem to imply that righteous anger is actually a good thing. Read a few Psalms, and you’ll quickly find that the blazing fury you experience when faced with injustice and oppression is a feeling God absolutely shares.

However, “the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God”. Our anger might be a right and righteous reaction to injustice, but that does not mean our subsequent actions will necessarily be right. The injunction to “be angry and [...] not sin” is a warning against the wrong ways we can put our righteous anger into action: we risk trying to enact the judgment that it is God’s right alone to enact. Perhaps we try to humiliate the person we are angry with, or we nurse a grudge and let the sun go down on our anger, instead of forgiving our brother.

In practice, then, righteous anger against injustice shouldn’t be dismissed; but it should be used in constructive, forgiving ways. Getting angry at that homophobic comment on the message boards wasn’t my mistake – responding to it with rudeness and hate was. As a feminist on the Internet, I see a lot of rudeness and hate, and as a Christian I should be turning my angry reaction into a kind and truthful response.

Basically, the problem isn’t that women are socialized to be meek and mild; it’s that men are socialized to be aggressive and assertive. As with so many things, Christianity has turned my thinking upside down.

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