Raging Against the Night…or Not?

The word is out. Americans are angry. It appears large numbers of the populace ride a roller coaster of rage throughout their day, with a whopping 68% of the population at least once a day reading or hearing something that makes them angry. A recent Esquire-NBC research study, entitled American Rage, studied the many manifestations of anger rippling across our culture, and the study paints a picture of a peevish population. From the outraged crowds attracted to Donald Trump’s stump speeches, to the prickly supporters of Bernie Sanders’ campaign, to the irked activists in the Black Lives Matter movement and the annoyed armed men occupying Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, it seems we are increasingly a nation of angry people.

The study found a spectrum of triggers for the nation’s anger, revealing a fragmented population that is annoyed about a lot of different things. Some Americans are angry about the inactivity of Congress, others the encroachment of government into the marketplace and industries like health care. Another segment of the population directs their ire on corruption on Wall Street, and still others on the role of money in manipulating the political process, while more than half of the nation (52%) is angry that the “American dream” is no longer attainable.

AngryHand.jpgAccording to the study, the magnitude and focus of our anger rises and falls along fault lines of ethnic, racial and gender differences – 73% of whites are angry at least once a day, but only 56% of blacks, and 66% of Latinos. Women are angrier than men—not only by the way they are treated but by the way others are treated just as much. Middle-aged white men are the most angry of all, seeing life “through a veil of disappointment,” and a “perceived disenfranchisement,” a bitter sense that the dream of their life did not pan out because of external factors.

Curiously, there are a few issues that we rally around with a common irritation. One of the larger percentages of Americans (78%) are aggravated by their perception that elected officials enact policies that favor only the wealthy, and an even larger percentage (more than 90%) are outraged that shootings are happening in our schools. As the researchers summarized the study: “We the people are pissed.”

Cone.jpgOver the years, anger has motivated humans to mobilize politically around their dissatisfaction with the conditions of life or those in power. James Cone’s, The God of the Oppressed, explored this righteous anger in relation to centuries of American enslavement and oppression and the African-American community’s struggle for human rights. In The Artistry of Anger: Black and White Women’s Literature in America, 1820-1860, Linda Grasso travels similar ground on women’s issues. She sees anger as an “arsenal” against personal and institutional oppression and believes that anger can elicit courage, growth, and common cause, becoming a profound source of energy that can direct progress and change.

Cone and Grasso are undeniably right. Throughout history angry people have changed societies and cultures by channeling the energy of their rage into constructive engagement with unjust or ineffective social, political and economic systems. In the musical, Les Miserables, composer Claude-Michel Schönberg captured the motivational potential of this affective reaction to injustice. The revolutionary character Enjolras channels the passion of centuries of revolutionaries refusing to yield under the boot of oppression in the song: Do You Hear the People Sing?

Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!

Because rage has been a part of the human condition from the beginning, the human race has learned a lot over the course of history about emotion, what it can do to us, and how to work with its energy in constructive ways. In a frequently cited psychological study comparing 47 non Indo-Europeans, Hupka, Lenton, and Hutchison found that in most cultures anger is the first emotion humans identify with a label (guilt runs a close second). Whatever else is going on in our inner world, we’ve always been able to recognize anger at work. And, whether you look at the animal and human sacrifices to appease the gods in preliterate societies; Poseidon’s jealous anger at his brother, Zeus; the Roman Furies and their retributive anger toward human arrogance; or the unleashing of God’s wrath on the antichrist in Revelation 16, many of our ancestors have assumed God is just as angry as we are, and about the same things. You still see this assumption operative in contemporary religious circles. After Hurricane Katrina damaged or destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes in New Orleans in 2005, some Christian leaders attributed the devastation to God’s judgment on a sinful nation. Similarly, when an earthquake killed more than 90,000 people in Pakistan the same year, the Pakistani news media blamed the tragedy on Allah’s anger and punishment of sinful behaviors.

But, some people with deep spiritualties have always seen the dark side of this powerful emotion. They recognized that anger is not just a tool of transformative change, and it doesn’t always promote “insight, artistry, and action,” as Grasso documents in regards to the fight for women’s rights. Anger is an emotional labyrinth that can swallow us whole and become corrosive and toxic before we’re aware of it. Throughout history, many humans have expressed their anger with no regulation or consideration of the emotion’s role and power to shape our world. In doing so, they have created the most brutal and hideous chapters of our past. One of the great threats to our age is that unlike the past, in which angry people had a difficult time finding each other, thanks to the Internet, telecommunications and travel technology, those awash in irritation can find each other fairly easy.

BrokenMirror.jpgConsider the chronically angry people around us, and their shared behaviors. Because they can’t regulate the emotion of anger they have a hard time listening, struggle to make important distinctions about complicated realities, and suffer from a deficit in empathy, which inhibits their ability to think in other people’s categories or “feel” the validity of the underlying concerns supporting other people’s opinions. The chronically angry are incarcerated in their thinking and feeling, some serving life sentences. This is one of the reasons such people return to the same talking points over and over again, and their narrow set of issues become superimposed over every situation and conversation. Those with unchecked anger may see a truth in the chaos and disappointment of reality, but they are almost always wrong in their overall diagnosis and prescription for the treatment of problems.

Perhaps the reason so many of us seem content to wallow in our rage is the influence popular culture has had on our values. In the past 50 or 60 years, our culture has often made the angry rebel, even if it is a rebel without a cause, into a kind of folk hero. Anger has become idolized–an end in itself, a last cry of resistance to the “rigged systems” that confine our life. Shouting at the darkness and the rain is not only acceptable, it is the superior response to a meaningless world. Dylan Thomas’s poem becomes a mantra taken out of context: “Do not go gentle into that good night. 
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Network.jpgThe pervasive role of anger in the Esquire-NBC study is reminiscent of an iconic scene in the film, Network, a post-Nixon era critique of television news.  The aging TV anchorman, Howard Beale, has a nervous breakdown while reporting the evening news, and his brief moment of despair and honesty turns him into the superstar “mad prophet of the airwaves.”   In a famous scene, Beale tells his viewers:

“I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot. I don’t want you to write to your Congressman, because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write … all I know is that first, you’ve got to get mad… I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!!”

The scene ends with images of people sticking their heads out of their windows all over the country and yelling into the night: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

Sadly, we don’t have the luxury of “not taking it anymore.” Even if we are mad as hell, the world is going to continue to change at the rapid disorienting rate (which is one of the reasons we are so angry). If we’re going to make all of this anger really work for us, we need to reconnect with the kind of wisdom of the ancient power of redemptive anger that has driven all of the most effective social reformers in human history.

These saints, seers, philosophers and gurus caught onto the dark side of anger early. In the first few centuries of the Christian era, for instance, the desert mystics, fighting their inner demons in solitude, came to see the full force of the destructive potential of rage or wrath. By the fourth century anger took a prominent place in the list of the seven deadly sins, and by the time of Dante’s Inferno, anger was a sin that booked passage to the lower levels of hell.

The ancients came to realize by the 5th century that there are contrary virtues that can temper the cardinal sins. In the epic poem, “Battle for the Soul,” Prudentius may have been the first to suggest that patience is the antidote to anger. Patience allows us to not demonize others or their opinions. If gives us the strength to take issues into the messy commons of our shared world to fight out viable solutions to our problems, without allowing anger to suck us into its vortex. Patience helps us cultivate a long view on our life and human history. It assists us in building a suite of other virtues that are essential to world changing behavior: compassion and understanding, but also persistence and long-suffering. The angry people who will shape a new world must learn to channel their psychic energy not only to complain, but to resist withdrawing into a hive of rage with like-minded people. They need to build alliances across meanings systems in order to reform institutions. The angry people who have changed the world for the better were those motivated to change the world in incremental steps.

These angry women and men have moved nations and cultures toward all kinds of good things, and it is little wonder this emotion plays an outsized role in human efforts to understand our inner life and the things that motivate us to change the world around us. But, it remains to be seen if the sea of rage measured in the Esquire-NBC research will lead in the direction of positive social change. The results of the survey poses a troubling question for our moment in American history: Will our national expression of pervasive anger lead us to positive advancements in our common life, or will it drive us to each other’s throats with the cast of angry characters residing in Dante’s fifth level of hell? The cynics would say the latter, and the Esquire study might support them. But, I’m betting on the power of the human spirit to reconnect with the strength and insight of ancient wisdom and the virtue of patience. We’ve risen out of the ashes of our irritation more than once in the past, can we do it again?


Conversations: Grace Under Fire

As we end a deeply contentious presidential election cycle, the divisions among the American citizenry are as visible as always.  In the midst of this divisiveness, we need people who can lead from a soul-depth that inspires others, but also can sustain itself in a pressure cooker.

One of the finest measures of the human soul is the ability to maintain grace under fire.  Most people who have distinguished themselves in rising above the chaos, evil and fear swirling around them speak of having “received” inner strength from outside their own interior resources.   This strength allowed them to rise above the circumstances of a stressful situation, to think clearly, to respond compassionately, and to ultimately display the very best in human character.  It also gave them the capacity to lead the process of change needed to move the community to another place.

History is filled with examples of people receiving the gift to act with grace under fire.   A somewhat recent example comes from the so-called “kitchen epiphany” of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the middle of the 20th century.    Charles Marsh gives as good of a rendition of this experience as you can find, in his book, The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice from the Civil Rights Movement to Today. <Photo Credit: Lisa Singh, American Detours>

Dr. King had taken a position as pastor of a small congregation in Montgomery, Al., after completing his doctoral coursework at Boston University, but before writing his dissertation and completing the degree.  He was newly married and had his first child, Yolanda.  He took the job, against his father’s wishes, because he dreamed of one day becoming the president of a college, but wanted some pastoral experience prior to entering higher education.   The congregation in Montgomery was not his first choice, and a little smaller than he had hoped for in his first “church call.”  But, he accepted it thinking the size would allow him to finish his degree requirements.

After a little more than a year on the job, Rosa Parks was arrested for sitting in the “white section” of a bus and refusing to relinquish her seat.  At the time, Montgomery, like other cities in the south had Jim Crow laws that allowed communities to segregate African-Americans from schools, public eating establishments, stores, and even from sitting in the front of a bus.   Several days after Parks was arrested, local activists, hoping to challenge the Jim Crow laws, created a social action group they called the Montgomery Improvement Association.  Under duress, King accepted the position of president of the association. <Photo Credit: Denver Public Library>

The Montgomery Improvement Association, under King’s leadership, spearheaded an African-American boycott of the bus system.  Not yet a man willing to take unnecessary risks, King convinced the activists to demand only modest concessions, such as the bus drivers speaking with courtesy to African American riders, and blacks having the right to sit in the front of the bus, only if the back was already full.  The activists were unhappy with King’s timidity, but followed his lead.

Of course, the local white leaders condemned the boycott, and tension in the city intensified.  A month and a half into the social justice initiative, King was arrested for doing 30 miles an hour in a 25 mile an hour zone, was handcuffed, put in a police cruiser and driven away from downtown and out into the darkened Alabama countryside.  As he sat alone in the back seat of the car in the dark, he panicked and prayed that God would give him the grace to endure whatever awaited him when the car stopped, which he assumed was his own torture or murder.

Fortunately, King was taken to the city jail and incarcerated with other people.  Bail was made and he was released, but the following day he had back-to-back meetings and activities and returned home late and exhausted, his wife and child already long asleep.  After checking on his wife and daughter, King received a telephone call filled with obscene words and a death threat.  He had such calls before, but this one rattled him.

He couldn’t get to sleep and sat alone in his kitchen, trying to figure out a way to get out of his leadership position without looking like a coward or disillusioning those trusting in the possibility of promoting change in their southern society.  In desperation, Kin called out to God, not from his academic preparation at Morehouse, Crozer and Boston Universities, but from the depths of the shared humanity he had experienced with the social justice activists, drifters, and alcoholics sharing his prison cell the previous night.  He also cried out from the heart of his formation in the black church.  He told God he was terrified for himself and his family.  He thought he was right in the cause of greater respect for African-Americans, but he felt incapable of bearing up under the pressures bearing down on him.

Suddenly, King said, he was filled with a Divine presence that made him feel ready for anything coming his way.  He felt God standing with him and the rightness of the movement.  Three days later, he convinced the Montgomery Improvement Association to not settle for modest changes in the laws and practices on city buses, but to challenge the legality and morality of the entire system of segregation law in Montgomery.  Four days later, while he was giving a talk, King’s house was bombed with his wife and child in the building.  He rushed home and found he city police and confused and scared white leaders in his house and an black crowd on his front lawn growing more and more angry.   Walking on to his shattered porch, King raised his hand to silence the crowd and gave an impromptu speech that launched the Civil Rights Movement.  King’s epiphany changed him from a would-be college president to one of most effective social reformers in American history, delivering a message and a methodology that has inspired people throughout the world.

Although far from a perfect human being, Martin Luther King became a person ready and eager to act with grace under fire.


At the Mic: Excerpts from a Talk, 9/23

The following are excerpts from a talk given at Plymouth United Church of Christ today– Sunday, September 23rd, 2012.

‘We the Purple’: Becoming Both-And Communities of Faith
in an Either-Or, Red and Blue Society

“Are Americans really as intractably divided into red and blue political positions as the pundits would have us believe?  According to Bill Bishop’s, The Big Sort, the nation is, indeed, fractured deeply.  The journalist Bishop tracks the ten-year relocation of 100 million Americans, and notes that many of them settled in neighborhoods, counties and states that are more likely populated by like-minded people.  From the segregated, freely-chosen “hives” in which we live, says Bishop, we have our most passionate ideas about politics, truth, justice and culture reinforced and rarely challenged.

As religious sociologist David Kinnaman has noted in his book, You Lost Me, young people 16-29 are leaving the church and re-thinking their understanding of faith, while those in the same age group looking at churches from the outside see faith communities as empty moral and spiritual shells, filled with congregants engaged in behavior that is either unchristian, or a mere pawn of the political divisions of the society.  The upshot: many historic traditions of faith are losing the next generation, in large part because red-blue polarities seem as rabid inside as outside communities of faith.

If red and blue is truly descriptive of a major part of our political reality, it is not the only force in society.  Over the past 20 years, the Independent movement has attempted to find a pathway between the polarities of red and blue politics.  Independents now comprise a significant number of the electorate (although the media often misunderstand who they are and what they believe).  While this movement has not yielded a third-party alternative as some had hoped originally, it has offered a new perspective on the handling of differences of principle and opinion among Americans, and a different kind of strategy for building a common life in the United States.  Can “we the people,” find a new way in our politics by striving to become ‘we the purple?’

I would assert that we can discover this space between the anger and broken hearts generated by our red-blue world, and that faith communities may offer the best hope for achieving sustainable oases of purple.  But, this will require us to trade in the “machine brains” of the 19th and 20th century, an inheritance of the Enlightenment that took the dynamics of democratic republicanism for granted, and adopt “garden brains,” which see democracy as something we have to weed, feed, and water.  This talk will ’till’ the terrain of creating purple garden space in congregational life.”

At the Mic

At the Mic: Excerpts from a Talk, 9/16

The following are excerpts from a talk given at Plymouth United Church of Christ on Sunday, September 16th, 2012.

A House Divided:
Political Polarization as a Faith and Brain Problem
We Have to Overcome

 “Political scientists have taken note of the gradually increasing polarization in American politics over the past few decades.  Many Americans consider this divisiveness a destructive force for our democratic republic, one resulting in a political stalemate that inhibits us from solving our problems.  Ironically, a little more than 50 years ago, political scientists believed the U.S. was too homogenous in its politics and called for more distinctions between the two-party system.

While some political scientists believe today’s polarization has motivated more citizens to get involved in the political process, others think the increased passion in the electorate has come at too high a price, moving the nation in 50 years from a problem solving bi-partisanship to a deadlocked hyperpartisanship.  Clearly, the past few years have shown our elected officials are increasingly no longer able to solve the nation’s problems.  Unfortunately, the 2012 presidential election cycle is unlikely to lead to substantive change in the situation.  It is shaping up to become the mud-slinging dual of a generation, making solution-focused politics unlikely in the near future.  Meanwhile, some of our national problems have become ticking time bombs threatening the future of the nation, if not the world.  The direness of the situation is seen most clearly in the attitudes of many in the next generation who are becoming increasingly cynical about both their future and the future of the nation.

How did the U.S. make this this profound transition from bi-partisan to hyperpartisan? There is lots of blame to go around and for this reason it is important to explore some of those forces, including the complicity of religion in the deterioration process.  More specifically, from progressive “mainstream” Christianity to conservative evangelical Christianity, religion and religious leaders have played a role in this cultural shift, both intentionally and unintentionally.  But, the real culprit is the human brain and how it processes information, stores memories and builds worldviews that make room for others and their opinions – or, at our time in history, more likely does not.

As humans we are designed to build protective biases around our belief systems.  We have lots of tricks, conscious but mostly unconscious, for protecting the “sacred” turf of the principles we like to believe guide our lives.  This perceptual screen and self-deluding dimension of human consciousness is both our salvation and our curse.  In the past few decades, the United States has “sorted” itself increasingly into like-minded hives that has aided and abetted these tricks.  But, we can catch on to these tricks and transcend them.  This is essential to achieve spiritual wisdom, and true religious community.  It is also important to living in a democratic society.  The good news is that we can catch on to these biases, integrate divergent insights, and learn to see purple in a red and blue world.”

At the Mic