We usually assume anger is a bad thing, often because it results in bad things–outbursts, hurtful words that cannot be taken back, or even physical violence. Yet even the Bible seems to allow for the possibility of anger that isn’t a bad thing. The apostle Paul says, “In your anger, do not sin: Do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26, NIV). This is anger that is acknowledged and turned into constructive action, not bottled up where it becomes bitterness or explodes in rage.
Twice today I’ve come across the idea of justified anger, both in the contexts of our country’s continuing struggle with racism. The first came up in Edward Gilbreath’s fine new book, Birmingham Revolution, which chronicles the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. leading up to, and following the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Gilbreath discusses the latent anger many African-Americans struggle with in the everyday incidents of racism they continue to experience, whether it is being treated with suspicion in a store, or being stopped by police because one fits a racial profile.
Following arrest during a civil rights march in Birmingham, King was placed in solitary confinement. A guard, perhaps to increase his displeasure, gave him a copy of the local paper with a letter from eight moderate white clergymen, not opposing civil rights but counselling moderation and “waiting”. This indeed got King’s blood boiling, but he turned this into constructive anger in writing what is perhaps the signature treatise of the civil rights movement. In it, he argues that it is never timely for those who benefit from oppression to face action against it. He also argues against the accusation of law breaking that while just laws must be kept, an unjust law demands to be broken because it is out of harmony with moral law.
The second reference to this idea was in a link I came across of an article by a Madison, Wisconsin pastor, who after a talk to a Rotary group, was approached by one of the audience members praising him for not being an “angry black man”. He responds that he is indeed an “angry black man” because of the difference between the image of Madison as a progressive university community and the realities that he and other African Americans experience in this community. He describes a traffic stop in the parking lot of the church he has pastored for 30 years, even though the car they were looking for was red and his was black and the name on his driver’s license matched the name on the church sign. Meanwhile they talked casually to his white associate while keeping him under suspicion. He goes on the describe other ways African-Americans continue to struggle under the continuing realities of racism and challenges Madison in the ways it can address these.
Reading this, as much as I’d love to identify with King and the Wisconsin pastor, the truth is I’m probably more like those eight white clergymen, preferring caution and moderation. But reading these accounts, I begin to get the anger as I see a people who were forcibly brought to this country and then treated as less than human and systematically denied rights that were equally theirs as citizens and subject to continuing suspicion. At one point, Gilbreath describes King’s angriest moment as a fourteen year old returning to Atlanta on a bus from a speech competition to be profanely ordered by the bus driver to give up his seat and stand for 90 miles so that whites could sit. Rich Nathan, a local Columbus pastor describes in his book Both-And a gathering of black and white pastors. The whites were asked how many of them and discussed with their children where to put their hands if stopped by a policeman. None raised their hands. The same questions was asked the blacks in the room. Every hand went up. That occurred in my city, one that similarly prides itself on its ‘progressiveness’ as a university town and state capital.
I’m tempted to want to run around and say and do all kinds of “virtuous” things. No one likes to face the truth that they are identified with injustice. Maybe the best thing I can do as a start is to realize that as William Gladstone says that “Justice delayed is justice denied.” Maybe the best thing I can do, at least to start is to stop defending and just listen and say, “you do well to be angry.”