Righteous Anger

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Jollyblogger has started a new series on relationships based on a a sermon series he's doing. The inaugural post is on conflict and has some good stuff.

His comments on the use of "righteous anger" as a fake justification are spot on. Almost no one ever has righteous anger, at least not unless mixed with selfish or prideful motivations. Usually people's claims to righteous anger aren't even close. As most people use the term, it describes anger that they feel justified in having, but it almost never involves concern for justice for others instead of concern for one's own wounded pride or feelings of being wronged (even if in some cases it's a feeling of being wronged because a loved one has been wronged).

The most vivid cases I've seen of this was in a church I was part of for most of my life before I moved to Syracuse. The pastor had retired but remained on as an elder. There were six elders, and they had made an agreement with each other to express unanimous support for any decision the elders came to, even if they had initially been in disagreement. When they were looking for a new pastor, the former pastor agreed to bow out. Later, his son-in-law came into the situation as a candidate. The former pastor and his family also all thought it was the obvious thing to do. The elders prayed and fasted for a week, with three concluding that it wasn't the right thing to do and two (besides the former pastor) thinking they should hire him.

According to the elders' agreement, they should have gone with the three over the two (since the former pastor wasn't part of it) and unanimously supported a decision to move on to other candidates. The two dissenters and the former pastor who had agreed not to be part of the process wouldn't do it. Once word got out about this, most of the church supported the three elders in the majority, and the elder chair (one of the three) insisted on calling a whole congregational meeting.

At that meeting, the former pastor got up and spoke about his righteous anger against those who opposed hiring his son-in-law as pastor. He was red in the face, though he often was even when he was excited in good ways. The vote counters after the vote wouldn't announce the actual count, because it would have been so embarassing to him. It was obvious to everyone there what was going on.

My dad had resigned as an elder over how he'd been treated in this situation, believing he wasn't welcome to serve in any way in the church, though he was committed to it until he moved out of state more than a few years later. Another elder kept lengthening his winter trips to Florida and eventually just stopped coming back. The third, the chair of the board of elders at the time, died within a few years, perhaps partly due to the stress of dealing with situations like this and a few others that came up. The pastor they ended up hiring didn't last more than a year or two and was asked to resign but to pretend it was from his own inititate. The only reason the next pastor is still there is because he's as strong a personality as the original guy, and I think by then he'd realized that the church could only be healthy if he spent a lot of time away doing pulpit supply in other churches. All of this resulted from what he had called righteous anger.

Everyone in the church knew that it wasn't righteous anger or even close to it. His sense of how things should have gone was wounded because he couldn't see the difference between being convinced this was the wrong job for that particular man and not liking the person (which wasn't true of any of them), and his whole view of the people involved had become shaped by that. This was a godly man, from whom I had learned a lot over the years, not that I as a teenager would have recognized it at the time. Yet it was so easy for his woundedness, mostly from unwarranted expectations and unreasonable interpretations of others, to color his way of seeing those he had committed to serving the Lord with.

Jollyblogger's mention of this is also timely in that we have a public example of this even this week in President Clinton's explanations of why he lied under oath. I think it's morally wrong to belittle or make fun of a president, even one no longer in office. I think Hugh Hewitt, in the post I've just links to, may have gone over the line in a couple of his phrasings. God placed Bill Clinton in that position, and I believe I have an obligation to show him respect for that. Still, I don't think it's wrong to point out something I believe is wrong that he's made publicly available, as long as it's done in respect. Christians who happen to be politically conservative are notoriously bad about this with President Clinton and then complain when others do it with President Bush. This is such a good example of what Jollyblogger was talking about it that I can't resist the risk of mentioning it.

He considers his reaction to Ken Starr to be righteous anger. He doesn't think his anger at Starr is because Starr had pursued legal action against him. It's not Starr's pursuit of Bill Clinton that got him mad. It's the consequences of that pursuit on Monica Lewinksy and other people that grounds his righteous anger. Ken Starr was a bad guy purely because he was mistreating innocent people, and Clinton says he's not one of those people. Thus he had an obligation to resist that bad guy in any way possible, including through lying under oath and lying to the people who put him in office. According to his statements, he doesn't see Starr as having pursued justice because of Clinton's abuse of power at the highest level of authority in the nation through manipulating his office to get sexual favors (something feminists normally would be the first to be angry about, but they were strangely silent in this case). He saw Starr as having a personal vendetta against him. Then he says it's not the vendetta that he's mad about. It's his use of it to harm other people.

I have a hard time believing that that's the only reason he lied or the only reason he was angry. If someone had a personal vendetta against me, I'd have a hard time not being mad at them simply for that. If they were also harming people innocent with respect to the situation, I might be mad at them for that also, but that doesn't remove anger for the personal vendetta. He says it's because Ken Starr was the bad guy, but I don't think he saw Ken Starr as the bad guy purely because of his treatment of other people. This was a personal battle for Clinton, between him and Starr, and he saw Starr as out to get him. He may have been right in seeing Starr that way. Still, it's not righteous anger if there's a clear element of personal anger for someone's personal pursuit against you if that pursuit is based on something wrong that you've done and have now admitted to have done (and admitted to have been wrong). So at best his motivations are mixed, and his anger is partly motivated by righteous concerns and partly motivated by selfish ones. I have a really hard time believing that there isn't some of that.

I'm going into these examples not to point the finger at these people but to show how easy it is to use some offense that really happened to justify anger that's also at least as motivated by selfish or prideful concerns. We should never look at these instances and be like the Pharisee who thanked God he wasn't like that tax collector over there. We should look at ourselves to see how we do the same thing.


Jeremy - terrific post. Those are great stories illustrating the points I was making. Thanks for piggybacking on my post with this.

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