Vinoth Ramachandra

Necessary Anger

Posted on: July 2, 2010

Walter Moseley is a contemporary African-American writer whose detective novels, set in the ghettos of ‘50s and ‘60s Los Angeles, are also acute social commentaries and poignant evocations of the vicious racism of that world.

“There weren’t many people out in the street. In the early sixties nearly everybody was working. On the bus there were mainly old people and young mothers and teenagers coming in late to school. Most of them were black people. Dark-skinned with generous features.  Women with eyes so deep that most men can never know them.  Women like Betty who’d lost too much to be silly or kind. And there were the children… with futures so bleak that it could make you cry just to hear them laugh. Because behind the music of their laughter you knew there was the rattle of chains. Chains we wore for no crime; chains we wore for so long that they melded with our bones. We all carry them but nobody can see it- not even most of us. All the way home I thought about freedom coming for us at last.  But what about all those centuries in chains? Where do they go when you get free?” [Black Betty (New York: Pocket Books, 1995) pp.267-8]

Our histories don’t necessarily imprison us. But nor do they instantly disappear with the signing of treaties and changes in legislation. It has often amazed me that more black people are not as angry as they should be. Not only in the US but- much more so- in societies like India and Brazil where dark skin is identified pervasively with inferiority. African and African-American friends of mine are generally good-humoured, gentle and tolerant. But whenever they express anger or indignation at a Christian gathering, the response of well-to-do whites is to complain – at the supposedly “unChristian tone” of their language. This then becomes an excuse to ignore altogether the substance of what they say and the reasons for their anger.

The same goes for women. Intelligent women who protest angrily at the hypocritical way they are treated in many churches are pilloried as “feminists” (a strange swear-word in some evangelical circles). They end up channeling their gifts outside the church or voting with their feet. But others live double lives: exercising leadership in the secular world, but passively fitting into the sex roles defined in the church by male pastors. It is a well-documented fact that many oppressed peoples internalize the view of themselves that the dominant group perpetuates. This is what Antonio Gramsci in the 1930s famously called hegemony: it is not only through coercion that ruling groups rule, but by controlling the discourses that permeate the media and educational system. And, we should add, “church theology”. Unquestioning docility is engineered not by police forces but by intellectuals in the service of the ruling powers.

The anger of God ripples through the entire biblical narrative. “That is how we know we matter to God,” wrote the 4th-century Christian apologist Lanctantius, “He gets angry when we sin.” The anger of Jesus would be well-worth studying, but I haven’t heard any talks on the subject. Hypocrisy and hard-heartedness on the part of religious leaders are what mostly elicited the anger of Jesus- not sexual sins! I don’t find him calling to repentance the prostitutes, drug addicts, thieves or the “unspiritual” of his society but, rather, the rich, the religious and the respectable. Both in his teaching and his lifestyle he is provocative, controversial, disturbing and dangerous. “White-washed tombstones” is what he called the Pharisees who were the “Bible-believing” Jews of his day. They venerated dead prophets but couldn’t recognize the prophet in their midst. To those who were sure that their seats were booked in heaven, he warned that they would be in for a shock at the Final Judgment. Those outside the church were closer to the Kingdom of God than many leaders within.

This Jesus would not be welcome in most churches today. Nor would he be invited to address the Lausanne Congress or other big evangelical conferences. He would be too much of a social embarrassment. He would upset the big donors, the money would dry up. His “tone” would be all wrong, too provocative and unpolished. He would be withering in his scorn for the personality-cults that build up around popular preachers. He would be angry at the divisions and competition that evangelicals take for granted. He would denounce the individualisation and privatization of the Gospel. He would ask uncomfortable questions: are homogeneous churches simply religious clubs? why is an incompetent man preferred as a pastor or leader to a gifted and godly woman? how come there are so many SUVs in the church parking lot? what proportion of the church’s budget is spent on buildings and music equipment compared to what is spent on serving the poor?…..

“It was the Church, not the world, which crucified Christ.” (Karl Barth)

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6 Responses to "Necessary Anger"

I wonder if a desire for balanced speech was the object of Jesus’ anger rather than legalism, bigotry and religious arrogance. Your point about righteous anger is well taken, but perhaps the best to help the Bible-believers understand this is to appeal to their reason. Outrage does not generally come easily to people who are not victimized or exposed to Christian prejudice on its wrong end,

Jesus didn’t hold back when he said: white-washed tombs, vipers, and wolves in sheep’s clothing. Is it the role of prophets to change minds? Sometimes, it seems, the prophet speaks so the blind will NOT see.

Those who are ready (who have eyes to see) will see. Those who aren’t wouldn’t see even if you laid out the truth on a platter in clear daylight.

You say, ‘I don’t find him calling to repentance the prostitutes, drug addicts, thieves or the “unspiritual” of his society but, rather, the rich, the religious and the respectable.’ But…what about Luke 5:32 – isn’t Jesus’ point exactly that he IS calling the prostitutes, drug addicts, thieves, etc. to repentance and denouncing the Pharisees and others because they think they are righteous when they are not. Isn’t the anger in part about the fact that they don’t think they need to repent, as well as the fact that they are giving a false view of what it means to be righteous?

Penny, I read this as an example of Jesus’ irony. He is inverting the Pharisees’ categorization of “the righteous” and “the sinners”. Read against the backdrop to his whole mission, it is the nation of Israel (especially its leadership) that he calls to repentance. There is no word of judgment he passes on the tax-collectors, prostitutes, lepers, thieves, and those whom the Pharisees labelled “sinners”. He simply embraces them, goes into their home; and they repent in response to his unconditional forgiveness. But it is to the religious, the rich and the respectable that he says that they need to “become like little children”, “be born again”, etc to receive the kingdom of God.

I agree that it is irony! And I think that Jesus upturns our idea of ‘calling to repentance’ as well – as you point out, he comes alongside sinners rather than condemning them. See the latest news article on the IFES web page where I try (via you!) to make a similar point, and send people to your blog.

Thank you Vinoth for this precious reminder.

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