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What, if anything, do anger and righteousness have to do with each other? Is there a state that may be referred to as “righteous anger” and, if so, what is it and how do we find it?

In my experience the world is an increasingly angry place, fuelled in no small measure by the way social media platforms distance people and are devoid of many of the factors that restrain the expression to anger. The tensions in the political arenas of the USA and South Africa provided further fuel for social anger. People on both wings of the political spectrum have been quick to give expression to their anger. American politics has become more fiercely oppositional than ever. Inflammatory statements have provoked raised levels of anger among those on the political right wing – many of them, sadly, professing Christians.

At the same time there has been plenty of answering anger from those on the left wing of the political spectrum, much of it focused around issues of racism, gender-based violence and other expressions of social injustice. Here again, some of these outspoken expressions of anger come from professing Christians. Sometimes the impression is created that the anger expressed by the right wing is always unrighteous and the anger of the exponents of left wing causes is always righteous, but this is a very unhelpful caricature.

The truth of the matter is that anger is always a dangerous emotion, especially when it is held in the heart and nursed, whatever cause it purports to serve. James1:20 categorically states, human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. From this it would appear that anger and righteousness stand in opposition to each other. It is certainly an important caution for us to heed. Equally in Ephesians 3 and Colossians 4, Paul explicitly counsels us to get rid of anger, rage, bitterness and malice.

We know, however, that there were occasions when Jesus exhibited what can only be understood as “righteous anger”. There is the incident in the synagogue on the Sabbath when Jesus encountered a man with a shrivelled hand. Jesus knew the custodians of Jewish orthodoxy were looking for grounds to accuse him. Mark tells us,

Jesus said to the man with the shrivelled hand, ‘Stand up in front of everyone.’
Then Jesus asked them, ‘Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’ But they remained silent.
He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored.
(Mark 3:3-5)
The most notable occasion is the anger Jesus displayed when he fashioned a whip and forcefully cleared out the merchants and money changers who had set up their operation right within the Temple, in the Court of the Gentiles.

What can we learn, then, about righteous anger? The obvious first lesson is that it is other-centred. Jesus was not angry on his own behalf, but was indignant on behalf of others – the suffering and the marginalized. Secondly, Jesus’ anger was a springboard to action, not an attitude he harboured and nursed within his heart. There is the world of difference between anger that moves us to action and anger that shapes our personality and character. Jesus, the holy Son of God lived in a world full of human evil, whether it was expressed personally or structurally, but he was not constantly angry, and he cannot be characterized as an angry person – on the contrary, he was a man of joy.

I think there is something in this that is very important for us to grasp in a world that is increasingly characterized and shaped by anger. When I make a nesting place for anger within my heart, even if it seems to be anger for some just cause, it begins to shape my character and becomes an atmosphere that colours my every interaction. Though it may seem to serve a cause beyond myself, it increasingly grows into “my anger” and begins to become about me as much as anything else. In other words, I personalise it. At that point, I would do well to heed James’ caution, human anger does not produce the righteousness of God.

Harbouring anger quickly turns my focus onto the rightness of my point of view, and it hooks into the inner working of the self. It then positions me in opposition to those who don’t share my viewpoint and who act in such a way as to cause offence to my system of belief. In this case the whole process serves a “righteousness” which is closer to self-righteousness than the righteousness of God. When I harbour this sort of anger it gives me permission to feel “justified” when my words and actions express that anger, even if they are critical and judgemental. In my experience, that is a false “justification”, and it is very different from the justification that God gives, which is always born of grace.

The practice of what might be termed the politics of anger, creates an oppositional environment which tends to close options, and hardens people in their “positions”. It quickly becomes a win-lose game and often simply ends with lose-lose. As I look at Jesus, even in his moments of expressing anger, he always aims at opening horizons for people and providing them with room to change. That is because anger was always a servant to grace. Jesus was clear about his mission, I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world (John 12:47).

There is so much that is wrong in our world and in our society. Human sin expresses itself personally and systemically. We feel the pain of all this, as, indeed, we must. Pain naturally stings our emotions and stirs anger within us. What will we do with this anger? Will we harbour and nurse it? Will we personalise it? Will we weaponise it? Or will we subordinate it to grace and then act on it in a way that brings God’s redemption into areas of social or personal infection? Will we steadfastly choose to honour people for their intrinsic worth and look to open options for transformation that yield win-win results? That, I think, is what righteous anger looks like.

Rob Taylor, 04/02/2021

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- PART 2.

The demon-possessed man in the Gadarene region has terrified all who have come into contact with him and lives as a wretched but wild outcast on the hills alongside the Sea of Galilee. When Jesus enters the scene, however, it is the demons who are fearful as they recognise the divine authority of Jesus. Significantly they beg to be allowed to inhabit a nearby herd of pigs. Pigs were unclean animals according to Jewish kosher laws. In that sense they were natural hosts for unclean spirits. The Gadarenes, however, had no scruples with regard to pigs. The towns of the Decapolis were prosperous trade centres and, for them, the herd of pigs would simply have represented a valuable asset. So there is implicit in the pigs a significant difference of culture.

Jesus’ entry into their territory, then, has an immediate cultural and, for them more importantly, economic impact. He may bring remarkable healing and deliverance, but the Gadarenes also recognise that there is a cost involved in having him around. They are confronted with a decision. Whereas the Samaritans eagerly welcomed Jesus into their village and, presumably, also accepted the cost to their lifestyle of receiving and following him as Messiah, the Gadarenes ask him to leave their territory. Their culture and their economic preoccupations made the cost of welcoming him look too high.
In each of these two instances, Jesus’ arrival quickly becomes a highly visible public event, with all the townsfolk coming out to see what has happened. In each instance they are faced with irrefutable evidence of personal transformation in the life of someone well known to them. They are able to see the miraculous inbreaking of the Kingdom of God. The coming of the Kingdom always provokes the crisis of decision. The Samaritans rejoiced and wanted to hear more, the Gadarenes were afraid and moved to create a protective distance between them and Jesus.

This shows me that resistance to the gospel of Jesus is often occasioned by fear. Unless we recognise that often lies behind people’s refusal of the offer of grace, we won’t properly grasp the dynamics that are at work in the context. Strikingly, the opposite of fear is at work in the man who is delivered of the legion of demons. This once tortured soul emerges “clothed and in his right mind”. He has been powerfully impacted by grace and knows himself to be delivered, healed and transformed.

In this context, the man’s racial and cultural constraints become irrelevant to him. Of all those in the Gerasene territory it is he who sees most clearly and, as such, he begs to go with Jesus. The grace of the gospel of the Kingdom has formed a deep bond; so deep that he is willing to leave his people and his cultural and step into the alien world of Jewish society, such is his desire to be with Jesus!

Is this not what has often happened in missionary contexts? The liberating grace of the gospel is so powerful that people are willing, for the sake of Christ, to identify with and espouse the culture of those who have brought the message of Christian salvation. It is telling, therefore, that Jesus refuses the man’s request. Jesus knows that what is needed is for him to re-enter his own cultural group as an authentic evangelist. Jesus instructs him, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”
So, this once uncontrollable, demon-possessed man becomes a very effective evangelist whose words, backed by the visible evidence of his life, caused amazement among the people of his community. There is historical evidence for the early establishment of Christian churches in the Gadarene region, and there is every likelihood that it all grew from the founding evangelistic ministry of this man.

The Gadarene community, which was resistant to Jesus and his Jewish companions, was more open to hearing the gospel coming to them through one of their own, and in terms that they are able to understand. Mission in many, many contexts down the ages would have been freed from unhelpful enculturation if heralding the gospel of the Kingdom had been more completely entrusted to those who were first impacted by it and who were able to share it in a shape that would be more understandable to their own people.

In our South African context, centuries after the coming of the first missionaries, there is still, often legitimate, resentment about the way the gospel came wrapped in British culture, and with acceptance of the saving message of Jesus carrying with it the requirement that people cut themselves off from their culture and adopt Western practices. Western culture was identified with “Christendom” and commended, while African culture was denigrated. This is a violation of the way of Jesus and has not borne the good fruit that could have resulted had the gospel been free to find its place in African culture.

Rob Taylor, 07/09/2020

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- PART 1.

Mark here gives us another account of Jesus deliberately choosing to go into non-Jewish territory. This time he instructs his disciples to take their boat across the lake to the far shore, which was the region of the Decapolis. Jewish relations with the people of the Decapolis don’t seem to have been as tense and conflicted as those with the Samaritans, probably because the history between the two communities was less fraught. But because the cities of the Decapolis had a strong Greek influence, having been established in the reign of Alexander the Great, their way of life and cultural assumptions were very offensive to Jewish sensibilities. Though the Sea of Galilee is never wider that 13Kms, the Galilean Jews kept their distance from the people on the other side of the lake.

Jesus, however, chooses to go there, and, just as with the Samaritan woman at the well, he seems to have a “divine appointment” with a specific person. Just as with the woman at the well, this single interpersonal engagement has the effect of unlocking an apparently resistant community to the message of the Kingdom of God. This is even more surprising given that both these people for whom Jesus came were marginalized and outcast members of their respective communities. At the same time, they were well known to their fellow townsfolk, so that the dramatic change in them would have been unmistakably apparent and their testimony to Jesus as the source of their transformation would be listened to with attention.

Why did Jesus choose these people on the fringes of their cultural groups? Perhaps because people on the margins don’t have the luxury of being too heavily invested in social divisions or clinging too tightly to prejudice. Their position of humility within their own group makes them less protective and assertive of their cultural distinctiveness and more open to simple, direct human encounter.

So we come to the scene where Jesus and his disciples step onto the shore and are immediately confronted with this wild out-of-control man rushing towards them. It pictures the sense of threat that so often comes with stepping onto culturally foreign territory. What is strikingly apparent, however, is the calmness of Jesus. He is secure in his authority within the Kingdom of God and no threat from the devil has any power to shake him.

Another surprising thing is that, though he is on a foreign shore, the demons within the man recognise him as “Son of the Most High God”. I get the impression that their recognition of Jesus translated to the understanding of the afflicted man. Just as the woman at the well was the unlikely one who first recognised Jesus as Messiah, so something similar is happening here. Equally, there is a sense that, just as Jesus completely knew that woman and saw the true longing of her heart, so he does with this man. In seeing each of them with compassion and recognition of their inherent value, Jesus has the potential to free them from what holds them in bondage and heal and transform their lives. That is the power of grace that comes with seeing people through the eyes of Jesus.

Rob Taylor, 03/09/2020

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Christ Church Kenilworth  |  Cnr Summerley & Richmond Road  |  Tel: +27 (021) 797 6332  | E-mail: reception@cck.org.za
Service Times: Sunday Worship  8.30am, 10.30am & 6.00pm   | Thursday Quiet Service: 6.30pm (fortnightly)

Taryn Galloway, 06/05/2015