In Sidney Lumet’s 1976 film Network, aging anchorman Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch, is told that his ratings are way down and he is being fired. Depressed and angry, Beale tells his television audience that he is going to kill himself in his last broadcast. Beale is allowed back on the air to recant, but decides instead to go berserk. Wearing his pajamas and an overcoat, wet from a rainstorm, he sits at his desk, looks into the camera and says,
“I want you to get mad …. I want all of 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 gonna take this anymore!’”
An up-and-coming executive played by Faye Dunaway convinces her colleagues to exploit Beale’s rage for ratings. A man who was all washed up days before is suddenly thrust back into the limelight, with his new catch-phrase and a new title: “the mad prophet of the airwaves.” Night after night he rants, playing to the fears of an economically depressed, post-Watergate America. But then Beale’s anger burns out, his ratings start to slide, and when he is protected from being fired, the top network brass arrange to have him assassinated on the air. It is a ratings windfall that simultaneously gets rid of a problem personality. Beale’s anger turns out to be a dead end.
A similar critique comes in one installment of the recent British science fiction show, Black Mirror, called “Fifteen Million Merits.” We find ourselves in an alternate present, in a society literally powered by people pedaling stationary bikes and watching television. Their pedaling earns them “merits” that may be used for any number of things, including the right to buy food, take showers, and brush their teeth, but also to skip advertisements and choose what programs to watch, play more exciting games, and try out for reality shows. Bingham “Bing” Madsen decides to give his merits to the beautiful and talented Abi (played by Jessica Brown Findlay of Downton Abbey), so that she can compete to escape her life (something between hum-drum workaday and outright slavery). She sings beautifully for an American Idol sort of show, but then is asked by a surly judge (played by Rupert Everett) to take her top off. She refuses at first, and then gives in. Her compliance makes her a celebrity. A heartbroken Bing is outraged. He pedals himself almost to death to build back up enough merits to try out for the show himself and rant about the state of the world. He succeeds at both, and like Network’s Howard Beale, he becomes a popular prophet with his own show. Unlike Howard Beale, however, we never see him become a martyr to the consumerism that perversely demands his anger. His anger is simply absorbed as popular entertainment.
The market demands anger — on its terms. It is a strange fact. It works well for certain politicians but it works poorly in governing. It can raise awareness of injustice and also impede consensus-building that could fix injustice.
What does God make of anger? We too often contrast the “wrathful God” of the Old Testament with the “loving God” of the New Testament: Yahweh is mean and Jesus is kind. But anger does not characterize the Father in any essential way. His anger, like any human parent’s anger, is born of love. It is frustrating in the extreme to see your children hurt themselves and others. Moreover, kindly Jesus displays this anger too. Peter makes a major breakthrough: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). Jesus gives him the keys to the kingdom; and then Peter incurs the wrath of the One who loves him. He rebukes Jesus for talking about suffering and death, and Jesus fires back: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Matt. 16:23). Among other examples we might select, the most famous instance of Jesus’ anger is the overturning of the moneychangers’ tables in the Temple (Matt. 21, Mark 11, Luke 19, John 2). The moneychangers may be doing essential work, but they are sitting in the Court of the Gentiles and impeding the power of Temple worship to draw in the outsider. They are sitting in the way of God’s love. But the Father doesn’t give up his Son because he is angry with the world. Jesus doesn’t go the Cross full of rage.
God’s anger (in the Old Testament and New Testament alike) is never the byproduct of fear and loneliness. But mine usually is. So is Howard Beale’s, Bing Madsen’s, the popular whining of television talking heads, and the firebrand rhetoric of politicians and activists. I’m angry too often, and I’m sick of it. I’m mad about the church. I’m mad about society. I’m mad about my own failings.
Abortion enrages me. I hate it with every part of my being; but do I hate it because I want to control women’s bodies or because I love every creature of God and believe they are meant to live?
Heresy enrages me. But do I hate it because I have to have my way or because I have experienced a life-giving faith that has been tested for centuries?
My own children’s bad behavior enrages me. But do I hate it because my own plans for my household do not look as they should, or because I have loved the results of good choices and learned obedience in my own life?
St. Paul writes to the Ephesians, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (4:26).
It’s time to get over being angry. It’s killing us, and the devil loves it.