Anger is the blood coursing through the veins of the American electorate this season, and not long ago I tapped into it myself. It was the knife attack in a shopping mall in St. Cloud, Minnesota, that got me. I am from that part of the world, and so is my wife and much of our family. San Bernardino, Orlando, Boston, New York, Nice, Paris: I have mourned the terrorist attacks there and elsewhere, but I did not feel them in the same visceral way. I have, I suppose, drawn an invisible mental shield around my people, and told myself: Surely, everyone in the Minnesota Twins fanbase is safe.
The attacker, Dahir Adan, had lived for a time in Fargo, North Dakota. This jarred me. That is my home state, and never before had I heard the words terrorist and North Dakota in the same sentence. My own personal Lake Wobegon, which I suppose I carry around with me wherever I live, felt violated, changed, at war. I do not want Lake Wobegon to be at war. I want it to be a still point in a turning violent world, where at least in my imagination people go on peacefully drinking Labatt beer in ice-fishing shacks and are invaded by no force more dangerous than the Green Bay Packers.
But it is not. This made me angry. I felt listening to my car radio a thousand miles away that my people had been attacked, and attacked by them, from outside. And so the anger in the blood of the American electorate entered into my blood too, and coursed through my veins as I picked my way through traffic. Minnesotans are famed for being nice, but at that moment I felt anything but.
Anger is an ambiguous emotion in Christian thought. Thomas Aquinas asks in his Summa whether it is sinful to be angry, and his answer is that it is not (II-II.158). It is, he says, “a passion of the sensitive appetite,” and gives its name to this appetite’s “irascible power.” Thomas does not mean by this the kind of irascibility that I take on when I have not yet had my morning coffee, but rather the spirited determination to do the good in the face of obstacles and foes. Its face is not my early-morning grumpyface, but the famous photo of Winston Churchill as the bulldog of Britain, determined to face down the wicked and powerful Nazis come what may. This irascible spirit, Thomas thinks, is right and proper, for we live in a world in which the “difficult good” is opposed by powerful enemies. It is right to be angry at injustice, at the powers that seek to kill and oppress and destroy. This righteous anger lifts us up off our feet and drives us onward to do battle, irascible and determined, with these wicked powers.
Yet the Christian tradition does not give anger an unqualified embrace. “Be angry, yet do not sin,” St. Paul writes to the Ephesians (4:26). Wrath is listed by the tradition among the Seven Deadly Sins, meaning that they are “mortal sins” that by their nature represent the will’s turning from God to embrace wickedness, which leads only to death. Aquinas explains that anger becomes sinful when it goes beyond the bounds set by “right reason,” which are the boundaries of justice and love. It is good and right to become angry at real injustices, but wrong to ascribe all kinds of fantastic and lurid forms of wickedness to those who have wronged us. It is right to become angry at wrongdoers, but wrong to go on to ascribe the same guilt to whomever happens to look like or associate with the guilty. It is good and right to desire strongly that justice be done and seek it with gusto, but wrong to desire the destruction, suffering, and damnation of the guilty.
Anger can be just, in other words, but hatred and indiscriminate revenge never can be. Yet the great danger of anger in the human heart is that it is a passion that easily boils over in just those ways, and so leads us to deadly sins opposed to justice and love. The stronger it is, the greater the injustice it responds to, the easier it boils over into injustice, revenge, and hate.
Here we are then, in this country, and there I was driving in my car listening to the radio tell me about the Somali terrorist from Fargo. It was not just for me to feel anger against the Somali community that had settled in Minnesota, though it was just for me to feel anger at the attacker, Dahir Adan, and whoever may have spurred him on. It was not just for me to feel gladness that he had been shot by an off-duty police officer, though it was just to be glad the officer had prevented him from killing anyone. My anger boiled up and over and led my heart on to sins against charity and justice.
For that, I must confess and repent.
“The line between good and evil,” Alexander Solzhenitsyn famously said, “passes … right through every human heart.” I cannot simply draw a line that places peace and harmony within the bounds set by the Minnesota Twins fanbase, and evil and hatred out there, among the foreign and the strange. I was reminded of that the very same morning, when I read a news story that brought up all of my anger again.
Everyone my age who grew up in the Upper Midwest knows the name Jacob Wetterling. He was on all the milk cartons for years, his smiling 11-year-old face under the word Missing in all-caps. In other parts of the country it was other boys on other milk cartons, but up there he was the one you thought about when you were riding your bike home at night and saw a van coming your way; he was the one your parents thought about when they told you not to be outside after dark anymore. Since 1989 his parents in little St. Joseph, Minnesota, have kept the front porch lights on just in case he came home.
This month he was finally found, buried in a pasture not far from his house. His killer and attacker, local resident Danny Heinrich, confessed to the crime and led police to the grave. What had happened that night in 1989 somewhere outside Lake Wobegon was exactly what everyone had been afraid of.
The poor child had asked his killer before he died, “What did I do wrong?” He had done nothing wrong. Yet Danny Heinrich went on with his life since 1989, and Jacob Wetterling was left there in a grave, wearing the red St. Cloud hockey jacket that we kids had all been told to watch for, just in case.
Anger: it is right to be incandescently angry at Danny Heinrich. Certainly I feel it now when I read the news stories. These are my people: Jacob was attacked and violated and so also in a way were all of the 11-year-old boys who rode their bikes in fear in what should have been their peaceful Lake Wobegons. It is difficult, probably impossible, for me to feel this anger in a way that does not go beyond the bounds set by love and justice.
And if that is true for me, how much more for those whose lives and loved ones were attacked much more closely than mine, as I sit here a thousand miles away boiling for the attacks on the home of my childhood.
What about Diamond Reynolds, the girlfriend of Philando Castile, who watched as his life drained away in a car outside of St. Paul?
What about her 4-year-old daughter, who told her mother during the shooting, “It’s okay, I’m right here with you”?
Do I expect their hot anger to stay within the bounds of love and justice?
I do not. Anger flows through the veins of the American people this year, and it boils up into injustice and revenge and hate, and this begets still more anger, and the blood keeps pumping, and pumping, and pumping. Righteous anger turns to wrath, and wrath is a deadly sin. It leads to death. It leads to death in shopping malls, in nightclubs, in city streets, in taillight ticket stops, in far-off desert sands, and in my own personal Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. Sin and death are there too, and always have been.
My people are not just innocent victims. My people too are guilty, just as my people have done nothing wrong and cry out for deliverance from wicked men.
The God of the Old Testament, some say, is an angry God. This is true, I say, and thank God that he is. So is the God of the New Testament, and this is good news.
There is no way that I can be angry, that those who suffer and cry out for deliverance can be angry, without falling into the wrathful furious rage that lashes out at the enemy and seeks to wreak as much revenge as possible, justice be damned. Yet the one God of the Old and New Testaments is a perfectly angry God, incandescently angry at evildoers and determined to bring to naught every single wicked power that dares to “eat up my people like bread” (Ps. 14:4).
Truly it is “a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). Only God is able to be this angry and yet not sin, to thunder the white-hot wrath of the Lord of Hosts with perfect justice and with perfect love, even to the very enemies in this world that oppose him.
“By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered you, O Zion,” wrote the psalmist after the destruction of Jerusalem (Ps. 137:1). What did the psalmist and the exiled children of Israel remember? Surely they remembered the brutality of war, of children ripped from their mothers and killed in the streets, of women violated, of the whole world of their childhood attacked, mocked, gone.
Jacob Wetterling. Philando Castile. My people. And at that memory they felt anger stoked to the white-hot fire of deadly wrath:
O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy the one who pays you back for what you have done to us! Happy shall he be who takes your little ones, and dashes them against the rock! (Ps. 137:8-9)
In wild anger our hearts go to this place. We are not God. We have not the strength in us to be this angry in perfect justice and in perfect love. What can we do? Can we do nothing but boil over and boil over again, until the angry blood of our veins spills out onto the street and returns to the dust?
No: thank God, we may even pray the terrible bloody 137th psalm. We are given here to offer up this out-of-control anger of our blood to God, who alone can smite our enemies in perfect justice, in perfect love, and even then go on to reach out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross to embrace his own torturers and murderers. We can and we must give this anger up to the perfect anger of God, for we cannot bear it without destroying both our enemies and ourselves.
The God of Jesus Christ is an angry God. On the cross he judges and puts to death the wicked powers of sin, death, and the devil, and on the same cross he opens his arms wide and undefended to embrace his killers.
Anger: white-hot incandescent anger at the powers of darkness. Justice: for the deadly sins lead only to death. Love: the reconciling love that is the divine miracle of forgiveness, new life, restored relationship among God’s people.
God in Christ says to us, we poor sinners: My people.
And this angry God of perfect justice and love has promised never to leave or forsake us, even until the end of the age. We are his people. Thanks be to God.