By Stewart Clem
People are angry. Given everything that’s happened in 2020, combined with the unlimited opportunities created by the internet for expressing our anger, this might be the angriest year in all of human history. That must be a bad thing, right? Anger is not a Christian virtue, after all. Jesus tells us that if anyone is angry with a brother or sister, that person will be liable to judgment (Matt. 5:22). The psalmist writes, “Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath” (37:8). How can anger be anything other than a vice?
Christians have good reasons for being suspicious of the emotion of anger. Most often our feelings of anger arise from a sinful desire for vengeance, but “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord (Deut. 32:35). Because it is the source of numerous other sins, anger is considered a capital vice (Latin: capitalis, “from the head”) and counted among the seven deadly sins. Anger is psychologically unhealthy. It clouds the mind and is opposed to spiritual growth. A medieval gloss on Proverbs 29:22 states, “The gateway to all vices is anger: if it be closed, peace will be rendered within by the virtues; if opened the soul will be armed for every crime.” St. Gregory writes in his Moralia, “When peace of mind is lashed with anger, torn and rent, as it were, the soul is thrown into confusion so that is not in harmony with itself” (V.45.78). Perhaps Yoda was right: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
Yet right now many people are actively instigating anger. Enough is enough! Where is the outrage? We cannot remain silent! Pointedly, activists and advocates for racial justice are calling for something to be done about police brutality against Black Americans, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Jacob Blake—to name only the most infamous examples from 2020. They are telling us that nothing is being done because people simply don’t care. People aren’t motivated to make meaningful change because they’re not angry. In one of my previous essays, I quoted Bryan Massingale, who articulates the problem this way:
What allows racism to exist in our society, quite frankly, is that we don’t have a critical mass of people who are angry. To put it more directly, we don’t have a critical mass of white Americans who are angry about the situation. Anger is a passion that moves the will to justice. Thomas [Aquinas] understood that unless we are angry in the presence, at the reality, of injustice, then the status quo will all too often continue.
Fr. Massingale is right, and so is St. Thomas Aquinas. How can this be? How can anger be good if it is a sin?
If you’ve read even a little of Aquinas’s writings, you know that he loves to make distinctions. When discussing a concept as important as anger, distinctions are essential. The first relevant distinction concerns the nature of anger itself and what we mean when we use that word. In his Summa theologiae, Aquinas explains that anger is, fundamentally, one of the passions of the soul. “Passion” is a somewhat antiquated term, but it is similar to (although not quite synonymous with) the more familiar term “emotion.” The point is that anger is a natural phenomenon of human existence. From the standpoint of Christian theological anthropology, this means anger is not inherently evil. We know this because anything that is truly “natural” belongs to God’s creation which is called good from the very beginning (Gen. 1:31).
Understood generically, the passion we call “anger” is something good. It is defined by a desire for vindication — the vindication that belongs to justice (ST I-II.46.2). It is a desire to see God’s order restored in creation and in human society. When we witness actions that are opposed to that order, there is a morally right response to those actions: anger. As with all the passions (fear, joy, sadness, desire, etc.), anger manifests itself as a bodily response. We feel anger; we don’t just think it.
On these terms, we can understand why anger is a virtue. The passion of anger is a response to something that we have deemed to be wrong with the world. It reflects a judgment about the way things ought to be. This judgment is a movement of the will. When our reason and our passions are rightly ordered, we recognize injustice for what it is, and we feel angry about it. As Aquinas explains, in instances where a person witnesses injustice but does not feel anger, “The lack of anger is a sign that the judgment of reason is lacking” (ST II-II.158.8 ad 3). The absence of anger can be a vice.
Sin is the problem. Of course, just as sin can lead us not to feel anger when we should, it can also lead us to feel angry at the wrong things or in the wrong way (ST II-II.158.1). But this is true of all the passions, not just anger. Any passion can become inordinate. Anger is dangerous in the same way that love (which is also a passion) is dangerous. It’s possible for our loves to become inordinate, even if the object of our love is good. We should love our own children, for example, but it’s possible for that love to become overextended to the point of idolatry. On the other hand, a mother or father who doesn’t love their own child at all is morally repugnant.
The proper emotional response to injustice is anger. A person who does not feel anger when witnessing injustice has been morally malformed. Yes, anger can become inordinate. It can also become empty and irrational. We’ve all witnessed the recreational outrage of armchair activists who have nothing better to do than to re-post and re-tweet endless streams of sensational media. We’ve witnessed the extremes of a cancel culture that can’t even tell the difference between the Union and the Confederate armies. Such outbursts of anger are not authentic expressions of moral judgment. They are raw passions that serve no good purpose.
But none of this should allow us to forget the right (and righteous) use of anger. The proper Christian attitude toward anger is not to suppress it in all circumstances. We are not Stoics. We should hate the things that God hates, and they should make us angry. As Aquinas reminds us, “If anger is desire for vengeance insofar as it is really just, then anger will be good and virtuous and is called zealous anger; but if it is desire for vengeance that appears just but is not really just, then the anger is a sin” (De malo XII.2).
Our postlapsarian condition should force us to acknowledge the ambiguity of anger. It is not always good, but it is not always bad. We cannot dismiss cries of moral outrage merely on the grounds that they express anger. Such cries may in fact be opportunities to examine ourselves and consider whether our own moral sensibilities have been dulled by sin and, if so, to ask God to change our hearts. In that case, we must ask God to make us angry Christians.
The Rev. Dr. Stewart Clem is assistant professor of moral theology and director of the Ashley-O’Rourke Center for Health Ministry Leadership at Aquinas Institute of Theology and priest associate at the Church of St. Michael & St. George (St. Louis, Missouri).