Anger is a complex emotion. At the heart of anger are three basic cognitive notions: a person who is angry has felt a sense of violation, is prepared to take some action to remedy the violation, and the violater is seen in a negative light. The nature of the violation can range from the superficial, such as a child’s temper tantrum for not getting their way to the worst violations of abuse, murder, etc. The type of action a person is willing to take isn’t generally communicated by the signs of anger, but people can try to establish boundaries, try to control to get their way, seek vengeance, etc. Then, perception of the violator can range from anger in the moment at an otherwise friend to the rage that regards the perceived violator with absolute disgust and contempt. When we are angry, someone is angry at us, or we are aware of someone’s anger at someone else, we don’t consciously go through this list, but we generally have an intuition about these three notions, although we don’t always have a clear, precise understanding about the violation, action, or the view of the violator.
Anger is additionally a powerful emotion, as it represents a potential for some form of aggression to remedy the situation, whether the aggression is symbolic, covert, limited, or takes on a more extreme actions. As such, anger also has the potential to evoke fear in the targets of angers and even onlookers, especially depending on the degree of anger. Consequently, because fear is based upon protection oneself from possible threats, but not necessarily probable ones, anger often times lead to its targets feeling the need to protect themselves, especially when there a lot of ambiguity about the violation, the potential response to the violation, and the perceptions of the violator.
This brings me to what I consider to be part of the dividing line between dealing with anger in a right way vs. a wrong way. When you get back the people who are directly and abusive in their anger, one of the real problems with anger is often times the communicative dysfunctions that take place in anger. Whether it is because of the lack of effective communication that leads to fear and defensiveness in its targets or because of the harsh things that can be said and done in the heat of anger, anger in our present day is more so toxic of our social connections through sabotaging communication. Sometimes, people who have learned how to toxically control people through a combination of anger and ambiguity and use this to their advantage, such as an abusive spouse who regularly expresses contradictory, yet harsh criticism or stonewalls. However, many of us more so struggle with communication when in anger, largely because we have not learned how to regulate ourselves when we become angry. This is a natural, human inclination that does not make a person morally bad, but it nevertheless facilitates conflicts that could be avoided through the ability to communicate more effectively.
I point out the communicative dysfunctions of anger to use this concept to bring to light in reading Jesus’ words about anger in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5.21-26, Jesus says:
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. (NRSV)
These words have often been used with the idea that Jesus was saying that anger is equivalent to murder, much like the follow verses in Matt 5.27-30 has been used to suggest that thinking about sex with someone who isn’t your spouse is the same thing as committing adultery. However, these interpretations are convenient form of guilting and shaming people for their emotions, and consequently have served as a way to gaslight people for simply being anger and shame them for sexual feelings. They are not actually address the heart of what Jesus is trying to demonstrate. This ignores Jesus purpose that can be seen from what is immediately said before going into his discourse on anger in Matthew 5.17-20:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (NRSV)
AT the heart of Jesus’ concern is this. He is not nullifying the Torah. Rather, what he is doing is trying to teach people to go beyond the Pharisees, who were often exemplary in their understanding of the Torah, although they often used their traditions to nullfying a commandment in the Torah. In other words, if your righteousness is simply limited to the Torah, then one will not enter into the kingdom of heaven. For Jesus, the Torah was not the totality of God’s will for people, but it was a starting point that was to ultimately lead them towards the love of God and to be reflect His completeness. (Matthew 5.43-48) However, if one considered one’s obligations to end where the Torah is silent, then one had failed to really understand of heart of God and the way of life in the kingdom of heaven.
So, when we read the passage about anger (and also about lust and adultery, although that passage has its unique interpretative challenges, as it more so about lust towards a married woman), it is important to reflect that Jesus is not saying “Anger = murder.” Rather, it is about Jesus addressing matters that go beyond a righteousness based upon the Torah that said “I did not murder, therefore I am not liable to judgment.” Jesus point is to rather say that one is accountable to one’s anger and what one does with it. The key word that Jesus uses is ἔνοχος, which refers to the idea of accountability, which he uses four times. It doesn’t stritly speak, refer to a guilty judgment, although that is often times the implication as it is with murder, but that one is accountable to what one does. It is more appropriate to understand Jesus instruction as effectively saying that we are not simply free to do whatever we wish when we are angry. This explains the intensification of anger in the actions of insulting and calling a brother a fool and the corresponding, hyperbolic intensification of accountability. The more one does in anger, the more one will be held accountable with the possibility of increasing consequences.1
What is noteworthy is that as Jesus intensifies the actions done in anger, he focuses on verbal behaviors. It seems as if part of the problem with anger is the way it often leads to dysfunctional, if not abusive, communication. Before anger ever leads to murder, it readily leads to harmful words that are spoken. The danger of anger is the damage done in what we say and the resulting damage our in social relationships. Hence, Jesus warns such a hypothetical person that has engaged in such dysfunctional communication that they need to make amends with the one they have targeted, because one is often held accountable to what one says and does in anger. Anger combined with dysfunctional communication that focuses on tearing down and treating another party with contempt (which is one way angry people try to remedy what the deem to be a violation) has serious, serious consequences.
Jesus point is to provide a form of practical wisdom about anger and the consequences it can have. How we deal with our anger is of an imperative importance if we wish to live life in way it is lived in the kingdom of heaven. Anger is not sin and is not equivalent murder. Nevertheless, we are accountable for how we behave in our anger.
Attempts to pathologize and “harmatia-nized”2 anger, however, often work on the assumption that to be angry is to either automatically be wrong or wrong by default unless one can prove their case. This is often the case with narcissists who are unable to consider the possibility of anger towards them ever being legitimate. Such persons may routinely violate boundaries and trust in other persons and will then manipulatively take those person’s anger as further evidence of their contempt and disregard. However, in most situations, anger can also be pathologized and “harmatia-nized” by otherwise well-intended persons. Because of our fear of anger and because anger is often used to threaten the status quo, we can often times regard anger as automatically wrong in order to feel a sense of righteousness or authority to protect oneself. While such attempts are not intended with evil, but simply a result of a natural push towards egocentricity, when such a norm becomes enculturated and institutionalized, it is readily used by narcissists and other predatorial types to reinforce their control over those they mistreat. So, how we are set to deal with other people’s anger has massive implications not just for ourselves, but also our social networks in what strategies and norms we allow to regulate our response to anger.
The way I presently frame addressing anger is through the concept of accountability in which both the angry person is accountable to the target of their anger for how they treat them. As I understand it, accountability isn’t a form of control, but rather the way we respond to another person’s behavior. Thus, a person is free to be angry and should have space and permission to express their anger (assuming there are no legitimate reasons to be protective). On the other hand, they don’t have a right to escalate far beyond the perceived violation, nor are they free to treat me in whatever way they wish without a response. However, in seeing my “right” to hold an angry person accountable, I should first consider my accountable to give me the responsibility to try to allow the space for healthy addressing of anger, by first focusing on trying to aid in the communication and then trying to be clear about my own boundaries. While some in their anger may refuse to recognize my place in holding them accountable to how they address their anger towards me, placation will teach such people that they can act as they wish. In other words, I see part of my role in accountability is to make it such that I create the space for the appropriate expression of grievances towards me. Rather than trying to automatically avoid anger, I aspire to consider how I can help the person to express their anger better, so far as I feel any threat in contained and manageable. Not that I am perfect at that, but I have found this way of responding to anger, which is rooted in Jesus’ own explication on anger, is a better way to address the dysfunctional communication that occurs in anger rather than the other ways we try to respond and deal with another person’s anger.
In part, this is rooted in the fact that I myself can recall a couple of times where I had legitimate reasons to be angry (one time I was legitimately furious), but I did not know how to appropriately address that anger, which was usually suppressed (and thus leading to the inability to communicate anger well), when it finally came out. I wished the other parties had more effective strategies for dealing with anger. But as Jesus calls on us to do to others as we wished they would do to us, I have taken on the notion of accountability seriously, both for my own anger and for how I respond to the anger of other persons.
There are times to be angry. While we should aspire to be like God, who is slow to anger, in being slow to anger ourselves, the experience and expression of anger should not pathologized and “hamartia-nized.” Persistent and unreasonable anger that is not curtailed and contained with time, accountability, and legitimate redress is a real problem; anger that is used to reinforce narcissism should be considered toxic. However, anger itself should not be considered the enemy, but something that we should consider ourselves accountable for and that we hold others accountable to.
- As an aside, the unstated implications of the intensification of judgment is to render the saying “whoever murders is liable to judgment,” which came from Jewish tradition and not the Torah, as an absolute understatement. If calling someone a fool makes one liable to the punishment of hell, murder will receive a response far, far worse than what the one calling someone a fool will receive.
- The Greek word for sin is transcribed in English as hamartia