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Is there a religious way to get angry?
Religious texts generally portray anger as a problematic emotion. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas spent a recent Saturday singing, chanting and marching through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, with several hundred of her neighbors. She was one of the estimated 1,000 people gathered to protest the Ku Klux Klan rally taking place in the city that day.

Clad in a bright pink, sleeveless shirt and her clerical collar, she joined hands with other members of her community's interfaith group. The Charlottesville Clergy Collective wanted to bring God's presence to bear on the July 8 event and stand united against racially motivated violence.

"We couldn't just sit still in the face of this evil coming to town," said the Rev. Thomas, associate rector at St. Paul's Memorial Church.

However, as people of faith, they also felt they shouldn't hurl insults at the assembled Klan members, she added.

"I'm not sure that shouting obscenities and profanities at people actually honors God or the dignity of people at whom they're shouting," the Rev. Thomas said.

Her view sometimes gets lost in the current anger epidemic affecting many Americans. In an age of social media spats and growing political polarization, anger is all the rage, which could mean trouble for people's physical, mental and spiritual health.

Trying to avoid anger all together is a losing battle, but religious people can draw on their teachings to learn how to channel their wrath toward a worthwhile cause, according to faith leaders and scholars.

"It's how you channel anger that makes the difference in acting in accordance with faith principles," the Rev. Thomas said.

Biblical anger

Anger-related teachings appear at many different points in the Bible, and most references condemn the emotion.

"A fool gives full vent to anger, but the wise quietly holds it back," says Proverbs 29:11. Colossians 3:8 reads, "But now you must get rid of all such things anger, wrath, malice, slander and abusive language from your mouth."

In this sense, the Bible is like other holy books, which generally urge people of faith to keep their temper in check.

One hadith, or description of the Prophet Muhammad's actions and statements, tells Muslims that "the powerful man is not the one who can wrestle, but the one who can control himself at the time of anger."

Verses like these, as well as anger's inclusion on the list of seven deadly sins, lead some people to try to avoid the emotion completely.

Kathy Escobar, a Christian leader and writer, described her at-times ridiculous attempts to discipline her kids without letting her own anger get the best of her in a 2012 blog post.

"Things like 'Go to your room if you are angry and come out when you're happy again,' 'Stop crying now,' and 'You need to change your attitude right this minute' flowed freely from (my) lips," she wrote.

But religious texts also celebrate believers who turn anger into action, the Rev. Thomas said. For example, in Matthew 21, Jesus lashes out against money changers in the temple, decrying them for doing business in the house of God.

Even a hardline approach to anger generally makes an exception for righteous anger, or a variety of rage that responds to injustice, she added.

"The angriest people in the Bible, the prophets, are angry on behalf of God and sometimes angry at God on behalf of their people. But they don't just sit somewhere. They're aways urging, cajoling and admonishing. They're getting the people to move," the Rev. Thomas said.

People of faith say it's righteous anger that drives faith-based protests, from the recent march in Charlottesville to the arrest of 11 religious leaders outside Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's office on July 13. The emotion helps motivate the annual March for Life rally, which brings together people who oppose abortion rights.

The problem is that the Bible doesn't come with a list of every cause that should provoke righteous anger, said Dudley Rose, associate dean for ministry studies at Harvard Divinity School. During a time when everyone loves being enraged, people may claim righteousness too often.

"When I hear that term, 'righteous anger,' I tend to get a little nervous because it often comes as an excuse to do something bad to somebody else," he said.

Don't get stuck

Rose has watched the resurgence of faith-based protesting in recent months with trepidation. Standing up for others is noble, but shouting at or even assaulting one's neighbors does little to advance the cause of justice, he said.

"Am I actually helping by screaming in someone's face, or am I just making myself feel better?" Rose said.

He recalled a passage from Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian writer and thinker, about the addictiveness of anger.

The quote, from "Wishful Thinking: A Seeker's ABC," reads: "Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain your are giving back in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself."

In other words, anger is a risky emotion. It drives people to keep picking at old scabs, rather than to find a way to move forward, Rose said.

"The Gospel's version of Jesus has got a real aversion to people's self-indulgence. And very often, I think anger is a form of self-indulgence," he said.

But anger is also a natural part of being human, the Rev. Thomas said. People of faith, like all Americans, can take charge of the emotion before it takes control of them.

"Anger is just an emotion like any other emotion. When it's disordered, that's where it becomes something that is counterproductive to being a Christian," she said.

As part of her work at St. Paul's, the Rev. Thomas works with University of Virginia students. Many of them are exasperated by contemporary politics and angry when the world doesn't live up to their ideals.

She doesn't admonish them for being angry, but she tries to teach patience in the face of opposition.

"It's better to encourage them to get their anger out in safe spaces so that they're a little more centered when they're dealing with other people," the Rev. Thomas said.

Similarly, Rose advises seminary students to find ways to be less reactive. Anger is inevitable, but lashing out at others is not.

"It's really important to have a pretty good handle on the things that make you tick," he said.

Members of Charlottesville Clergy Collective couldn't prevent the July 8 rally from becoming messy. By the day's end, a few tear gas canisters were emptied and more than 20 people had been arrested.

But the Rev. Thomas said she's still proud of her group's work to make space for those who chose singing and praying over shouting.

"People knew we weren't there on the side of hate. We were there on the side of love for everybody," she said.
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