“She had every right to be angry, but I didn’t encourage her to express herself in a way that was public, disruptive, or demanding.” Reading Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, I realized that was me too. Raised in church, you don’t get angry. That’s not Christian. You don’t demand change. You don’t stand up for yourself, or others. If you get angry, you feel bad about it.
You “confess.” You were bad—again. When you’re Christian, you sit in the pew, and wait. You put money in the plate, and smile.
It was a shock to read, in the Bible, about the anger of Jesus.
I guess I always thought he was serene and detached, even when crucified, like we were supposed to be. Oh, the pastor, that special human, could fume and fulminate against the enemies of the truth (usually feminists, homosexuals, or Democrats). Our job was to listen. The congregation says amen, not, “Are you kidding me?”
“He looked around at them in anger,” says Mark 3:5. Or Mark 10:14: “When Jesus saw this, he was indignant.”
The words were unfamiliar. Jesus—angry?
With a look at scholarly references, I realized there were more examples. The tradition had been busy, tidying up after the angry messiah. “This is not the Jesus one would expect to find,” Bart Ehrman says in paper on Mark 1:41. The usual translations of this verse say Jesus was “moved with pity.” The NIV is bold to say: “Jesus was indignant…”
The word is ‘angry’ Jesus was angry.
His feelings, in general, are reactive and extreme. “Jesus is profoundly marked by all that is human, by all human emotions,” notes Adriana Destro. The text of the gospels often details his feelings: grief, joy, etc.
But his anger has been a particular problems for Christianity, even as its extensively discussed since he was a boy. A text called the Infancy Gospel of Thomas isn’t usually read by Christians. I wonder why?
Kristi Upson-Saia explains:
The boy Jesus is impassioned, unruly, enraged. He curses and he kills. In the opening scene, for instance, Jesus has just diverted water from a stream in order to create a pool in which to play. When another boy interrupts Jesus’ fun by dispersing the pool with a willow branch, Jesus becomes enraged. He curses the boy and the boy immediately “withered” and died (IG T 3.3). In the next scene, a child running past Jesus knocks into him. Jesus again becomes bitterly angry and curses the boy, “and at once he died” (IGT 4A). After the parents of the child complain to Joseph, Jesus retaliates by striking them blind (IGT 5.1). Later in the narrative, when Jesus’ teacher becomes exasperated by the boy’s arrogance and disobedience in the classroom, he strikes the boy on the head. Enraged by the physical abuse, Jesus curses his teacher, who immediately dies (IGT 13.2).
A Jesus who pushes back against bullying, who knows more than his teachers, and when he’s hit . . . hits back?
It doesn’t seem too Christian.
Early Christianity knew the angry Jesus very well. The 4th century Christian Ephraim the Syrian says: “For the Maker is angry at hateful things, and the Good also is angry at hateful things.”
Along the way, the Christian person came to be known as endlessly push-overable. But there’s many scenes of Jesus’ anger, like the cursing of the fig tree in Mark 11:12–25 (cf. Matt. 21:18–22). Or his clearing the Temple courts, as in John 2:13–15: “So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts . . .”
He’s angry at his disciples, as in Mark 10:14 when they try to keep the children away from him. As Destro says: “Jesus could not bear any interference by others (not even by his own disciples) that would distort the meaning of what he was doing.”
They had tried to keep the children away from a blessing. Thinking of Jesus putting the disciples in their place, I realize the children had likely never seen that before: a man agitating on their behalf, going to war for them.
Had I gotten angry on behalf of children, I wondered? If I hadn’t, was I part of the problem?
Jesus has much more anger than the translations want to admit. The tradition likes to thinking that John 11:33 has Jesus being “deeply moved in spirit and troubled,” as if this was, the scholar A. K. M. Adam notes, a bit of “general emotional turbulence.”
Such translations, he adds, “obscure the element of anger that characterizes embrimaomai in conventional Greek usage . . .”
It was the usual Greek language for anger, but Christianity preferred a ‘troubled’ Jesus. A Jesus with unclear, odd emotional issues.
Early manuscripts of Mark 1:41, as Bart Ehrman explains, have Jesus’ feelings as ‘becoming angry’, but later manuscripts have ‘pity’ or ‘compassion’.
The anger didn’t make sense, so the tradition inserted a feeling that did.
His anger makes perfect sense. In Mark 1:41, the issue is leprosy. In the Bible this is not a physical wasting disease. It’s a spiritual malady (cf. Deut 24:8–9, etc.). Jesus is angry because the priests aren’t helping.
This isn’t “human anger,” that odd phrase of James 1:20. Person-to-person anger over ordinary stuff is bad, as Jesus says in Matt 5:22: “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.”
(Though note an alternate manuscript reading: “whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgement.”)
The anger that matters is over spiritual malfeasance, and chiefly at clerical indifference and abuse. The priests of that time had plenty of time for power-mongering and sucking up to rulers. Not so much for their people.
Jesus is not amused. There are standards, and when people acting in the name of God actually hurt people, there’s trouble. Righteous anger is an activating, mobilizing, and healing force.
Thinking of myself being taught to sit in pews, I realize they were training me for a life of smiling and shutting up. My emotions were continually classified as a problem. I was not “sinful” when I was suppressed and muffled, when I was compliant and complacent.
Paul says in Ephesians 4:26: “‘In your anger do not sin’”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry . . .”
That’s a nervous translation, trying to deal with the problem that anger is being openly authorized, as it was in the verse being quoted, Psalm 4:5a: “Be angry, and do not sin . . .”
The Christian teachings are never to not be angry, but to focus it, and to manage it as a healing force. Anger is never to leave the demands and requirements of love. But it’s also supposed to be there.
I like the idea of feminism, and any activity focused on uplifting and bettering people, teaching Christianity to reclaim anger. We’re to study situations, and when spiritual evil, and especially clerical abuse, is discovered, to do something about it.