Let not the sun go down upon your wrath. Ephesians 4:26
Another week, another bunch of reasons to be angry at the President. From claims that people are rioting in their attempts to escape sanctuary cities, through insisting that members of MS-13 and likely terrorists from the Middle East are hiding in the middle of the refugees headed to our southern border from Central America, to suggesting that a Congress not even in session will pass a middle class tax bill before the midterm election in two weeks, the daily barrage of bullshit from Donald Trump is once again more than any reasonable person can take. Anger and hate, two feelings that are not natural to me, have once again percolated to the surface.
I’m not the only person on whom the President has this effect, of course. People on all sides of the political spectrum are getting used to politics and anger going hand in hand. The President’s recent lies clearly are intended to motivate his base to show up at the polls in two weeks. Anger has been a staple of the political landscape for so long that many have concluded that it is the only possible emotion energetic enough to fuel real change. We have historical evidence to support this conclusion.
It’s hard to effect change when the people you need in the trenches of the revolution are relatively satisfied with the way things are going. What if the French peasants and working classes had said “well, things really aren’t that bad” in 1780s France? What if the majority of American colonists had thought “actually, I can sort of see why the British Parliament wants to tax us without representation”? Of such attitudes a revolution is not made. So I’m wondering whether anger might not only be appropriate but also necessary. Must anger and dissatisfaction be the primary driving forces behind meaningful change?
Politically speaking, I hope not. Anger is useful at times, but it is very hard to sustain—at least it is for me. Even in the turbulent 60s that I grew up in, anger was tempered with flower power and love-ins. When people who claimed to be angry about everything used that anger two years ago to help elect a completely unqualified racist and misogynist to the most powerful office in the world just to “shake things up,” I worry a great deal. But I am as aware as anyone of the need in our country for significant, meaningful, and permanent change in many aspects of our government, economy, and social structure. If not anger and dissatisfaction, what other possible source of change might there be? My only recourse is to return what I have said and written many times (often to the consternation of my conservative friends and acquaintances)—I am a liberal because I am a Christian. And being a Christian makes it very difficult to engage with politics as usual in recognizable political or even moral terms.
Let’s presume there is such a thing as “righteous anger.” Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple is often pointed to by Christians as the primary proof that sometimes anger is justified and appropriate. But no one ever has suggested that his one-off anger episode changed anything permanently; chances are the money-lenders and sacrificial animal vendors were back on the job the next day. Justified anger is directed, as the phrase indicates, at injustice—something our society and our world is full of. Justice is one of the highest of human virtues, and we seem hardwired to recognize when it is violated.
Revolutions fueled by anger are often aimed at correcting the most egregious of injustices. But such revolutions, even if well-intentioned and successful at first, invariably and predictably replace the corrected injustices with new ones, after a certain amount of time many people (often the same ones) are angry once again, and the cycle continues. Change for the sake of change is one thing, but change that truly establishes lasting justice is something that human beings have little experience with. This requires something greater than justice—something, I submit, that transcends mere human capacities.
At its root, Christianity is not about justice at all. It’s about something that both transcends justice and opens the door to something altogether different: grace. In her latest collection of essays, The Givenness of Things, Marilynne Robinson’s essay “Grace” explores how William Shakespeare treats this slippery concept in his later plays. One of Shakespeare’s middle plays, “The Merchant of Venice,” is one of the most brilliant explorations of justice and mercy ever written. But, Robinson argues, in his later plays such as “The Tempest,” Shakespeare takes on the more difficult challenge of investigating grace, “something pure and grander than mercy, something that puts aside the consciousness of fault, the residue of judgment that makes mercy a lesser thing than grace.”
Justice is about fairness and mercy is about choosing to treat those who have done injustice as if they had not done so. But grace is something altogether different, an awareness that, in human hands, justice is often a zero sum game, a game whose rules have to be rewritten if we are ever to establish true change. Grace empowers a vision of human reality in which individuals are not lumped into categories, in which justice is not calculated mathematically, in which fairness is energized by a recognition of equal dignity rather than rights and entitlements, and which inspires “the intimation of a great reality of another order, which pervades human experience, even manifests itself in human actions and relations, yet is always purely itself.”
Those inspired by grace rather than justice need, first, to realize that grace cannot be institutionalized. Although a world or society of perfect justice has never existed, most human beings can imagine what such a society might look like—some of the great works of literature and philosophy provide us with glimpses. Grace is of a completely different order, calling for individual persons to bring a transcendent, divinely inspired energy into mundane human activity.
That’s what the heart of the Christian message—Incarnation—means. The gospels are full of this—when Jesus advocates perspectives and actions that make little common sense but are strangely attractive and beautiful, he’s describing grace. We engage with it and come to understand it more effectively and deeply through parables, stories, and examples rather than rules and moral principles. And it cannot be systematized. But the good news is that it is applicable everywhere. If I ever stop letting Donald Trump have the power to make me angry, I can seek to be a vehicle of grace in a world that is crying out for something more than change for the sake of change.