The agony and privilege of anger

Gospel: Matthew 5:21-37

17 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. 18For 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. 19Therefore, 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. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

21 ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother (or sister)(Some manuscripts add: without cause), you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother (or sister), you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool” (Raca), you will be liable to the hell of fire.23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother (or sister) has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother (or sister), and then come and offer your gift. 25Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way (supplied: 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. 26Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

27 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.”28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. (Gehenna)

31 ‘It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” 32But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

33 ‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” 34But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

The agony and privilege of anger

Everyone is angry, angrier than I can remember. The anger in the wider community is a part of our congregations. The fact that anger is the first concrete example Jesus uses to explore being righteous, or not, indicates it was a real issue for Matthew's church. It's danger to us is nothing new.

Jesus is, for Matthew's people, the new Moses, and what we call The Sermon on the Mount echoes the story of the giving of the Law and Commandments to Moses, in the Old Testament.

Matthew 5:21-37 then says to this new community of God's people, "… unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."

The purpose of the Ten Commandments, historically, was to allay feuding, hence internally generated group annihilation. Honor-shame societies are agonistic (conflict) societies; hence, challenges within a group can in fact lead to such annihilation.

So, an eye for an eye, for example, is not about sanctioning of revenge. It is about limiting— stopping— the cycle of violence.

What [the teaching on anger and divorce etc. offers] is a way out of the honor-shame impasse that requires taking satisfaction. If repentance, reconciliation, generosity, or the intervention of third parties exists, feuding rooted in the defense of honor need not mar the social landscape of the Jesus faction. (Malina and Rohrbaugh in the section Strategies to Avoid Conflict and Feuding 5:21-48)

The authors make an interesting comment:

… such strategies do not suggest that Jesus calls the system of honor itself into question. Instead, he redefines the quality of behaviors deemed worthy of honor and offers a new assessment that leads to a reversal of values or worth… what is called into question is the way in which the honor system is made to work and the way it is made to fuel feud-based satisfaction.

It is possible for us to feel superior to Jesus' culture: we are not this honour-shame, vengeful, and feuding culture, we say. I suspect my difficulty in articulating for myself just what kind of culture we are, indicates how much we are blind to our own failings and shortcomings! Along with its shortcomings, Jesus' culture had some stuff right, and highlights our incredible arrogance towards God, God's people, and God's earth.  

Previously, I have noted Malina and Rohrbaugh's statement (in the section Rich, Poor, and Limited Good, 5:3)

In modern economies, we make the assumption that goods are, in principle, in unlimited supply. If a shortage exists, we can produce more. If one person gets more of something, it does not automatically mean someone else gets less, it may just mean the factory worked overtime and more became available. But in ancient Palestine, the perception was the opposite: all goods existed in finite, limited supply and were already distributed. This included not only material goods, but honor, friendship, love, power, security, and status as well - literally everything in life. Because the pie could not grow larger, a larger piece for anyone automatically meant a smaller piece for someone else.

I commented that

One of our problems is that we have gained the advantage of being free from the strictures of tribal culture due to our industrial capability to produce goods excess to our immediate survival needs…

In short, we can be individuals. The problem with this is that we then need something else to provide us with honour… [because] individualism discounts the honour— the affirmation of who we are, the support and the identity provided by the [honour-shame] community…

In the west, especially in the last fifty years, we have redefined the source of honour as wealth, as being in the accrual of (even unneeded) material possessions, and as the possession of coercive social power; that is, the kind of power that can make things happen independently of others.

In doing this, we privilege ourselves above others. We seek to grant ourselves honour, rather than have our honour seconded; that is, validated (and therefore moderated) by the community. We Australians live with the assumption of our privilege, and are furious, and often terrified, when our privilege is challenged, or withdrawn. We have assumed the endless growth of privilege—correlating this with the seemingly endless economic growth in our lifetimes.

We are very different from Jesus' culture, but we are foolish if we think we have abandoned the notion of "honour." We have simply relocated it our possession of privilege. 

However, we do try rid ourselves of shame; an Aboriginal friend once said to me, "You people have no shame!" It seems we are not shamed by our own behaviour. We live-stream our drunkenness, even rapes.

Shame is now more often a weapon we use to abuse those who have challenged our privilege, or who have discomforted us. We seek to shame others to avoid recognition of, and responsibility for, any failing in ourselves. What we call shame is often only the projection of the remains of the consciousness that our privilege is undeserved and often illegitimate. "Shaming" people is part of our privilege.

We are not shamed by our "crossing another's … boundaries," (Malina and Rohrbaugh) as in Jesus' time, but by failing to maintain our privilege, our self-defined (not community) boundaries and self-defined honour.

We say shame is their fault, never ours. Especially if we detect criticism of our behaviour by others.

Look anywhere at social media outrage, at the proliferation of minor populist parties, and see anger and fear at the challenge to privilege. It is present in those who disparage political action which resists the status quo. Kristen Tea posted on Facebook

I want my friends to understand that "staying out of politics" or being "sick of politics" is privilege in action. Your privilege allows you to live a non-political existence. Your wealth, your race, your abilities or your gender allows you to live a life in which you likely will not be a target of bigotry, attacks, deportation, or genocide. You don't want to get political, you don't want to fight because your life and safety are not at stake.

… You might not see it, but that's what privilege does.

Our privilege is challenged most of all, by the rage and fear and grief of those whose privilege has already been lost, and those who have not shared in the growing affluence of the country.

But the boundaries of those people have been crossed by us! The reality of the limited good which we have avoided and denied for so long by increasing production, and by offshoring our theft from the poor, has come home, first of all, to them. Ultimately, privilege means crossing the boundaries of other people, and it means the "de-privileging or abusing" of other people.

Anger
Jesus says that anger, not murder, is the root problem in our feuding and violence: ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother (or sister,) you will be liable to judgement…

It is insufficient to refrain from the act of murder, for [murder] is merely a symptom of something else. (Davies and Allison Matthew: A Shorter Commentary pp77)

Murder is the end result of violence, even the violence of "merely" calling someone a fool. Unless there is some reconciliation, some interruption of the process that begins with anger, murder will follow.

John Petty says

It seems that as Jesus diminishes the offenses, the penalty goes up.  Murder and anger get you judgment, but simply calling someone "raka"--a Hebrew word of contempt--can get you sent to the Sanhedrin… Then, simply calling someone a "fool" (more) will get you burnt up in Gehenna…

Yes, this is hyperbole. Yes, "sad, glad, mad, and scared," are not emotions we can shut off.  But the hyperbole has a purpose.

In the new reality announced by Jesus, the old categories are being scrambled.  Jesus is saying that life in the kingdom is marked not only by a different way of living, but a different understanding of life entirely.  The New Community is not a "new and improved" old community.  Rather, it is a reconciled and beloved community in which all people are treated with dignity, not with contempt ("raka"), and with affirmation, not deprecation ("you fool").

The exhortation to be reconciled to your brother or sister before bringing your gifts to the altar is the liturgical rationale for "passing the peace" before the eucharist.  The "passing of the peace" reminds us that Jesus' teaching is actually to be done by real people, and, frankly, it is a judgment if it is only done pro forma--that is, going through the motions without really being reconciled. (Ibid)

We will be angry. To hunger and thirst after righteousness, (Matt 5:6) and to mourn that God's righteousness is not being done, (Matt 5:4 cf. Davies and Allison pp66) and not be angered, is not possible! What is critical to being angry and not sinning (Ephesians 4:26) is knowing the source of our anger, and working to be reconciled— not letting the sun go down upon it. (Ibid)

This last statement is why I have taken so long to get to the point: We cannot know the source of our anger until we confront our privilege. If I will not allow that I am hugely privileged as white, western, and male, I cannot be reconciled; I cannot be empathic; I cannot be compassionate. An outer wall of blinding privilege prevents our inner self seeing what provokes it. Privilege will even reject grace.

For I will seek to protect my privilege, rather than seek righteousness. Why? Because my honour is bound up in having, and controlling; privilege is the source of my honour.

 I will not see that I am the one crossing the boundaries of others; I will be unable to see I am not being crossed, but only held to account. And my anger will become more violent.

When I start learning my privilege, much of my anger evaporates. Healthy shame is restored as I privilege others with the same dignity as myself. I will seek honour and affirmation from God along with all other people, rather than seeking honour and affirmation from God ahead of others. I will be able to give of my privilege; this is called compassion, which is costly, yet life changing, because it moves me more fully into the flow of the Spirit of God.

But in attempting this,  I still know anger, and there are new angers as I see the world afresh.

Navigating this is not simple. In some ways I am more angry than I have ever been, as I discover the depths of our violence towards each other. Much of my anger is now mingled with deep mourning for what could and should be; it is sometimes difficult not to despair. Sometimes, I am tempted to respond to events with a kind emotion-stripped apathy, which I recognise is merely deflecting my anger inwards, for later eruption.

I grieve for a couple of friendships which sometimes feel like by Bertrand Russell's words: "… the emotional universes we inhabit are so distinct, and in deepest ways opposed that nothing fruitful or sincere could ever emerge from association between us…" Perhaps the fact that I grieve them rather than cut myself off in anger, is a sign of some progress or conversion!

The author of Ephesians encouraged his readers to

31Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice…

It strikes me that this actually means what he then goes on to say:

 32and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. (Eph 4)

There is no escaping the speaking of what I take to be truth, but attempting to be kind and tender hearted has, so far, rescued these two relationships from failure. It drains and de-energises my anger, and allows me to work on the difficult task of remaining friends.  And in mysterious grace of our Faith, as I seek to be reconciled with the one who has something against me, (Matthew 5:24) rather than seeking my own satisfaction, it often seems that the main beneficiary is me, and my own release from my anger.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Previously on One Man's Web
Matthew 5:21-37 - The Betrayals of my Heart

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