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Archive for February, 2011

Anger, love and forgiveness

Posted by Ron George on February 15, 2011

Forgiveness: A true way of life leading to the light

The preacher told us not to worry, that Jesus spoke in parables and that the bit in Matthew 5 equating anger with murder wasn’t meant to be taken literally; it just made his point strong as possible. That was Jesus’ mission, after all: to bring the ancient Mosaic law closer to home, to make it not just of the letter but of the spirit. He taught that it wasn’t enough merely to obey the law. Jews and, as it turned out, those who followed Jesus, Jews and gentiles alike, were called to let the law transform them into the likeness of God as Jesus had done. It isn’t enough to stop short of killing the guy we hate; we’re meant to be generously and charitably disposed toward him, no matter how infuriating he is. It’s counterintuitive, but let’s face it folks, compassion is the only thing that has ever changed human history for the better – and it’s the only thing that saves us from ourselves. For Jesus and his disciples, this was to be the fulfilling of the law, the path to human completeness that Jesus called perfection.

(This teaching was so onerous that some early manuscript copyists inserted qualifying language that made its way into the King James version: “But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment …” In other words, it’s OK to be angry if you have a good reason. The best contemporary scholarship indicates that the manuscript tradition as a whole does not support this loophole.)

Jesus apparently understood that anger is universally debilitating. While it may produce short-term, pyrrhic satisfactions such as revenge, there is always a price to pay in the form of wear and tear on one’s character. Anger corrodes and erodes relationships, even strong ones. Anger generates fear in friends and family, especially children and spouses, that leads inevitably to alienation, retaliation in kind and even hatred. Anger spoils honest competition and the rewards of disciplined hard work and training. It sustains bullies and flushes their lives away amid pathetic, self-pitying whines about getting no respect. Anger thrives on abuse and injustice and produces a kind of grandiose self-righteousness that believes it is above common courtesy, decency and law. Anger is simply barbaric – and Jesus says it must be conquered in every human heart that yearns for God.

Fear and insecurity fuel anger, which makes us susceptible to being led by demagogues who stoke our resentments with incendiary rhetoric intended to not inform but to inflame. Anger, then, tends to make us mindless brutes rather than thoughtful, spiritual beings with rational, compassionate minds capable of discourse, even in disagreement, without polarizing discontent. In Christian scripture, this is known as speaking the truth in love.

No wonder Jesus equated anger with murder. It’s a dead end. If I am angry, it bleeds me of the way, the truth and the life. It cuts me off even from those I love most. Unattended anger is like being buried alive, simmering resentment a form of spiritual suicide. It is a way that leads to the ultimate idolatry and the inevitable crumbling of the isolated self known as despair. If I don’t handle it, it will handle me. It will lead me into the hands of the enemy and my life will become a pointless lie, simply another excuse for violence and degradation. Anger is a way of life that leads only to the death of my relationship with God.

And yet, we embrace our rage. Again and again, by the day, by the week, by the month and by the years of our lives and human history, we celebrate anger as a virtue – in our personal and professional lives, in our politics, even in our faith. We have devastated the earth with our aggression, and we are unrepentant.

Jesus must have known he was flying into the teeth of human history with the good news of compassion, the healing of our idolatrous selves. He must have known that he was setting the bar higher than most of us can leap; indeed, some of his own words seem to be angry denunciations of his enemies, and he is said to have physically attacked money-changers in the Temple. By his own standard, then, Jesus too was liable to judgment for angry violence akin to murder. If Jesus can’t rise to the standard he set, how in the world can we?

Our hope lies in that we’re not living in a vacuum, which seems to have been especially true of early generations of Jesus’ followers who embraced the traditions we find in Matthew’s gospel. This community of faith, hope and love sought not only to love each other but also to forgive when the other guy fell short. Forgiveness is love coming back at me when my love fails, as it always will; moreover, forgiveness is love that heals my anger when my neighbor offends me. It’s not just a formula, though; it’s a way of life lived in community. We can’t seek Christian fulfillment by ourselves. We need each other by whom to be forgiven and to forgive; and, of course, we need the grace of God in Christ, who forgives us because we know not what we do.

Forgiveness is not the only way God saves us from ourselves, but it’s a true way of life that leads to the light.

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