When I hear Jesus talk about anger in this morning’s Gospel, my mind immediately goes to the great scene in the movie Network. Nightly news anchor Howard Beale goes into a rant live on the air and finally shouts to the camera,

“I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, ‘I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!’” —Howard Beale, Network, 1976

And immediately we see apartment windows opening up and people leaning out them shouting Beale’s phrase to anyone who will listen. What they’re mad about, and whom they are mad at remains, of course, mysterious.

“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Network came out in 1976. The 1970s were full of other memorable phrases as well: “May the Force be with you.” “If it feels good, do it.” “Have a nice day.” All these continue to resound inside my brain along with one I heard regularly in my 1970s seminary days: “Get in touch with your feelings.”

Back then I thought the admonition to get in touch with my feelings was just so much psychobabble—another 1970s expression, by the way. (I’m full of ’em.) Yet, as the years have passed, I have come to see the wisdom inherent in the idea that you might actually be present to an emotion as you are experiencing it. The shouters in Network were funny of course because they weren’t really mad. They were just doing what a celebrity told them to do. But often in life we real people are in the grip of emotions we neither acknowledge nor understand. The older I get, the more I aspire to knowing what it is I’m feeling when I’m actually feeling it.

Now this may sound like a strange ambition, but you and I live in a culture that privileges thought over feeling and good manners over authenticity. Those of us who have thrived by suppressing our feelings and soldiering on in spite of them have paid a certain price for doing so. It’s not only that we don’t know what’s actually going on inside us. It’s more that, when we are out of touch with our feelings, we behave in ways that isolate and estrange us from others.

When you start trying to access your own feelings, the first one to come up is usually anger. But because expressing anger is not a socially acceptable in polite society, it presents itself in different kinds of behaviors and poses: we become distant, sarcastic, irritated, or skeptical (VISIONS feeling wheel). These attitudes, though socially permitted, become toxic over time both at work and at home. You may not want to hear someone tell you they’re angry very often, but you’ll like dealing for very long with people who are distant, sarcastic, irritated, and skeptical even less. Trust me.

Now I raise the issue of anger this morning not because I’m turning into Doctor Phil but because of what Jesus tells us in this morning’s Gospel reading:

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,” you will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matt. 5:21-22)

This passage is from the Sermon on the Mount, the seemingly impossible series of ethical teachings that Jesus gives in chapters 5 through 7 of Matthew’s Gospel. You’ve heard it said don’t kill anybody. I say to you, don’t even be angry. Jesus then emphasizes this point by giving an absurd exaggeration as an example: if you’re making your offering of a goat, a lamb, a pigeon, at the Temple altar in Jerusalem and you realize that you have unresolved enmity with someone else at home, leave your animal to wander around the Temple courtyard and go home—perhaps to Galilee, far in the north—be reconciled to the other person, and then come back and make your offering, hoping all the while that your goat, lamb, or pigeon hasn’t wandered away. If we did that here on Sunday mornings, people would storm the exits every time we passed the peace. Imagine the traffic jam in the garage.

Is Jesus really telling us not to be angry? Or is he telling us that there is not a lot of moral difference between the feeling and the action it leads to? I’m not exactly sure, but one of the people who has helped me understand what Jesus might be saying is the Roman Catholic monk Richard Rohr, who writes and teaches about Christian spirituality. For all of us, part of the problem with being in touch with your feelings is that sometimes anger isn’t even anger: it’s really grief. Rohr wrote this about men, but what he says is also increasingly true about women in our society. Here is how he puts it:

But how else would a man be expected to act if he does not know how to identify, much less know how to share, his sadness, his anger, or his endless grief—often about his own love and losses, or the world that he once dreamed would happen? … Much male anger is actually male sadness. Men often have no way to know this themselves, and many probably even think of themselves as “angry men.” They are often very sad men, but they have no differentiated feeling world, no vocabulary, no safe male friends, no inner space or outer setting in which to open up such a chasm of feeling—not even in their churches or with their partners. (Richard Rohr “Boys Don’t Cry” Sojourners, July 2010)

In the language of spirituality, anger is really grief. It is sadness over a loss. All of our lives are filled with loss every day—from the absences and deaths of those we love to the escalating pace of change in our world to the waning of our own power and privilege over time. To live is to lose, and learning to live well means learning to lose well. But if your self-image is wrapped up in holding on to and projecting power and control, admitting any kind of diminishment is very difficult to do. Hence the grief. Hence the anger.

If anger is grief, in the language of psychology, anger is a response to a violation—of our dignity, of our boundaries, of our selves. We get angry not only because we’re not in control. We get angry because other people violate us. What we need when we’re angry is not to hit or kill somebody. What we need is to set limits or reestablish boundaries and expectations. A priest friend of mine in California has the best of all responses when he experiences a personal violation: “I invite you,” he says, “to step back over to your side of the line.”

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,” you will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matt. 5:21-22)

How would life be different if, instead of yelling and screaming at each other, we asked those who violate us to step back over to their side of the line? How would life be different if, instead of calling people abusive names, blaming them for our troubles, or peppering our talk with hostile or sarcastic phrases, we admitted the sorrow and fear occasioned by our losses? How much social and family and personal violence could we avoid simply by knowing what we feel when we feel it and reaching out to each other not in anger but in humble acknowledgment of our vulnerability?

To be human is to live in community, and Jesus would remind us that we have been given each other not as punching bags but for support. Even religious obligation is less important than mutual love and reconciliation:

So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. (Matt. 5:23-24)

The people we love, we work with, we live with will always cross over our boundaries. The things and people we love will always be passing away. Our own powers and privileges will inevitably diminish. These are the givens of life, and our choice is to live it either by constantly sticking our heads out our windows and shaking our fists, or to live it by reaching out to each other in forgiveness, acceptance, and love.

It’s easier to be angry than it is to grieve. It’s more acceptable to be snarky than it is to be hurt. Jesus calls us into the hard emotional work of growing up, knowing what we really feel, and acting accordingly. We are not alone in this process. We have each other as companions on this lifelong journey. It won’t be easy, but it will be real. And when we are real we are who God means us to be. So forget about being mad as hell. Get in touch with your feelings. May the Force be with you. And have a nice day. Amen.


The Very Rev. Gary Hall