John Lewis, Hope, and Anger

“When anger fails to achieve any proportionate degree of redress, what it becomes is despair…”[1]

How does a man remain hopeful all the years of his life?

When John Lewis died on July 17, 2020, I knew him to be one of the last of a generation of civil rights heroes. He had marched, he had taken the blows, he had been jailed, he had carried on. News accounts and stories hailed his persistence. He died at eighty, after thirty-four years in Congress representing Georgia’s Fifth District.

Just days before he passed away from pancreatic cancer, he visited the Black Lives Matter street art in Washington, D.C., expressing his hope that the movement would carry on the fight. In a town hall Zoom meeting with President Obama and others, he said the protesters will “redeem the soul of America and move closer to a community at peace with itself.”[2]

On YouTube I found the speech he gave during the March on Washington, in August 1963. On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, facing thousands of people, the young Lewis, one of the founders and leaders of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, urged his listeners to join the revolution for freedom and equality. “How long can we be patient?” he asked, his voice rising. “We want our freedom and we want it now!”[3]

Two years later, in March 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson having been galvanized into action by news coverage of Bloody Sunday, in which Lewis and many others were brutally attacked by the Selma police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. But fifty-seven years later, at the end of the arc of his life, John Lewis was still hoping that voting, the most basic right of democracy, would be guaranteed and protected.

I admire his years of service in Congress and his unflinching record working for civil rights. He managed to inspire new generations to work for justice, without giving in to despair. No matter the violence he suffered, he always chose the way of peace. His lifelong hope uplifts us. But it’s the unspoken question of anger that intrigues me.

Does anger cancel hope or can hope and anger live together?

***

Stuart Walton, in his A Natural History of Human Emotions, says, “The Old Norse word angr is the root of both anger and anguish, in both of which a residue of its semantic origins in grief has precipitated. If we see fear as primarily a passive state, anger is very much a driving, compulsive force that encourages action of one sort or another.”[4]

In the 1840s, Cardinal Henry Manning, the Archbishop of Westminster, asserted that “Anger is the executive power of justice.”[5] I don’t know the context of the remark, but it’s surely one that resonates with any who think themselves to be on the right side of history in a popular struggle for justice. Anger, we think, can be justified if it brings a righteous result.

We don’t have many public examples of people who manage their anger well. As Walton drily observes, “…Anger is an emotion without an obvious behavioural etiquette attached to it.”[6] For most of us it’s a momentary emotion which flares up and dies away too quickly to be examined but long enough to regret.

As Christians, we’re taught to suppress anger, but as people living in a post-Freudian era, we’re told that the suppression of anger causes more damage to us than letting it blow. This “pressure cooker” model blends seamlessly with the emancipation of the individual from social restraints that years ago would have kept private anger from publicly spilling out. We are now a society that values the expression of our most private feelings under the guise of honesty.

There are many occasions in the Gospels when Jesus is angry. How could it be otherwise? He daily battled against prejudice and discrimination, against willful ignorance and smug hypocrisy. The Pharisees were stubbornly self-righteous, the people in the towns he passed through were small-minded, the crowds were fickle and obtuse — even the disciples were recalcitrant and selfish. Like us in every way, he expressed his anger as it rose and then turned it aside.

The story that stands out is when he trashed the Temple. All the Gospel writers feature it, with some interesting variations. Whenever this story would come up in our discussions at church, the adults would be quick to classify Jesus’ actions as “righteous indignation,” a distinction without a difference that didn’t fool us. He was clearly angry, and only if you held him to a shallow standard of spotless behavior could this be sinful.

This was more like performance anger, anger with a point, anger that evolved into a teachable moment. In Mark 11 Jesus and the disciples arrive in Jerusalem late in the day to a triumphal procession. Cheering crowds line the streets as Jesus makes his way to the Temple on a donkey. They spread their cloaks on the road, cut brush to strew the street, bless him for bringing in the kingdom, and shout “Hosanna!” He arrives at the Temple, looks around “at the whole scene,” and then leaves with the disciples to spend the night in Bethany.

In the morning, as they leave for Jerusalem, Jesus is hungry, and seeing a fig tree in the distance he searches it for fruit — breakfast on the run, if you like. But there is none because, as Mark notes, “it was not the season for figs.” And Jesus backs up and says, “May no one ever again eat fruit from you!”[7]

It’s a response we might have made, irritation at an inanimate object that doesn’t perform as we think it should. We’re hungry, the toaster jams, the car won’t start, and we’re late for work; not a good beginning to the day.

We could brush Jesus’ hangry response aside except for two details in Mark’s narrative. The first is the obvious: it’s the wrong season for figs, something that Jesus should have known growing up in a Mediterranean country. The second is more telling: Mark adds, “And his disciples were listening,” an odd thing to say unless there was a reason to remember what Jesus had said and done.[8]

I find this endearing: Jesus momentarily flailing in irritation, the disciples glancing at one another and ducking their heads to hide a smile.

Then they are making their way to the court of the Temple, where Jesus immediately wades into the bustling market, throwing over the tables, scattering the money, and setting free the pigeons. He doesn’t allow anyone carrying merchandise to cut through the courtyard and he won’t let the merchants back in. Instead, he begins to teach, to the delight of the crowds and the consternation of the chief priests, who come running when someone breathlessly tattles on Jesus.

The flash of anger gives way to a teach-in; the people are spellbound; the authorities are outraged. They would kidnap him, but they’re afraid of the crowd’s reaction, so Jesus teaches all day, and when evening comes, he and the disciples leave the city.

That is Mark’s story. John’s version is even more pointed: “Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple… His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”[9]

***

The philosophers of Jesus’ time had a lot to say about anger. Seneca, whose lifetime overlapped with Jesus, and Plutarch, who was writing when Paul was executed, around 64-65 CE, regarded anger with horror and wrote some of their most forceful essays against it. Prevention was the best course, said Seneca, “…to reject at once the first incitement to anger, to resist even its small beginnings, and to take pains to avoid falling into anger.”[10] Anger swamped reason, he said, and drowned our ability to see events clearly.

“I have noticed,” observes Plutarch, “that although different factors trigger its onset in different people, there is almost always present a belief that they are being slighted and ignored.”[11] This is anger as the flash point of a bruised ego.

What do we see in Jesus? A man whose anger arises to protect others, but who will not protect himself. He disrupts the worship at his synagogue to heal a man, angry that the leaders value decorum over liberation. He is angry when the doctors of the law burden the people with unnecessary rules, instead of revealing the Law as evidence of God’s care. And he is angry that the house of prayer has become a den of thieves.

Here is a man who trusts God so deeply that in the midst of conflict he can say, “I and the Father are one,” without the slightest hint of defensiveness or pride. When he sees the way things are and the way things could be, he refuses silence. Hope breaks in, the future contradicts the present, anger throws off despair and steps into faith.

It is time, as John Lewis would say, that we got ourselves into “good trouble.”

 

Notes & References:

[11] Plutarch. “On the Avoidance of Anger.” In Essays. Translated by Robin Waterfield. Introduced and annotated by Ian Kidd. London: 1992, Penguin Books, p. 193.

 

Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, ethics, and communications for 37 years at universities in Maryland and Washington, DC. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. Email him at [email protected]. His first book, Wandering, Not Lost: Essays on Faith, Doubt, and Mystery, is now available.

Photo by Daniel Curran on Unsplash

 

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10648
1 Like

Keep writing, I will keep reading and thinking!

2 Likes

Agitate, agitate, agitate for good trouble!

Thanks, Barry.

2 Likes

Chris, that is one of my favorite EGW quotes—“Agitate, agitate, agitate.” Useful in many contexts!

2 Likes

Agitate, Agitate, Agitate…

The Voting Rights Act was nearly squeelched by Southern Democrat Senators. But had the support of a number of Republicans so that it would pass (the Democrats controlled the Senate by a large number) .

Johnson called out the national guard to protect black voters and is now praised. Trump calls out the national guard to protect a federal court house and is denounced as a fascist

Lewis goes to see the BLM street art while the same group supports the looting in Chicago as a from of reparations.

Might there be just a tad of irony here…

I’‘m just following Lewis’ admonition:

What’s wrong with you people here? Do you think a visit by Lewis to the BLM street art changes anything?

Chicago’s “Miracle Mile” has been looted twice in the last three months. NYC and LA have suffered similar attacks, though not so thorough. Is there anything that is safe? These groups have even penetrated to the suburbs in some cities. If there is no protection for the Miracle Mile, is there any for you and me? Will those merchants reopen?

The Seattle police chief resigned a few days ago. Salary cut, and demonstrators surrounding her home. And she a black woman, the first for Seattle!

But you will argue, “Those are looters, and they are different than the protestors.” I cant tell the difference. Can you? The Chicago BLM, or some part of them had a rally after the looting, and said it was a form of reparations, implying that they would continue until their demands were met.

I was showing an apartment to a young woman from IL a few weeks ago. Her mother came with her. The mother said that looters had looted the local Family Dollar, and now it was boarded up. She said she cried that night because now they would have to drive a long way to buy anything.

I recently put an apartment for rent ad on Craig’s list for my apartment in Hammond. In 2 days I had 40 inquires. People want to move to a safer place, out of Chicago. No I probably have had 70 inquires.

Sound’s like terrorism to me. And we blithely carry one, as if the world was just going to right itself. How much destruction can you tolerate? And police defunding is going to make it worse.

What will you do when they come for you?

3 Likes

I just had another gentleman call me about the apartment. He is a small business man living in Chicago. He says it is terrible there. Everyone is mad and upset and there are such big problems he wants to get out.

I had an apartment available a year ago, much nicer, not near the response.

This is a sea change, and when push come to shove, liberal bonafides will have no influence.

Before the window to comment closes I would like to offer are a couple of observations:

I think Allen is right to be extremely concerned about the situation in some of the big cities in America. Here is an article supporting his view:

Regarding the episode with Jesus and the fig tree: are we to assume that our Lord destroyed the tree in a fit of petulance or is there another explanation?

It’s generally accepted that the fig tree was/is recognized as a symbol of Judaism. The prophet Jeremiah speaks of two baskets of figs in ch24- good figs and bad figs, referring to those in exile in Babylon who would return to Him with their whole heart and those who would not.

I think Jesus used His hunger as the pretext to approach the tree. He certainly would have known that at the time of Passover (spring) one could not expect to find ripe figs on it. I believe this aside was to pronounce His prophecy about the Jewish nation, predicting that it would never ‘bear fruit’ for the coming kingdom. I don’t see Him as irritated or angry but perhaps aware of the intransigence of the leaders and, sensing the approaching conflict with them, resolute in His mission. (Barry mentions that the disciples were listening. Perhaps this was one of those rather cryptic utterances of Jesus that were confusing to them at the time but only understood later, upon reflection.)

I think this symbolic representation of Judaism is expanded in Luke 13 in which we have a parable about a fig tree. It was in the vineyard for three years and bore no fruit. The vineyard-keeper even fertilized the tree in the fourth year. If it bore no fruit after that, it was to be cut down. Jesus’ earthly ministry was 3 1/2 years long and His death and resurrection in the fourth year could have been the impetus necessary for the Jewish nation to realize that He fulfilled their prophecies, was indeed the Messiah, acknowledge their misunderstanding, and go on to produce fruit for the kingdom.
But it was not to be. Acts ch 7 records Stephen’s speech in that fourth year to the Jewish leaders which served as a final appeal to them to see the truth and repent. Instead they murdered Stephen, the Christian church was born, and the fig tree was to remain fruitless.

2 Likes

Allen, please make sure you find a way to vote, and please vote Republican. If the USPS is closed at that time… :roll, make that little trip to the voting booth on Nov 3rd - IF there is actually an election in progress on that day. And make sure the voting machine is not market “Property of Russia” …

Enjoy the democratic process “a la Republican”:innocent:

Here is another article on the big cities: NYC is dead forever…Here’s why. This is the first section, but each is better and shows he understands the dynamicL

"I love NYC. When I first moved to NYC, it was a dream come true. Every corner was like a theater production happening right in front of me. So much personality, so many stories.

Every subculture I loved was in NYC. I could play chess all day and night. I could go to comedy clubs. I could start any type of business. I could meet people. I had family, friends, opportunities. No matter what happened to me, NYC was a net I could fall back on and bounce back up.

Now it’s completely dead.

“But NYC always always bounces back.” No. Not this time.

“But NYC is the center of the financial universe. Opportunities will flourish here again.” Not this time.

“NYC has experienced worse.” No it hasn’t.

A Facebook group formed a few weeks ago that was for people who were planning a move and wanted others to talk to and ask advice from. Within two or three days it had about 10,000 members.

Every day I see more and more posts, “I’ve been in NYC forever but I guess this time I have to say goodbye.” Every single day I see those posts. I’ve been screenshotting them for my scrapbook.

Three of the most important reasons to move to NYC:

  • Business opportunities
  • Culture
  • Food

And, of course, friends. But if everything I say below is even 1/10 of what I think, then there won’t be as many opportunities to make friends"

By James Altucher.

It seems so prescient. He could be wrong, but my view from Hammand with the flood from Chicago, makes me think he is right. Our cities will never be the same.

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