Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Angry Christians

When I was a kid in the ’70s, a lot of Church of Christ people were freaked out by what was known as the charismatic movement that had begun during the previous decade. This movement focused on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, and other things that made Church of Christ folks pretty nervous. In response to the charismatic movement, the Church of Christ began shunning any kind of emotional response when it came to God, worship, or church. Well, actually, the Church of Christ had always had this mentality, but now they added a shot of paranoia to it. When my dad, a youth minister in the early ’70s, conducted youth-group devotionals in which the teens sat in a circle in a dimly-lit room and sang songs, he was reprimanded by the elders (the guys in charge) for “encouraging emotionalism.” When someone got baptized, even though the angels might have been rejoicing (Luke 15:10), we sat stone-faced. A slight smile was OK, but no clapping, cheering, whistling, or anything that could be interpreted as exuberance. Because that would be, again, “emotionalism.” The men (and only the men) of the congregation could utter an “Amen,” but that was it.

So even though many, many Church of Christ people I grew up with were loving, faithful, and God-fearing people, you wouldn’t have known some of them were happy to be Christians by observing them. Showing emotion was just too much of a slippery slope for them. Clap after a baptism and next thing you know, we’ll be convulsing on the floor. And we can’t have that. So stone-faced we sat.

But there was one emotion that seemed to be OK. Anger. Some of these loving, faithful people could become quite angry when they believed their way of doing church was threatened. There were Church of Christ newspapers and newsletters in which some of these people raged against congregations that were daring to do something a little different. They believed it was their duty to “contend for the faith” (Jude 1:3) and they seemed to wear themselves out doing it. I remember some of these people from the congregations I grew up in. They were typically older men—some were elders; some were not—and they felt a strong sense of duty to prevent things from changing—not only in their own congregations, but in the Church of Christ in general. Even in their church directory photos, some of these men looked mad—as if allowing their faces to crack into slight smiles might let down enough guard to let something like instrumental music or infant baptism in, and before you knew it, we would be praying to the Pope.

I have no doubt that these angry Christians had nothing but the best intentions. But this anger was confusing for me as a kid. I would come across passages such as Philippians 4:4-9 and wonder why we didn’t have more rejoicing going on in our churches.

As an adult, my view of Christ’s church has expanded to include believers of all Christian faith groups, which has been refreshing and enlightening. But it’s also made me realize that angry Christians are not limited to the faith tradition in which I was raised. They are everywhere.

In fact, Christians seem to be getting angrier. If you don’t believe me, you weren’t on Facebook late on June 28 and in the early hours of June 29, when chaos regarding the abortion bill in Texas erupted in the state capitol. You also weren’t on Facebook when the Supreme Court overturned DOMA later on the morning of June 29. Regardless of where I stand on these issues, those two days made one thing clear: There are lots of angry, angry Christians out there.

What are we angry about? Here’s a list:

We are angry that prayer has been taken out of schools.
We are angry about gay people having rights.
We are angry about abortion.
We are angry because this country isn’t what we think the Founding Fathers envisioned.
We are angry that a Democrat is in the White House.
We are angry about evolution.
We are angry about feminism.
We are angry at Muslims.
We are angry that people have guns, and we are angry that someone might take guns away.
We are angry with people on government assistance.
We are angry about environmental issues.
We are angry at the Boy Scouts.
We are angry at the Girl Scouts.

We used to get angry about divorce, but we’ve kind of given up on that.

We are even angry about things that aren’t real, such as the Pledge of Allegiance being taken out of public schools. (Shared posts on Facebook keep alerting me that it has, but I have yet to learn of a school district anywhere in the nation in which the pledge has actually been banned.) We apparently enjoy being angry so much that we will invent things to get mad about.

This is not the way to be Jesus to the world.

At some point back in my Church of Christ years, I realized the anger I saw around me was a defense mechanism. The angry church people I knew had their convictions all lined up in neat little black-and-white rows. If they stopped being angry long enough to try to understand the changes going on around them, they might realize that some of the things they had always been against just might be OK after all. And that would mess up all those neat little rows. And the black and white might become a murky gray. And gray is unsettling. Terrifying, even. Gray can make us feel uncomfortable. It can make us hurt. It forces us to ask questions we never dreamed we would ask. And it makes us afraid of the answers we might get.

It’s easier to stay angry. It doesn’t require as much soul-searching on our part, and we don’t have to think as hard.

If we can stay angry with people of other religions, or people who have no religion at all, we don’t risk getting to know some of these people and realizing they are a lot more like us than we thought.

If we can stay angry about abortion, we don’t have to listen to women’s stories about why they have had abortions, like this particularly heart-wrenching one. We can just assume they did it out of self-centered convenience and go on our not-so-merry way. We can assume that banning abortion will solve the abortion problem, even though the facts show that it will take much, much more work than that, and that outlawing abortion could even make the problem worse.

If we can stay angry with gay people, we don’t risk finding out about the 86 percent of gay and lesbian teens who are harassed at school because of their sexual orientation. We also don’t risk learning that of the 22 percent of gay teens who are physically assaulted at school, 60 percent of them never report the incidents because they think no one will care. We don’t have to think about how much higher the homeless rate is for gay teens than straight teens, or the 62-percent LGBT homeless youth suicide rate.* It’s just so much easier to think of some aggressive gay agenda, instead of actual people.

Anger can be quite comfy.

The problem is that I can’t find anger as a Christian virtue in scripture. I can’t find a trace of it in the fruits of the spirit. Jesus did get angry with the moneychangers in the temple because they were turning his father’s house into a First-Century mall of sorts. But he didn’t get mad at the weak and the hurting. He didn’t get mad at the woman at the well, or Peter, or Judas, or the other people around him who he knew were sinful. He didn’t even get mad at the people who carried out his torture and execution.

In fact, he showed love to all of those people. A profound, not-of-this-world love.

James 1:19 tells us to be slow to become angry, and Proverbs offers a number of warnings against anger. And for good reason. Being angry at people does not minister to them, and it does not show them Christ. It pushes them far, far away from us until, instead of going out into the world as Jesus said, we become an isolated island of angry people.

Worst of all, anger stops us from listening to the people who need Jesus the most. And that’s what we Christians need to be doing. We need to listen to those people who make us mad. We need to strive to understand. We need to stop praying for God to change everyone else and pray for him to change our hearts instead. And we need to learn, once again, how to have joy in our faith that reaches others and tells the story of Jesus in a way that draws them to him instead of pushing them away.

*Sources: Safe Schools Coalition, American Academy of Pediatrics, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, National Coalition for the Homeless, Human Rights Campaign.