By The Rev. Larry Isbell
I was enjoying a Wednesday evening church dinner and talking with a co-worker in our congregation. She was an accomplished organist.
Earlier that day, I had heard an old pop song on the radio. It was a well-known song from around 1972. Hearing that song made me think about how music was something my age group had in common. Everybody in my age group knew the Beatles song “Yesterday” from 1965.
In my parents’ generation, it was very similar. Almost everyone in their age group knew the songs of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. I have a close friend, a pastor in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, who has a passion for country music. He often talks about how country music went mainstream during World War II. Many American troops had a common love for and knowledge of songs by people such as Hank Williams Sr. and Roy Acuff.
I mentioned how popular music was something almost everybody had in common, and I bemoaned the fact that — today — we seem to have very little in common. Suddenly, my co-worker blurted one word: “Outrage.”
She went on to say: “The only thing we seem to have in common, today, is outrage.”
She was, sadly, speaking a truth about our current American culture.
We share outrage. We have a kind of seething, carefully cultivated anger in common. That’s the kind of anger Jesus equates with murder or killing in his famous Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not murder.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to punishment.”
A Christian writer, Dallas Willard, has suggested that Jesus was addressing the kind of ongoing anger that a person carries around like a storage battery. We store it up and carry it around for the times that we feel the need to lash out.
Jesus warns about this kind of anger because it is destructive. It’s not just that anger can lead to murder.
Long-term systemic anger is itself a form of murder. We destroy ourselves and others with this kind of seething, carefully cultivated anger. It is all too obvious that our society is killing itself with the kind of pent-up anger about which Jesus warns us.
Murderous anger seems to be boiling on all ends of today’s political spectrum. People on both the left and the right are expressing it.
Mark Twain once said: “When you are angry, count to 10 … and then, swear.” Twain was using humor there, but we seem be taking his advice. We engage in more cussing than conversation.
Dallas Willard writes that this kind of anger is a form of self righteousness. That’s because when we hold that kind of anger, we are usually assuming we are not guilty of the wrongs and weaknesses we are naming for others.
There is a hint of “I’m just a little better than you” in many of our angry expressions.
For example, consider what those who express road rage are saying to their fellow drivers. Or consider the tone of the average talk-radio program. Talk-radio hosts almost always picture the other side on any issue as being stupid at best and immoral at worst.
This seems to be true for the talking heads on both the left and the right.
When I was a child, my mother often quoted Proverbs 15:1 to me: “A soft answer turns away wrath; but grievous words stir up anger.”
Perhaps we would all benefit from dusting off some of that old wisdom literature in the Bible. I knew a theologian who was asked, “Why did you take up a career as a teacher of systematic theology?”
That complex man gave a simple answer: “I became a systematic theology teacher because thinking about things is better than not thinking about them.”
Is it possible that we could take a few steps toward becoming a more peaceful community by simply observing the old common sense rule of “think before you speak?” I would hope so, but I know better.
I also have a strong view of human sinfulness. In our sin and our pride it is not likely that common sense will win our hearts and minds. Articles, essays and logic are not likely candidates for changing the human heart. Only God can transform us.
It is my hope that Christians would take Jesus’ teachings more seriously. I would take a couple of cues from Jesus on how to address our cultural anger issue: pray and ask God to help and guide us.
Be intentional about forming relationships with people who hold opposing points of view. Every once in a while, it can help to form a friendship with a so-called enemy.
I think I heard Jesus say something about that. He spent a lot of time in both prayer and in loving his enemies. Maybe it’s time to take that part of Jesus’ ministry seriously as those who call themselves Christian.
The Rev. Larry Isbell is pastor of First Lutheran Church in Columbus. He can reached at [email protected].