Constructive Anger and Reconstruction

Dr. Johan Tredoux

I remember a game my older brother and I played as pastor’s kids that can serve as an introduction to this reflection on anger and religious reconstruction. The game was called “turn the other cheek.” The game was to show how tough you were, and someone had to be the sucker for punishment. As the younger brother, that just so happened to be me. There was not much to the game… my brother slapped me on one side of my face, and I had to turn my cheek for another slap-in-the-face — to see how many slaps I could take. And so it went until my brother got to enjoy it too much. It didn’t take long before the aspiration for proven bravery gave way to anger with retaliation as my only option. I remember chasing my brother down the hallway aiming to hit his face with a clenched fist, only for him to dodge my uppercut at the last minute. Fortunately, my fist missed his face, but it hit the brick plastered wall and cracked my knuckles. That was the last time we played that game. 

Unfortunately, the game continued to be played in a different way in my 30+ years as a senior pastor in the evangelical world. However, this pastoral “turn the other cheek” game did not allow you to get angry. Everybody else was allowed to get angry, except the pastor. The lot in life ascribed “by the Bible” was to be the suffering servant and absorb every punch that was thrown my way. The unwritten rule was that I was to be nice and not get angry. I must confess, there have been a few times when I felt like putting a few parishioners’ names on a golf ball and hit it really hard. 

For over 30 years, my anger feelings lodged somewhere deep inside, where it took me almost 2 years of group counseling to get in touch with feelings I didn’t even know I had. Like so many of my pastor friends, I was good at describing anger, but I was not very good at expressing it. Since then, I’ve been able to express feelings of anger that remained hidden for years, even though it does not come easy.

As a clinical chaplain, I have learned that anger can catalyze change. We need anger to know when we’re (or others) are being violated, hurt, abused, and/or our boundaries aren’t being respected. This might be the most trustworthy emotion we can lean on to discern if something is off or not, especially when dealing with religious systems. It’s an alarm saying “something is not right. You have been wronged. They are being wronged.” The religious system that taught us to disown or disavow the parts of ourselves that let us know we are angry- is emotional abuse at its finest. If we can convince a whole group that being angry is a sin, then we are much better able to control and manipulate them.  If we convince a whole group of people to not trust their internal experiences, they won’t be a threat. And so it was… 

Today, I reflect on corporate anger that has descended upon the evangelical world. This time it is not an encounter with an antagonistic parishioner, but anger coming from deep inside of many pastors and parishioners. It is a wave of anger intermingled with the necessary deconstruction that had to accompany the journey away from culture wars, fundamentalism, racism, nationalism, misogyny, homophobia, redemptive violence, and scapegoating. It is a “turning over tables” anger, seeking to address unhealthy systems without hostility. 

It is anger brought on by denominational systems, that do not allow pastors or parishioners to wrestle with difficult theological or ethical issues. It appears that religious institutions are unable to accommodate those who want to reconstruct their faith and reflect on an individual moral cognitive level, beyond the conventional. Out of fear that the equilibrium will be disturbed, the system itself requires toeing the line to keep control. This anti-intellectual posture unfortunately has opened the door for fundamentalism to get a foothold and arrested the development of thousands of curious minds who like Martin Luther or MLK, JR want to ask questions and wrestle with their faith. This brings the image of a bunch of crabs in a bucket to mind. As history has shown us, the moment one crab tries to break free from the bucket, the majority will always try to pull him or her down. The dilemma we now face is that we, in our desire to be “part of” something, to be close, can become so captured by our systems that we lose the sense of our unique individuality. Of course, if we try to assert our identity, we risk losing the closeness our systems provide. 

In this unstable environment of fear and control, constructive anger can signal a way forward as we seek to embrace, rather than reject. Tom Malone in The Art of Intimacy, can show us a way forward allowing everyone a place at the table. Tom suggests that if we understand the difference between closeness and intimacy, it can help us to have constructive dialogue. According to Tom, “closeness” in our systems tends to lean towards conservation and security, whereas “intimacy” allows people to take risks and explore differences of opinion to birth something new. Tom believes that intimacy develops when two people open themselves to each other, respect the integrity of each other, share themselves, without demanding mindless capitulation from each other. I agree. I think that it is at this juncture, at this interactive dynamic relational place, that real energy can be released to bring about growth and change within oneself, and our systems! 

I’m learning that constructive anger’s deep motive can increase the quality of being related. It has the potential to melt away superficial impurities, not allowing niceness to rob genuine intimacy. This, of course, is only possible with authenticity and negotiated space where true knowing and knowing with acceptance and understanding permeates the atmosphere.

The existential grounding of these beautiful ideas happened for me as I shared with my chaplain peers a case that affected me a great deal. The very sharing and interaction with my peers broke through stereotypical “I-it” perspectives and anchored us to consider the raw humanity of a patient who had to carry the burden of dis-attachment through a stroke and dis-attachment because of the patient’s sexual orientation as a gay person. Sharing this patient encounter created space for me to differentiate myself from established systems of prejudice and provided moments of intimacy with my peers, even though different beliefs on the subject were present. It was a case in which I was able to share an instance of cross-cultural pastoral care that showed respect for the physical, emotional, cultural, and spiritual boundaries of others. I feel that Tom Malone has his finger on the pulse reflected in the trap that is ever before us. He says:

“Knowing” and “already knowing” are the states in which we live most of our lives. We built a “set” as we do in a play. We built the set to suit the characters, particularly the main character, ourselves… This “living in a set,” an unchanging format, prearranged and accepted as reality, is what is so devilishly dangerous about righteousness. People who insist on being certain rather than being loved “know.” They “know” what is “true” and how it should be. They “know” who they are. They “know” who the other is. In such “knowing” they remain unloved and unloving. They cannot hear, touch, see, or feel differently. They cannot be intimate since they cannot experience themselves. This kind of “knowing” has certain identifiable qualities. It is a “knowing” almost always about the other, the outside, or about me. It is never about the connection, the self. People who talk to us with this kind of “knowing,” the righteousness, the firm complete black book under their arms, talk only of him or her, or of me, and are judgmental of both. They have no sense of self, the reciprocal experience of the connection between I-me and the other. The discourse changes little if at all over time or with experience. They “see” the situation the same way, think of it the same way, and generally emotionally drown in their sameness.[1]

Even though this description is fodder for a “turn over tables” anger, I feel like Tom is saying to me that I need to be careful to not fall into the trap of prejudgment, “already knowing,” and in so doing not leave room for experiencing newness and strangeness. For me this means not “pre-constructing,” but “constructing” experientially in the present if a door should open in my relationship with those who see things differently than I do. I’m also learning from Pamela Cooper-White in Shared Wisdom that we affect each other through transference. If I was to describe reality beyond postpositivism, through a constructivist paradigm, I realize that we change each other as we interact with each other, and meaning is dynamically fluid, on the move, and co-created as it meets the need of the local hour. 

I have a history of being squeezed into religious systems. I almost allowed these systems to rob me of my unique individuality to such an extent that others think for me and treat me like just another face in the crowd. I have, however, chosen not to drink the Kool-Aid. I am mindful that the Holy Spirit always produces clear thinking, rational judgment, sharp self-awareness, the ability to discriminate, and the power to make difficult choices. In this angry deconstruction environment, may we choose constructive anger over hostility and be given the power to reconstruct as we stay open for the other. May it also be a time not so much for “witness,” but “withness” as we linger and hold each other’s pain and anger in holy silence. A togetherness as we work towards a better tomorrow.

[1] Tom Malone, The Art of Intimacy, p. 86.

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