Monday, February 13, 2012

Reflections on God's Anger

In Mark’s Gospel a leper comes to Jesus begging, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” The text says, “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’” The alternate reading says that Jesus was “moved with anger” (Mark 1:40-41).  

This is an example of a variant in the manuscript tradition. We do not possess a single original manuscript of the New Testament (this is true of the Hebrew Bible as well). We have copies—copies of copies. The vast majority of manuscripts date from the ninth century and later. A smaller group of manuscripts date earlier. A few generally considered very reliable date from the fourth to the sixth centuries. We have a few papyrus manuscripts that date even earlier that contain portions of the New Testament, but many of these show evidence of having been copied without the greatest care. 

It is the work of textual scholars to compare these manuscripts, rate their comparative value, and study the text itself in light of scribal copying practices in order to determine the original text. This process, of course, is not an exact science; there is much subjectivity involved. The place where one manuscript differs from another manuscript is called a variant. A variant is simply an error or mistake that has been made in copying the manuscript. There are hundreds of variants in every single copy. Most of the time, the variant does not greatly affect the meaning of the text. Sometimes it does, but usually it doesn’t. 

Some of these variants were intentional, many were unintentional. Miscopying a single letter could change a word, and sometimes whole sentences were left out. Scribes copied these texts by hand, usually in poor lighting conditions. It’s amazing really that the New Testament manuscripts are as reliable as they are. 

Some of the variants were intentional. The scribe may have thought that the copy he was using was wrong and decided to guess at what the correct reading might be. The scribe may have wanted to make a particular point or accent a certain theological emphasis, which prompted him to alter the text in some way.

Many New Testament scholars argue that in Mark 1:41, “moved with anger” is the original reading. It is much more likely, they say, that a scribe would have changed “compassion” to “anger” than the other way around. 

So what is Jesus angry at? Certainly not the leper, who, in desperation, cries out to be healed. In that culture, the leper would have been socially and religiously ostracized, completely cut off from the community. The one constant theme in all the Gospels is Jesus’ compassion and concern for the poor and the marginalized. 

Jesus may be angry at the ravages of disease that debilitates and destroys life. Or, more likely, he is angry at a social system that demonized and excluded an entire group of human beings guilty of nothing more than being “different” and being ravaged by a force over which they had no control. 

Jesus, who is a window into the character of God, raises the question about God’s anger. Of course, the Hebrew Scriptures have much to say about God’s anger. 

Numerous times in the Hebrew Bible God gets angry. But anger is not part of God’s disposition. Unfortunately, that is not often true of humans. We tend to nurse and indulge anger. 

Anger can be a positive force. In 1893 when Gandhi was a young, struggling lawyer, traveling to Pretoria, he was unaware of the unspoken prohibition against any nonwhite traveling first class. A train guard asked him to give up his compartment and occupy the baggage car. When he protested, the police constable threw Gandhi’s luggage onto the platform as the train steamed away. He made for the waiting room, which was cold and without lights. With no overcoat, he spent the night huddled in a corner, shivering with rage at the insult. When morning came, he had made up his mind to stand up for the rights of his race, cost what it might. While Gandhi did not nurse his anger and become an angry person, it was anger that fueled his initial decision to launch a non-violent campaign for liberation. 

I read somewhere where Martin Luther is reported as saying that he could pray and preach at his best when he was angry. Of course, there is no way of knowing if his congregation felt the same way; I suspect that didn’t. 

We certainly should feel some anger at injustice, when God’s children, especially the poor and vulnerable, are taken advantage of. Indifference is not an option for disciples of Christ. We may need to allow our anger at injustice to fuel our involvement and engagement on the side of the powerless and most vulnerable in our society. But we do not do anyone any good when we indulge anger and become angry persons. 

It seems to me that Jesus could express anger at times, but he did not carry it with him or allow it to fester. I think Paul gives some good instruction when he says, “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” When we nurse our anger and become angry persons, any little irritant can cause an explosion of anger. Undoubtedly, this is what happens in the phenomena we know as “road rage.” Angry people are dangerous people. Human anger indulged forms endless cycles of contempt and violence. 

When we are angry, we can easily get pulled into a cycle of negative reactions and responses. Like the young man who squeals to a stop in his sports car in front of the general store where an old man sits on a bench. In a condescending way, he says, “Hey pop, how long has this town been dead?” The old man retorts, “Well, can’t be very long, you’re the first buzzard I’ve seen.” Anger indulged fuels a continual cycle of put downs. It fuels contempt and malice. Most things that we can do with anger, we can do better without it. 

God’s anger is very different than ours. When we think of human anger, we usually associate that with a loss of self-control or compulsiveness. It’s often connected to the desire for revenge or the intent to do harm. Human anger is often expressed as sudden outbursts of emotion. It can become demonic and take possession of us. We can become possessed by anger. 

God’s anger is not unpredictable or irrational. It is never a spontaneous outburst. It is never a blind, explosive force. There are some who interpret Jesus’ act in the temple—his overturning the money tables and driving out the animals—as a sudden outburst, “a temple tantrum.” I think it was a deliberate, well-thought-out prophetic protest against the injustices of temple religion. I believe that Jesus was in control of his emotions the whole time he was overturning the tables in the temple. 

God’s anger is purposeful and it is an important aspect of God’s character in relationship to the creation, particularly God’s covenant people. Surely God gets angry  when we do not live up to our covenant responsibilities, especially when we fail to love one another and take care of the most vulnerable in our midst. But God’s anger is certainly not a dominant characteristic; it is a secondary one. The ruling passion of God as the writers of Scripture affirm in many passages, especially the Prophets and the Psalms, is God’s love and compassion

The Psalmist tells us to sing praises to the Lord, for God’s anger is but for a moment; but God’s favor, God’s grace and acceptance and care are for a lifetime (Ps. 30:5). The Prophet Micah says, “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in showing clemency” (7:18). 

The reason Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh was because he knew all too well what God is like. After Jonah is swallowed by the fish and deposited on the dry land, he finally obeys God and goes to Nineveh to warn them of God’s judgment. To Jonah’s dismay, the people repent and turn from their evil ways, and God relents from his judgment. Upset at God, Jonah says, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah 4:2). 

God does not delight in punishment, God takes pleasure in redemption. God, of course, is not indifferent to evil. God is moved; God is personally affected by what we do. When God’s children hurt each other, when we call each other names, when we are mean and demean one another, when we harm each other psychologically or physically, God gets angry. But it is an anger pervaded by grief and exercised with restraint. 

Over and over the prophets tell us that God is patient and longsuffering and slow to anger. God’s anger is instrumental; it serves a purpose. The great Jewish scholar and mystic Abraham Heschel says it well, “The call of anger is a call to cancel anger. It is not an expression of irrational, sudden, and instinctive excitement, but a free and deliberate reaction of God’s justice to what is wrong and evil. . . . There is no divine anger for anger’s sake. It’s meaning is . . . instrumental: to bring about repentance; its purpose and consummation is its own disappearance.” 

Whatever we might imagine God’s judgment to be or look like; however we might conceive of its expression in this life or the afterlife, its purpose is never exclusion or punishment for punishment’s sake. It’s not retributory or retaliatory. It’s not vindictive; it’s restorative and redemptive. 

What if our criminal justice system was structured to truly rehabilitate criminals, not just punish them? What if the central focus of the system was to reform and redeem, not simply enact retribution? Some violent offenders may be beyond redemption (at least in this life) and must never be released. But many are very redeemable given access  to the right resources. 

The money we save in years of incarceration could provide victims of violent crime the resources they need to work through their anger and need for revenge. Perhaps many would find the grace to forgive, not merely for the benefit of the offender, but for their own good and the good of their families. Harbored anger is a poison that affects everyone in contact with the angry person. 

Of course, a system is only as effective as the people who lead and serve within the system. Thankfully, even now we have good judges, lawyers, police officers, etc. who inject grace into the system. But we also have too many who are full of anger, who adversely affect a system that is in much need of renewal. 

We can allow our anger to become a disease that ravages us, a cancer that poisons us. Or we can let the living Christ touch us with healing, liberating grace. Rarely, does healing happen the way it does in the Gospel stories. Normally, it is a process, sometimes a long process, but one that can result in liberation from resentment and bitterness, and a renewal of joy and gratitude.

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