Anger as a holy act

Sep 9, 2019

Dear Eliza,

Like you, I prefer the soft and gentle way through life. But when I was a young sister, I found myself confronted by some terrible truths.

A president of the United States had lied to the American people in order to justify the invasion of Vietnam. Young men from middle-America and young people from burning Vietnamese villages were dying for political reasons, not to avenge injustice at all. African Americans were being kept in a segregated system that denied them civil rights, decent jobs, equal opportunities to expand their lives, and even the right to have lunch at public lunch counters while dogs snarled around their feet.

The church, I learned, had taught that women were weak, irrational, emotional, and inferior to the males of the world. So, despite all scientific data, human experience, and theology to the contrary, like our black brothers and sisters, women were also being kept “in their place.” And the church said not a word about any of those things. I could feel the frustration, the weariness, the tension, the resistance growing within me. Where was all of this going? Why didn’t somebody do something about it? When was this feeling going to end? I was angry.

It took a while, but eventually, feeling powerless and very alone socially, I began to realize that I was angry. More than that, I realized that anger was a gift of the Holy Spirit too. Anger, I began to understand, wasn’t something to get rid of. Anger was a fuel that fired the engine of change. It was a signal that people—I myself—were beginning to reject whatever the racism, sexism, and institutionalized violence that held them captive.

Anger, I realized later, was a sign that the human conscience was finally waking up. And these things simply could not be allowed to go on. It was a moment of great soul-searching. As you say so well, there are questions to answer: What is the line between Holy Anger and passive, blind, obedience? How do we know when to listen, when to speak up?

Anger is a holy act when its purpose is to transform evil into good. But, anger is one thing when it is male, another thing entirely when it is female. The first thing to remember about anger is that it is genderized. When a man is angry it’s called authoritative, justified, justice-seeking. It is a tool they legitimize to control people. When a woman is angry, society says that she is emotional, out of control, irrational. No doubt about it: women, we learn young, are meant to be “gentle”—meaning quiet, unflappable, pacifying in their approach.

So women learn very young to suppress frustration, to say “Oh, that’s alright. Really.” when she should be saying “No!” Or “Never again!” Women are also prone, as a result, to temporize too long with insult and degeneracy, in the hope that the offender, the harasser, the rapist will just quietly go away.

Clearly, anger is a signal, a protective shield against being overrun by evil, and just as bad, being made powerless by the powerful who have no intention of listening to her needs and her insights and her frustrations and her compassion for the world. You must also train your students, especially girls, to speak their anger clearly and definitively. There must be no doubt what a woman wants and why she wants it or that she intends to get it.

Just as important, we must all come to realize that a woman’s anger is simply to be respected. It can also be a force for good, for peace, for hope. Healthy anger comes from compassion. Anger itself must “do no harm.” It is meant to see the pain of others and not only commiserate with it but set out to transform it into justice.

The purpose of anger is to transform apathy and oppression into resistant anger, into holy action. It is its own answer to the question “When should I speak and when should I be quiet?” It is the bedrock question of modern society.

With courage,

—from Dear Joan Chittister: Conversations with Women in the Church (Twenty Third Publications)

Dear Joan: Conversations with Women in the Church by Joan Chittister

Dear Joan: Conversations with Women in the Church

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