Monday, August 31, 2009

Anger, Rage, & Wrath

Speaking of exile. Speaking of wandering. Traveling. Speaking of the themes of exile, wandering, and traveling, of plots that treat these subjects. Recently, a friend has been blogging about anger, and he has got me thinking. This is always dangerous for everyone around me, because. Well. Thinking itself is dangerous, and it is particularly so in the undisciplined. Someone such as me. A person generally unrestrained by the discipline of orthodoxy.

It’s odd, isn’t it, that Christians—American Christians—are among the most angry people one comes across? How is that so, I wonder? I mean, Jesus didn’t command us to be angry. In fact, you’d almost think he told us to be the opposite. So what gives? Why all the anger? Why is it okay and maybe even preferred for Christians to be angry?

I say preferred because I get the idea from some of them that to be angry is a sign that they are good Christians. And that the angrier they are, the better they are as Christians. Oh, I don’t want to push this idea very hard. It isn’t ubiquitous. It isn’t determinative. But there is that vein. That way of thinking. That way of feeling. That one detects now and again among Christians one encounters here and there.

American Christians. And you’d think that poor Christians. Poor Christians in poor nations would be angry. Would be the angriest Christians, to the extent Christians are an angry people. But no. Apparently not so. The angriest Christians appear to be American Christians. Americans. The richest, most privileged people in the world. Odd.

So, to repeat: Why is it okay and maybe even preferred for Christians—American Christians in particular—to be angry? I don’t know. Its one of the starry night sky of questions I don’t. One of the billions upon billions of questions I don’t have an answer to. A propositional truth to offer. But I do have a couple of stories that I’d like to discuss.

The first is the Iliad. Which begins with the Greek word for wrath or rage or anger. And it’s the particular wrath of Achilles. The Greek hero. Who has acted haughtily with his king, Agamemnon, who has in retribution taken one of his concubines—one of Achilles’s concubines—for his own use. Achilles withdraws from battle, in anger (he pouts), humiliated by his king, and asks the gods to make things go badly for the Greeks. To punish his king and his friends. And so things go badly for the Greeks. So they are punished. His friends die.

Achilles’s colleague, Patroclus, dresses in Achilles’s armor and leads Achilles’s warriors, the Myrmidons, into battle against the Trojans, led by Hector, who have breached the walled Greek camp by the sea. The wine-dark sea. Hector kills Patroclus, Achilles’s good friend, thinking that he is Achilles. Achilles becomes even more angry. Sad first. Angry second. He reconciles with Agamemnon.

Then he returns to battle, finds Hector, kills him, and drags his corpse around for awhile, spending his anger on Hector’s dead body. Spending his wrath on Hector’s dead body. What an odd concept. I wonder why anyone would ever do such a thing. Sounds kind of crazy, doesn’t it? What would be the point? Pointless, as far as I can tell. Except for the venting.

And as I say “venting,” I’m thinking of something like a tea kettle. Boiling water. The steam needs to be vented. Otherwise the device explodes.

So anger makes us crazy, to some extent. We become subject to unreason when we give ourselves over to anger. To prevent ourselves from exploding, we do things that are crazy, if Achilles is any indication.

The other story is about Cain and Abel. The first and second sons of Adam and Eve. Cain is a farmer. Abel is a shepherd. Both offer sacrifices to God. God favors Abel’s sacrifices above those of Cain. Or is this only Cain’s perception? Is this objectively true or subjectively true? The writer doesn’t say. Cain gets angry. But Cain can’t do anything against God. That would be futile. So Cain murders Abel. God sentences Cain to a life of wandering in the land of Nod. Or something like that. Somewhere like that. If recollection serves.

So in both stories, the protagonist is wandering already (Achilles) far from home or is sentenced to wander (Cain) far from home. In both stories, anger plays a significant role. Or rage. Or wrath. In both, anger is involved in determining a permanent wandering outcome.

In the Iliad, Achilles has a choice. He can either get great glory for himself in battle and die shortly, never to return home (forever a wanderer), or he can get less glory for himself in battle and return home, where he will die much later. These two outcomes are open to him. He chooses great glory and an early death. In the story of Cain and Abel, Cain can either endure God’s apparent preference for Abel’s sacrifice, setting his pride aside, and live in God’s general favor, or he can give full expression to his hurt feelings and kill his brother, since killing God isn’t possible.

Not that killing Abel will change God’s mind about the two brothers’ sacrifices. Not that God will like Cain better. He won’t. Killing Abel will do nothing good for Cain’s relationship with God. It’s crazy. Killing Abel is silly. But Cain does it anyway.

Isn’t it interesting that the logical consequence of wrath—of uncontrolled anger—is killing? At some point anger gets to be so great that someone has to die.

By the way, it has always struck me that Abel’s being a literal shepherd and Jesus’s reference to himself as a metaphorical shepherd is probably a meaningful symmetry or parallelism. The wrath of the Pharisees results in Jesus’s death, just as the wrath of Cain results in Abel’s death.

Are the Pharisees the descendents of Cain? The actual or metaphorical descendents of Cain? How about us? How about American Christians? Are we implicated anywhere here? I don’t know. But I do know one thing. Wrath is a form of insanity. When anger is allowed to grow, is encouraged to grow, it may become a monster. One does risk murder and mayhem. Literal and figurative.

Third story now. I’m thinking of a guy I knew. Married. Little children. Angry all the time. I don’t know why. He didn’t know why. Except his father was always angry. He learned early and long that to be a man means that you are angry. And so he was angry, particularly with his family. Venting. Yelling at the children. Yelling at the wife. Christian, mind you. Christian. Until one day, the marriage was dead. He had killed it. He had killed the love that she had for him. That he had for her. That they once had in one another. And so. She left him for someone else. And he was left with his anger. Or the ragged ends of it.

Literal or figurative. One way or another. Where wrath wants to go is death. That pure. That simple. Wrath wants something or someone to die.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

powerful post! kayjay