By Rev. Stella Burkhalter
We have this old-fashioned portrait of Jesus in my church lobby. I think most of the younger people in church would prefer a different depiction – certainly one where Jesus looks more Middle Eastern and less blonde. But it’s more than that. Jesus has this serene look that feels completely disconnected and out of touch with what’s going on the world today.
If we chose a picture of Jesus that would resonate with the majority, we’d likely get an image of Jesus turning over the tables in the temple. In that scene from the second chapter of the book of John, Jesus enters the temple in Jerusalem and it looks like Black Friday at Walmart – people are everywhere buying and selling animals for sacrifices. Jesus, full of indignation, flips over the vendors’ displays and hurls their money boxes to the ground. He even makes a whip to drive the animals out.
A picture of wild-eyed Jesus wielding a whip like Indiana Jones, owning the money-grubbers? That Jesus knows how we feel in this political climate.
There is a lot of anger in the air right now, and I keep hearing people reference the temple image of Jesus as a justification, almost wearing anger like a badge of honor: “See? I’m angry enough to care about things – I’m like Jesus!” The funny thing is they don’t look at other people that way. Angry people who hold opposing views are mean and evil. “How dare they call their anger righteous? They’re wrong. They’re not the good kind of angry like me.” Anger warps your perspective and sense of proportion so you can no longer imagine your opponent has anything useful to say.
And so we’re all waving our protest signs out the windows of the angry train, convinced we’re right, but where is it getting us?
We like to think our anger is useful. We sometimes even work hard to “stay mad” so we can tell our enemy off when the opportunity arises. How hilarious is that? “I’m starting to feel peaceful – I’d better beat that feeling back!”
We don’t usually need to work too hard to maintain anger, though. Anger has a way of holding on. It owns you. Anger becomes a habit and a way of being. Anger is also egocentric. In your righteous anger, you start to see yourself as an avenger for justice, as if you’re the only soldier in the army, putting yourself in the place of God. And have you ever noticed how much attention angry people get? That kind of power can be dangerous in the wrong hands.
James 1:20 says, “The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” The term “righteous anger” never appears in Scripture, and anger is never held up as a solution in the Bible. In fact, the opposite is true. When human anger appears in the Bible, good never comes of it.
We do read a lot in the Old Testament about God being angry, though. It’s a struggle to get our heads around that idea. A lot of us simply reject that image all together. But have you ever wondered what we’d lose if we erased that part of our faith story? If we can conceive of God as angry, then maybe it’s OK to let our anger go a little bit. The anger still lives out there — the injustice is still noticed and can be avenged — but it is held by One who does a much better job of holding it than we do.
Jesus’ anger flared in the middle of a politically charged setting, amid people who were being oppressed by powerful overlords in their own homeland. They believed a messiah was coming and they were watching and waiting for him. So when they saw that angry outburst, they wondered if he was the one who was coming to finally right the wrongs of the world. Jesus’ act is rightly called a sign in the Bible. He was starting to tear down the system of animal sacrifice and replace it with something much more powerful, the sacrifice of himself. The system was stuck, but now it was finally starting to break down by divine intervention. A new covenant was coming, and the gospel writers wanted us to know this was a history-changing time. In light of all that, it seems silly to use this story to justify our temper tantrums on Twitter.
The end result of Jesus’ anger was a new way of relating to God. People who could no longer reach God through all the corruption found a new path. Faith in Jesus Christ led to a new way of life, and opened new lines of communication. Has your anger ever led to that?
Anger didn’t define Jesus. It wasn’t the quality people remember most about him. It wouldn’t even make the top 10.
So now I’m rethinking the Jesus portrait. What would we lose if we lost that? It’s the familiar face of calm in the middle of a very angry time, the face of calm from one who has every reason to raging with anger, the face of one who can handle injustice without being consumed. I don’t know about you, but I need that right now.
Rev. Stella Burkhalter brings a colorful background in the faith, having been grounded in rich tradition in Laredo, Texas, in the Roman Catholic church, coming of age in a Pentecostal church during her youth, and nurtured in the United Methodist Church as an adult. All of this gives her an appreciation for the many ways God reaches us and for the many ways we reach back to God.
Stella currently serves as the senior pastor at Covenant United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas.
[Published August 1, 2018]