26Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger,27and do not make room for the devil. 28Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
There is a lot of anger around, some are even calling it the ‘age of anger’. Whatever the role of social media, there seems to be a growing intolerance of dissent or disagreement. Banter and good-hearted debate has been replaced by outrage and outburst.
I have written about anger before because I think Christians are afraid of it. Whatever the nuances of the Biblical texts on anger, there is a reluctance to acknowledge it as something other than deeply sinful. So they bury it within themselves and create common spaces - worship, meetings, committees - where anger is unacceptable or banned. Yet, a lot of people - including churchgoers - have found themselves angry and I think it has surprised them. Perhaps because culturally and spiritually we find it such a frightening and troubling emotion, when it arises within us, we do not know how we might direct it in useful ways.
I’ve experienced uncontrolled anger in situations of domestic violence. In the church, because I have chosen to be honest about my sexuality, I have been shouted at, spat on, called ‘pervert’ and ‘paedophile’, evenly physically threatened with violence - all by people who claim to be standing up for the teachings of Jesus. I know, all too well, the damage that anger can lead to.
Thankfully, I have also seen anger motivate otherwise passive citizens and worshippers to take to the streets in protest, to stand up to bullies, to call politicians to account, to step in to defend strangers from violence or threats. That kind of anger is what I think compassion is really about - that burning sensation within us that cannot simply walk by on the other side. That wonderful narrative of the prophet Nathan confronting King David through a story and David’s nose burning in anger at the injustice is a sign of empathy and compassion.
So what has this to do with Brexit? There is a lot of anger all round and, despite the fatigue that two years of relentless media coverage has bred, there is probably a lot more to come. Did the 2016 referendum caused this explosion of anger? Probably not, it simply focussed it in a yes/no question. But the reality of it certainly raises a number of questions for Christians and how they engage.
There is always the temptation to run and hide when anger manifests itself, hoping that it will, in time go away or resolve itself. Where this reaction is preferred, you will normally find bullies and manipulators willing to exploit it. If people are too ‘Christian’, or too ‘nice’ to engage with angry people, then some will use anger, or the threat of it, to get their way. Sadly, I have seen that kind of behaviour hinder or even destroy too many church congregations. In an angry public square, the Church must be willing to stay put and not allow the space to be completely dominated by the few.
The second temptation is to deny the presence of anger within, or around, us. We suppress and repress. We deny the reality and refuse to allow room for any consideration of the matter. But the failure to create enough space to talk about the issues that framed the Brexit debate is partly why we are where we are. Christians, like everyone else, have found themselves confronting these critical issues without much of a steer from their Church Leaders. We must rectify this now by acknowledging the anger, fear, loss, and disappointment that Brexit has left us with, whether Leaver or Remainer. We are hurting, bewildered, hopeful, anxious, and need to find forums where we might express these things.
Lastly, I believe that Christians face a choice when it comes to anger. We can’t exempt ourselves from experiencing it, but we can choose how to use it. To paraphrase the writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes, will we choose to plant, or tear up, build or destroy, love or hate?