Development workers and mediators, amongst others, tend to want to cool down the flames, to lighten the mood, to diffuse loudness and verbal aggression, to “resolve conflict” and “restore beauty.” Yet without conflict, tension, and anger, we make very little progress, except for a short time at the surface. Anger is authentic when experienced as a reaction to injustice, because the pursuit of justice is central to claiming one’s own humanity, even central to knowing God. This isn’t to say that anger must be expressed just to “spill it all out” in an effort to recover emotional stability, but rather to express oneself in a transparent way in hopes of transforming a relationship or system, to demand acknowledgment from another party.
As Beverly W. Harrison writes on the topic of Feminist Spirituality, “Where the evasion of feeling is widespread, anger does not go away or disappear. Rather, in interpersonal life it masks itself as boredom, ennui, low energy, or it expresses itself in passive-aggressive activity or in moralistic self-righteousness and blaming. Anger denied subverts community….Where feeling is evaded…the power of love, the power to act, to deepen relation, atrophies and dies.”
Is it any wonder that rural men in Uganda sit idle in villages, drinking their lives away, having been told through generations of colonization and other forms of political oppression that they are unimportant, unqualified, and sub-human? Is it any wonder that anti-domestic violence programs are popping up all over Africa, and also in the cities of America? People have been told by missionaries, by old rich white men, by pastors and teachers and social workers and businessmen, to passively accept the system – or even to endorse the system – which oppresses them heavily.
Often, the rage an abusive father or husband exhibits toward his family members comes from a holy place. The act itself is a manifestation of evil, and inexcusable, but the anger from which it is derived may be appropriate if the man occupies a lower rung on society’s ladder. Commonly (though not always), a man may be subjected to chronic underemployment, acts of racism and other forms of discrimination, or a poor local infrastructure. Yet for many men (I speak as one of them), these blameworthy factors of reality may feel too intangible to actually blame, and a sense of failure and isolation takes root. Without a worldview framework that understands how the violence of predatory economics works, a man is likely to project his inescapable frustration upon the things in front of him, however important those things (or people) may be: his wife, his kids, his neighbors. Searching for something to blame, knowing that he has tried his best despite still being unable to name the obstacles that have oppressed him, he sees only those who are a part of his life, and when the time comes, the volcanic fury explodes.
(It may sound like I am generating legitimate excuses for domestic violence. I am not. I am shedding light on some of its causes and reasons for existence – and very common ones at that. I suggest that one way to decrease domestic violence may be to conscientize not only women and youth, but also men, to understand and react strategically to the powers that oppress them, despite their seemingly invisible nature – and to create and embody alternative definitions of masculinity that undermine patriarchy and violence.)
The phrase “righteous anger” comes to mind, but what is it? Does it simply call to mind images of Jesus kicking over tables because people were disobeying the holy nature of divinely-imposed law? Is it disgust with anything that perverts one’s perception of righteousness? No, it is the zeal that envelopes us when we find ourselves opposing injustice radically (“from its roots” – the only place where injustice can truly be undone). It is our dissatisfaction with systems that alienate, cultural norms that exclude women or transgendered individuals, inherited worldviews that make us too proud to stop and help the “other” who is hurt along the roadside, laws that prevent us from contributing our thoughts to our communities, institutions created to filter the voice of a neighborhood or force people off of their own land. In short, it is a reaction to violence. Every time this reaction occurs, that this “righteous anger” presents itself, we must chose whether to react with counter-violence, passivity, or pursue a third way of using creativity to subvert the very violence gave birth to our anger in the first place.