I always teach the difference between righteous and self-righteous anger.
Righteous anger is a God-given, empathetic response to injustice. It sees the harm visited upon the innocent and rises up to protest. Its purpose is restorative, aiming to bring about change in solidarity with others.
Self-righteous anger usually stems from our egos, our pride, our need to be right. We can cloak this reaction any way we want, but it often comes down to US – our smugness and superiority.
One of the things that fascinates me is the constant barrage of rhetoric that flows across Facebook on any given day. Since I have friends on both ends of the political and theological spectrum, the words get super-heated.
As a self-proclaimed liberal, it’s easy for me to shake my head at conservative diatribes. How narrow-minded! How short-sighted! How un-evolved! I find the tone of their words to be harsh, judgmental, morally superior.
Yet here’s the thing. Too often, when I – or my liberal friends – have responded, our tone is pretty much the same. This has been especially throughout the turmoil of 2014. One liberal rant after another.
I have three dogs at home. They can’t understand my words. Instead they tune into my tone. I can say, “Come over here. I’m going to throw you out in the freezing cold with no food or water.” But if I say it in a soothing, loving voice, my canines wag their tails. If I say, “Come here. You are such a good, good dog!” but my tone is harsh, they cringe warily.
Does our tone matter? YES! The entire notion of nonviolence calls us to model the change we want to see in the world. When our words are devoid of love, when our righteous anger crosses the border into self-righteousness, we undermine the unity we say we long for in this world. At that moment, Paul reminds us we are like noisy gongs and clanging cymbals. We perpetuate the cycle of action/reaction.
Listen, liberal friends. I see the systemic evils of racism. I see the patriotic cloaking of militarism and the abdication to torture. I see the American Jesus used to justify homophobia and intolerance. I am doing what I can, serving with the wonderful folks of my church to help the addicted, feed the hungry, welcome the lonely, advocate for refugees and immigrants.
But there’s an old adage that has proven rock-solid throughout my life as a pastor. People don’t want to know that you have to say until they know you love them.
Our tones can speak so loudly that our words fall only on the ears of compatriots. This is not the inclusive love Jesus championed on the cross.
So, Merry Christmas to all, but especially my righteous liberal friends. As we celebrate Christ’s birth, let’s remember these words from Ephesians 2:14 – “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…”