Anyone who has turned on talk radio, scanned the headlines or visited Capitol Hill lately knows that millions of Americans are angry. Democrats are mad at Republicans who are mad about President Barack Obama's health-care plans. Democrats are mad at other Democrats who are raising questions about hot-button issues in the legislation, especially questions about tax dollars and abortions. Republicans are mad about lots of other things and they have YouTube videos to prove it.
Right now, America's political elites are getting angry about the fact that so many people are angry. It's almost a Zen thing.
All of this anger is supposed to be a bad thing, a sign that the nation is coming unglued. But that may or may not be true, depending on what these angry citizens are mad about and what they choose to do with their anger, noted Leon J. Podles, a Catholic conservative known for his slashing critiques of the church hierarchy's weak responses to decades of clergy sexual abuse of children.
"If the politics of anger can't lead to constructive actions, then all that anger is meaningless and, ultimately, doesn't do anyone any good," stressed Podles. "Still, I would argue that anger is more positive than apathy, especially when citizens are angry about issues that are worth being angry about.
"Anger is certainly better than people sitting back on their sofas and saying, 'Ho hum, millions of unborn babies are dying.' It's better than people saying, 'Ho hum, people are dying because they don't have health care, but so what?' These are issues that should make rational people get angry."
Writing in the ecumenical journal Touchstone, Podles argued that it's especially important for Christians and other religious believers to understand that anger is not always a sin or an emotion that must be avoided. In fact, that there are circumstances in which it is a sin not to feel anger. The ultimate question, he said, is whether anger leads to rational, constructive, virtuous actions.
Who would argue, for example, that it was wrong for the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., to feel righteous anger about the impact of racism and economic injustice on the lives of millions of black Americans? Who would argue that it was wrong for Nelson Mandela to draw strength from the anger he felt during his 27 years in prison under South Africa's apartheid regime?
It's crucial in both of these cases, stressed Podles, that these men did not allow their anger to turn into hatred of their oppressors. Instead, it led to courageous and strategic acts to accomplish worthy goals.
"Anger must be more than mere emotion," he stressed. "Anger must also be proportionate to the evil that provokes that anger. Take road rage, for example. That kind of anger is completely irrational and it accomplishes nothing."
Then there are cases in which powerful people fail to feel anger about issues that are directly under their control, issues that their actions could affect in direct and positive ways. In his book "Sacrilege: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church," Podles attempts to understand why so many bishops failed to be outraged by the sins committed by some of their priests and, thus, failed to channel that anger into actions to stop the crimes.
"If the bishops had not coddled these priests, if they had not hidden them and then put them back into parishes full of children and parents who were kept in the dark, they could have prevented evil acts against thousands of victims," he said. "There were bishops who could have acted and they should have acted. But they didn't act. … For some reason they never got angry and, as a result, they never acted to protect the laity, especially the children."
There are times that call for unity, diplomacy, conciliation and peacemaking in the church and in public life, said Podles. But there are also times when leaders must feel outraged about corruption and injustice. There are times when anger must be allowed to fuel actions that defend virtue.
"There are evils in this world that we can do something about and we should get angry about them," he said. "In any battle, it's hard to act in an effective manner without a kind of appropriate anger that energizes your actions. Without that anger, innocent people will suffer and evil will win the day."