A holy kind of anger

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."

Faithfully listening to Obama

Since returning this fall, Craig Dunham has asked his Biblical Ethics students at Westminster Christian Academy to focus on ways that conservative believers can participate in hot public debates, while showing respect for others. This quote from the book "Uncommon Decency" led to timely discussions.

"How can we hold onto strongly felt convictions while still nurturing a spirit that is authentically kind and gentle? ... The answer is that it is not impossible -- but it isn't easy," argued Fuller Seminary President Richard J. Mouw. "Convicted civility is something we have to work at. We have to work at it because both sides of the equation are very important."

These class discussions are sure to continue after Dunham wrote a commentary urging other evangelicals to watch President Barack Obama's back-to-school address with a mixture of respect and skepticism. Now, his students are getting an eyeful while reading fierce online criticisms of their teacher's views.

While his own Christian school near St. Louis didn't show the speech -- which would have required cutting into curriculum several weeks into the semester -- Dunham was stunned to hear that some parents were ready to keep their children at home in order to avoid seeing it.

"Seriously? ... These are the conversations I would think a parent would be PRAYING to take place," wrote Dunham. "At some point, Christians have got to stop putting the mental in fundamentalist and start interacting with the world. Teaching our kids to stick their heads in the sand and ignore anyone they may not totally agree with is, in a word, unChristian. Folks, we can't counter the culture unless we encounter the culture, so let's take off the blinders."

After parsing the president's text, Dunham said he is convinced he needs to use the video in his classroom.

"You know, from a Biblical Ethics perspective, I don't know how not to talk about this," he said. "If we can't talk about these subjects in a Christian school, where can we talk about them?"

Most of Obama's speech to public-school students focused on familiar themes, especially with its drumbeat call for discipline in an age of video games, rap and reality TV. The president used several candid illustrations based on his life as the child of a single mother, including times when she taught him extra lessons at home -- at 4:30 a.m.

"We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems," he said. "If you don't do that -- if you quit on school -- you're not just quitting on yourself, you're quitting on your country."

While Dunham took some lumps online, he was not alone in praising the address.

"This is the speech I expected the president to give to our children -- excellent," wrote the Rev. John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, a popular evangelical author. "If you settle for the news headlines that say the president tells the kids to wash their hands and take care of the environment, you will miss the wisdom and courage in this speech."

An influential Southern Baptist leader also praised the speech, while criticizing Department of Education lesson plans -- since withdrawn -- that urged students to describe how they could "help the president."

Many criticisms of this event, argued Albert Mohler, Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, are "reckless, baseless and plainly irrational. ... At this level, the controversy is a national embarrassment. Conservatives must avoid jumping on every conspiracy theory and labeling every action by the Obama administration as sinister or socialist."

At the very least, this firestorm "smacks of disrespect for the president and, by extension, disrespect for the presidency itself." Even worse, said Mohler, this controversy "threatens to sow seeds of permanent distrust and suspicion in the hearts of the young. In an age of rampant cynicism, this is inexcusable."

Clearly, said Dunham, some religious conservatives are losing their ability to hope "that God can work in any situation," especially during an administration led by a president with whom they have sharp moral and cultural disagreements.

"There is a kind of fatalism on the loose that has many people saying, 'We're doomed'," he said. "That kind of perspective may be a conservative perspective, in a political sense of the word, but it's certainly not a conservative Christian perspective."