You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
What does your anger produce?
I ask because, let me tell you, the Bible has some sad stories in it: stories of a paradise lost, of families torn apart, of tribes at war; stories of justice denied, of compassion refused, of people who walk by on the other side of the street rather than cross the path of a neighbor in need; the Bible has some really sad stories in it, but when I read the scripture for today, in light of the events of this week, it just sucked the life out of me.
Your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.
It can’t be true.
It seems clear, right? It seems simple. But I read it, and I thought, surely, there’s more. Surely, there’s some analysis – there’s some hermeneutical principle – surely there’s something in the original language that will turn this around. I was willing to dig for it, to spend my week poring through the research to find something to say, “oh, here’s a new reading! And it turns out this verse means just the opposite of what it says!”
But I couldn’t. Because of course it’s true. Your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. My anger does not produce God’s righteousness.
Even though I really, desperately want it to.
Because I am angry. Aren’t you?
I am angry that racism is such a stain on our country that two more black men were murdered this week, and there is discussion happening about whether they deserved to be or not.
I am angry that we are so unimaginative in our search for solutions that five more police offers were also murdered this week.
I am angry that these are only the most publicized killings this week – they are not the only ones.
I am angry that after Orlando, after the murder of 49 other people, when some lawmakers stood for longer than we would have thought humanly possible, and then when others sat, all in the name of interruption, of disruption, of drawing attention to an ongoing crisis of violence in our country, others lawmakers accused them of making a scene, and left the room, or left the state, so that no action could be taken.
I am angry that however much we continue to mourn for these deaths, we are long past being surprised by them, and we cannot seem to summon the will or the energy to do anything to change these patterns.
I am angry that last week, my friend’s seven-year-old ran upstairs to his room from his front yard where he’d been playing when a police car approached, and I am angry that she had to coax him back out, that she had to tell him that he was safe, that he would be ok, that no one would hurt him, and I am angry that she had to do that through gritted teeth, because the whole time she worried that she was lying, but then decided maybe that lie was better than raising her seven-year-old black boy to be afraid of the world.
I am angry at all of that, and I am angry at myself, for being angry, for getting tired, for hesitating before responding to racist posts on social media, for wondering whether it’s “worth it” to take up these kinds of conversations with people I know disagree. I am angry about the history we’ve all inherited and I am angry that it sure looks like my own kids, and probably theirs, are going to inherit the very same.
And I know that my anger is so minor, in the scope of all that is. I know that it is my privilege that allows anger to be my dominant response, and not fear, not horror, not paralyzing grief.
But I desperately want for all of this anger to produce God’s righteousness. If you, and I, and everyone else who is outraged, everyone else who is horrified at the violence that no longer shocks us, if we could pool all of our anger – shouldn’t that be enough to “produce God’s righteousness”? Shouldn’t it be enough to call out some decisive holy action, like one fell swoop of healing and justice?
I want this anger to become something positive. I want those pop-psychology articles – “5 reasons it’s good to be angry,” or whatever – I want them to manifest here and now, and turn this anger into momentum for change, into energy for revolution. It may be that my anger cannot produce God’s righteousness – that is beyond me, not connected to me or dependent on me – but couldn’t it at least muster a little of my own?
I keep thinking so, but the more attention I pay to the verses around that one, the more I wonder. The more I sit with the text, the more I think it’s not telling us not to be angry, it’s cautioning us to know the limits of our anger. It can only go so far. It can not go as far as summoning our God to fly in and fix this bloody mess.
And that’s not the God we believe in anyway, right? A God who lets us loose to wreak havoc on one another and who then, when we cry out, comes in to clean it all up? That’s not the God our Scriptures witness to and it’s not the God our faith proclaims. God is the mystery in which we live and move and have our being. The grounding in love of all that is. Which means there is no pain of ours that God does not feel, no violence of ours that God is not wounded by. There is no evil of ours that does not cause God to recoil. Our anger does not produce God’s righteousness.
These verses were written millennia ago to a community in some kind of trouble, it’s unclear exactly what, but there are references to the fighting going on. They might as well have been written to us, today, especially to those of us who are white and know that the current state of things cannot stand, that it must not continue. What if we took these words from James as instruction for how to respond, for how to move in the world following weeks like this past one?
It would tell us, Step One: “Be quick to listen.” Not to defend. Not to explain. Not to shift blame. Be quick to listen. Rush to sit still. Hurry to shut up. In Psalm 40 the poet, addressing the Creator, says, “But you have carved out ears for me…” as if to say that in our becoming, special time, specific care was taken to make sure we could listen to one another. It’s what we were made for.
Step Two: “Welcome with meekness the word that has the power to save your souls.” James doesn’t specify what this word is, with its saving power. Maybe it’s scripture. Maybe it’s the teachings of Jesus. Maybe, also, it’s the stories we hear from one another. Anytime we sit down – any time we are quick to listen, and someone else is generous enough to share – the words of their experience can transform our hearts. Maybe listening to one another’s stories can save our souls. If a person in pain is willing to give words to that pain for another person, it is a great and difficult gift. Receive it. Hold it gently.
Step Three: “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” Michelle Alexander, who wrote “The New Jim Crow,” called the events of this week a mirror. Just like the brutal day of the Civil Rights Movement in Selma in 1965 that e’ve coined “Bloody Sunday” was a mirror, she said, our violence showing back to us what we believe and who we are committed to being, the events of this week are a mirror. They reflect the discord that has been allowed to grow, the fear we feel of one another, the desperate need for change.
Like James, who wrote that if we hear and do not act, if we listen and do not commit, we are like those who look in a mirror and then walk away, forgetting what we look like – like James, Michelle Alexander wrote, “I think we all know, deep down, that something more is required of us now. This truth is difficult to face because it’s inconvenient and deeply unsettling. And yet silence isn’t an option. On any given day, there’s always something I’d rather be doing than facing the ugly, racist underbelly of America. I know that I am not alone. But I also know that the families of the slain officers, and the families of all those who have been killed by the police, would rather not be attending funerals. And I’m sure that many who refused to ride segregated buses in Montgomery after Rosa Parks stood her ground wished they could’ve taken the bus, rather than walk miles in protest, day after day, for a whole year. But they knew they had to walk. If change was ever going to come, they were going to have to walk. And so do we. What it means to walk today will be different for different people and different groups and in different places. I am asking myself tonight what I need to do in the months and years to come to walk my walk with greater courage. It’s a question that requires some time and reflection. I hope it’s a question we are all asking ourselves.”
Step Four: “Bridle your tongue,” and offer your care. Step four is step one all over again: Listen. James says if we think we are religious and we cannot keep our mouths shut, we deceive ourselves. If we say all the right things but leave those in need, those abused, to fend for themselves, our talk, and our religion, is worthless.
…And there is so much. There is so much going on in each of our individual lives that to add the disease of a nation can feel overwhelming. There is so much joy of our own we want to live fully in, and so much sorrow of our own to be present for, that our energy is some days nearly spent before we even see what’s happening in other places, with other people.
But in the Gospel, no place is an “other place,” no people are “other” people. This is not separate from any of us. It has been made heartbreakingly clear these past few weeks that this is the work of our time. The acknowledgment of the sins of our past and our present, the listening, the committing to seeing ourselves and our country in the mirror and remembering what we’ve seen, so that it can inform where we go and what we do from here – this is what we’re called to now.
It may be that our anger does not produce God’s righteousness. As sad as that makes me, all told, it’s probably a good thing. As for other production – as for what might come of our listening, our taking each other’s stories seriously and then living in response to them – I don’t know what might come of that. But I know two things: it will be among the hardest work we ever do. And we must do it.