Several years ago, just as I was stepping away from the podium after giving a talk on social justice, I was challenged by a man and a woman, both very active in social justice, who were upset that I had down-played the role of anger in my talk. “Anger is necessary, if anything is ever to get done in the area of justice,” the man said. “People confuse love with ‘being nice’ and are afraid that if they ‘aren’t nice’ they won’t be seen as loving persons. But anger is a great fuel! When people get angry, things finally get done!”

He’s right about several things: ‘Being nice’ isn’t always the same thing as being loving and ‘anger is a great fuel’.

But is anger the right fuel? Do actions that are fuelled by it really, in the long run, help bring about peace and justice? Or, does it, itself, add yet more hatred and inhospitality to a world which already has too much of these?

This question is not easy to answer since anger can be healthy or unhealthy.. A healthy anger has its root in a genuine love for those whom it challenges. Like Christ’s anger, it challenges only because it, first of all, deeply loves those at whom it is angry and wants their happiness above its own. An unhealthy anger is rooted in neurosis, personal frustration, jealousy, and ideology. Its object is more spite and destruction than construction. Because of this, in the end, it is invariably self-serving, hateful, and disrespectful of those it claims to want to save and it is not useful, long range, for peace-making and justice. Why? 

Soren Kieregaard once said that “to be a saint it to will the one thing,” but he didn’t speak about our motivation for willing that one thing. Iris Murdoch supplements Kieregaard when she suggests something to the effect that to be a saint is to be warmed by gratitude, nothing more and nothing less.  Hers’ is an important qualification since, as T.S. Eliot says, it is a treason “to do the right thing for the wrong reason.”

This is true, even as regards working for peace and justice. We can do the right thing for the wrong reason … and then the right thing will not have the right result.

Gustavo Gutierrez, the father of Liberation Theology, and a  man who is not likely to want to give an easy escape clause to those who are indifferent to the demands of justice, once, in a speech to a North American audience, said something to this effect (I paraphrase): If you are living in the first world and you watch your television sets and you see the poverty and injustice of the third world and you fill with anger and indignation, and you want to come and help us, then stay at home. Likewise, if you, in the first world, see our poverty on television and you fill with guilt about how much you have and how little we have, and you want, as a result, to come and help us … then stay at home. The third world has many problems without importing first world neuroses and unhappiness. We want only one kind of person to come and live with us in the third world. If you are a person who can look at yourself and feel grateful for what God has done for you, then come and live with us. You can help us and we can help you.

Gutierrez, like T.S. Eliot, understands that there can be a certain treason in doing the right thing for the wrong reason, that angry actions for justice and peace can be authentic but they can also be simple psychological “acting out”. Not all anger is useful to help bring about the kingdom. Hence, just as `being nice’ may never be simplistically identified with loving, conversely, righteous indignation and prophetic hatred may not always be simplistically seen as contributing to the progress of justice.

In her letters from the Nazi concentration camp at Westerbork, Etty Hillesum, herself soon to die in Auschwitz, wrote: “The absence of hatred in no way implies the absence of moral indignation. I know that those who hate have good reason to do so. But why should we always have to choose the cheapest and easiest way? It has been brought home forcibly to me here how every atom of hatred added to the world makes it an even more inhospitable place. I believe, childishly perhaps but stubbornly, that the earth will become more hospitable again only through the love that the Jew Paul described to the citizens of Corinth in the 13th chapter of his first letter.” (Letters from Westerbork, p. 36)