“Angry”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

February 12, 2017

Matthew 5:21-26

 

While he was growing up, he never felt safe.  Bassam Aramin was a Palestinian child living in Hebron, an Arab city under Israeli occupation.  He and his classmates experienced the violence of systematic oppression on a daily basis—arbitrary beatings, restrictions on their freedom and opportunities, denial of their history and identity.  And as just about any human being would do when subjected to that kind of treatment, Bassam got angry.

By the age of 12, he had joined a group that was fighting to undermine and expel the occupiers.  At first they threw rocks and bottles, but then they graduated to hand grenades and other more serious weapons.  At 17, he was caught and sent to prison, where beatings and abuse further entrenched the idea that he and his Palestinian brethren were freedom fighters, and the Jewish Israelis were the enemy, and the two were as different as different could be, and never the twain shall meet.  And he got more and more angry.

 

Our reading this morning proclaims, “If you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”  But before we cast judgment on Bassam or anyone else too quickly, let’s dig a little deeper into this teaching of Jesus.  “If you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”

In the original Greek in which the gospels were written, the word translated here as angry could also be rendered as provoked, as in, caused to act out in anger.  The word translated as liable also means bound or captive.  And the word translated as judgment has its roots in separation.  So, “If you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment,” could also be understood as, “If you are provoked to act in anger, you will be made captive to separation.”

When I hear it this way, I can’t help thinking that perhaps Jesus was not condemning Bassam, or the Israeli soldiers or prison guards, or you, or me, or anyone else who feels angry at a sister or brother from time to time.  Perhaps, instead, he was making a tragic but true observation:  when we allow ourselves to be provoked into acting out of anger, engaging in violence or vengeance or retribution, we find ourselves bound, captive, in separation from that sister or brother—and in some way, from ourselves, too.

And when Jesus said, “If you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire,” maybe what he meant was this:  when we speak harshly or cruelly, insulting our neighbors; when we label them as fools or any other name that denies their worth and dignity; we become captive to separation from those neighbors, and from ourselves, and from God—and that separation is its own form of hell.

It is not that feeling anger is in and of itself a bad thing.  When we witness or experience injustice, when we see something that is wrong, when we get that sick feeling in our bellies that tells us that what just happened was not okay—anger can motivate us to do something about it.  When I learned community organizing in the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, I was taught to ask people what makes them angry as a way of discovering what they value, what they care about, what they have energy to work on.  Anger can compel us to right what is wrong, to work toward justice—and that can be a very good thing.  The question is how we act on that anger—whether we allow it to separate us or find a way to turn it into the kind of love-in-action that transcends and unites, that builds up the good of our neighbors and ushers in God’s realm.

 

Back to our friend Bassam.  During an incident while he was in prison, he and many of his fellow inmates were being beaten by guards who saw them as nothing more than an object, and somehow, something shifted in Bassam’s heart.  He remembered a film he had seen about the Holocaust.  And he realized that he and the Israeli guard who was beating him had this in common:  they both knew what it is to be a member of a group that is seen as less than fully human.  And he realized that Palestinians and Israelis could find kinship in their shared hurt, fear, vulnerability, and betrayal—in their anger and in the separation in which it entrapped them.

Out of this new empathy, Bassam began a conversation with that guard.  It began with hostility, but in time, it grew into curiosity, and then into mutual sharing.  And then it grew into learning, and then into understanding.  And then it grew into respect, and then into friendship.  And then it grew into the founding of an organization called Combatants for Peace, which unites former Israeli soldiers and former Palestinian militants in the work of peacemaking through dialogue and non-violence.

 

Our reading this morning also proclaims, “If you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, … go [and] be reconciled.”  If we dig into the Greek again, we learn that the word translated as reconciled literally means thoroughly changed, or transformed through-and-through.

In his growth from anger to empathy to curiosity to sharing to learning to understanding to respect to friendship to reconciliation, Bassam was transformed so thoroughly that some years later, when his 10-year-old daughter was killed while standing outside her school, Bassam did not even think of returning to the path of violence.  Explaining this, he wrote, “Abir’s murder could have led me down the easy path of hatred and vengeance, but for me there was no return from dialogue and non-violence.  After all, it was one Israeli soldier who shot my daughter, but one hundred former Israeli soldiers who built a garden in her name at the school where she was murdered.”

 

Here’s the thing about this kind of transformation.  When it happens, it sets off a ripple effect.  It cascades both inward and outward.  It transforms hearts.  It transforms relationships.  It transforms communities.  It transforms our world.

It does not have to be as dramatic a story as Bassam’s—it does not have to involve international policy, or territorial conflicts, or age-old religious and ethnic divides, or literal life and death.  No matter how dramatic or mundane, whenever anger is turned into loving action, transformation is sure to follow.  No matter how big or small, whenever separation is overcome, this world becomes a little less like hell and a little more like heaven.

And here’s the other thing about this kind of transformation.  We do not have to do it alone.  We are empowered to do it because God did it first.  Think of Jesus—you better believe that he got angry from time to time.  Among other things, our scriptures include stories of him upending moneychangers’ tables, cursing a fruitless fig tree, and upbraiding his disciples who could not keep awake for even a short time.  But in the end, he transformed that anger into love, empathy, and compassion, epitomized in that moment on the cross when he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  And he continues to work that kind of transformation even now, within and among and between and around us, changing our hearts and our relationships and our communities and our world.

 

It is not that feeling anger is in and of itself a bad thing.  When we witness or experience injustice, when we see something that is wrong, when we get that sick feeling in our bellies that tells us that what just happened was not okay—anger can motivate us to do something about it, to right what is wrong, to work toward justice.  The question is how we act on that anger.

May we not be provoked to actions that separate us from one another, from God, from our best selves.  Rather, may we—with Jesus’ help—transform our anger into the kind of love that transcends and unites, that builds up the good of our neighbors and ushers in God’s realm for all of God’s children.

 


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