Posted in book reviews, reflections

For an angry age: Henry Fairlie and the “rights” obsession

“Don’t call me mad,” Bill Cosby warned. “Dogs get mad. People get angry.”

Dr. Cosby’s point – from an episode of The Cosby Show – is well-taken. To be “mad” is to be crazy, insane, off-your-rocker. Yet is there not a sense in which anger unchecked can produce in us a kind of mental illness?

In previous posts, we’ve looked at both pride and envy and their negative effects. Henry Fairlie’s The Seven Deadly Sins for Today (Notre Dame, 1978) addresses anger (from the Latin ira) as the third deadly sin. Admitting that there is a legitimate place for anger in the full spectrum of human emotion, Fairlie defines sinful anger that is closely related to hatred or the desire for vengeance (pp. 88-89). Such anger is comparable to fire (p. 89):

We think of Anger in terms of fire: blazing, flaming, scorching, smoking, fuming, spitting, smoldering, heated, white hot, simmering, boiling, and even when it is ice-cold it will still burn. It has been called the Devil’s furnace, and the other sins will fuel it.

The Bible talks about anger

In the same way, the Bible allows for some varieties of anger. Exhibit A is the Lord’s anger as he drove the money-changers from the Temple, declaring that what God intended as a “house of prayer” they had made a “den of robbers” (Matthew 21:13). Paul cautioned the Ephesians not to “sin” when angry (Ephesians 4:26), implying that anger without sinning is possible. Yet anger appears on the same list as “rage” elsewhere in Paul’s writings, as something of which we must rid ourselves (Colossians 3:8). Both “anger” and “wrath” are divine prerogatives, and God will display them one day toward the wicked (Romans 2:7-9). In short, Scripture is careful to delineate a legitimate place for anger both for the human being and for God, while careful to warn of a type of anger that is destructive.

On “rights” and wrath

Henry Fairlie moves from describing anger in general to the specific type of anger that creates problems, namely, “Wrath,” which he considers anger that is “sustained” and “vengeful” (p. 90). What is the source of this wrath? Fairlie conjectures (p. 91): “Societies that tolerate and encourage so destructive a force within their own bodies must at some point have taken a wrong turning, and we have given Wrath its license by elevating a concept of individual and human rights that is flagrantly misleading.” The logic of “rights” as related to wrath is simple, and can be listed in four points (Ibid.):

1. What one wants, it is his/her right to have;

2. When it is asked, it should be granted;

3. If it is not granted, it is understandable that they are angry;

4. Since they are angry, it is clear that their demand in the first place was justified.

Improving on Fairlie: the role of duty

For most of the chapter, Henry Fairlie launches into examples of the logic of “rights” gone amok, citing abortion and spoiled students who blame “the system” for giving them an “F” on an exam. Where Fairlie is weak is his failure to offer an alternative to “rights” as an organizing principle for social ethics. While his criticism is carefully calibrated, it leaves the reader hungry for other options.

Instead of “rights,” the Christian ethic enjoins the concept of “duty” upon one-and-all. Instead of clamoring for “rights” – which turns the individual back upon himself, whining for what he or she lacks and blaming others for their plight – the notion of duty is outward looking and casts the individual in the context of community. It is no longer a question of what others refuse to do for me (or “rights” that they refuse to grant me). Rather, one asks: “What can I do for you?” Each member of society is keen to know what his or her responsibility is, and to fulfill it, for the good of the whole.

This duty ethic underlies the message of the prophets. A representative passage is Micah 6:8, which  declares: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

As followers of Christ, how should we respond to each of these questions:

What is my duty toward…

…my father and mother who are elderly, and whose Medicare was just slashed?

…my employee’s thirty-year-old son, who was just moved into hospice, dying from AIDS?

…my church, who three Sundays in a row has pleaded for volunteers for the food distribution program for the needy?

…my spouse, to whom I have vowed to remain faithful “as long as we both shall live”?

…my teenage daughter, who is addicted to crack and stole the money I had set aside for groceries so she could buy her next hit?

…my employer, a small businesswoman who can’t afford to give me a raise but who is counting on my expertise to finish the current project?

…my would-be African-American neighbor with school-aged children, who cannot find anyone who will rent her a house or apartment in my white neighborhood with the quality schools?

…my uncle from the village who is ailing, and sent my cousin to Nairobi, to ask me to buy him some life-saving medicine? Shall I do this when my children’s school fees are due next week, and I’ve just scraped together enough to pay them?

It isn’t always easy to answer the question, “What is my duty?” But it is a far better question to ask than “What are my rights?” When we look after others, as Christ would do, then we are no longer so concerned with what is due to me. Instead, we become champions of the needs of others, fulfilling our first duty, which is the duty to love. When that duty is fulfilled – when the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of others have been met in-part because I fulfilled my responsibility – then the “Wrath” that Henry Fairlie mentions can be averted or at least tamped down, like a fire to whom oxygen has been denied.


Among the seven deadly sins, anger is tricky, since the Bible does not give it a blanket condemnation. “Righteous indignation” can produce positive results. Yet when anger is accompanied by the need for vengeance, it grows claws. When produced by a relentless focus on rights, such anger often becomes wrath. Instead, as we each fulfill our duty to each other – as God gives us clear understanding of that duty – we can eliminate the climate that engenders the seething kind of anger that tears our society apart. May God give us grace to be that kind of people!


All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.


Photo credit:

Angry girl:

Tattered glove:



Greg is interested in many topics, including theology, philosophy, and science.

2 thoughts on “For an angry age: Henry Fairlie and the “rights” obsession

  1. It seems that anger that becomes ” ‘sustained’ and ‘vengeful’ ” that Fairlie cautions becomes the more dangerous wrath can be avoided with Paul’s further caution in Eph 4:26b to not let the sun go down on our anger (or, deal with it before it gets out of control!).

    Good exploration of shifting our “rights” to our “duties.” Challenging list of examples to consider that you provide!

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