Nazarene preacher and publisher Bob Benson was the epitome of gentleness. In his winsome, softspoken way, he told the story of a time when he got angry, or “mad,” as he called it. What pushed him over the edge is unclear, but on that day, Benson stormed out of the house to bring in from the curb the empty family garbage can. With deadpan humor, he confessed:
I don’t even know how the garbage can lid got up on the roof!
After that, his children ranked his occasional moodiness. They’d whisper to each other: “Is he mad?” “Yes, he’s mad.” “But is he garbage can mad?”
The Advent season notwithstanding, a time of “peace on earth, good will toward men,” many are garbage can mad. Terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California – like the flame of a Bunsen burner in a high school chemistry lab – are heating things up, stoking collective anger. Can explosive reactions be far behind?
The Apostle Paul knew how destructive unchecked anger could be. He was determined to throw water on the fire, not gasoline. What is unclear in English but apparent in the original Greek of Ephesians 4:26-27 is that Paul addresses not an individual but a group, the church:
“Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil”(NRSV).
Anger is a perfectly human emotion. No state of grace exempts us from it. The only question is: How will we together channel it, negatively or positively? Will we as the followers of Jesus Christ allow evil events to heat us up so much that we explode in sinful actions? Here’s the disastrous formula:
Anger ——– >>> sin (v. 26) = the devil wins (v. 27)
On September 11, 2001, jetliners became missiles. The Twin Towers in New York City plumetted to the ground. Nearly 3,000 individuals lost their lives, including Americans, Japanese, Brits and Dominicans. In his book Leadership (Little, Brown, 2002), NYC Mayor Rudolph (“Rudy”) Giuliani recounts the events of that day, but especially how he and his team in the aftermath swung into action. They did their best to channel their anger not destructively but productively, coordinating the rescue efforts of thousands of police officers and firefighters, setting up venues where families devastated by the loss of loved ones received a wide range of services from government agencies and private charities. Their mission was not to stoke the hot coals of anger but to help people cope and recover.
As Mayor, people looked to him to set the tone. Giuliani realized that many would be tempted to take out their anger on those who shared the same religious background as the handful of hijackers. Part of his leadership responsibility was to temper the flame of angry response. Guiliani writes (p. 360, italics added):
At the same time, I was trying to dampen the concept of group blame. Prejudice is largely about that. It’s about taking the perceived wrongdoing of one or a few people, which can be either real or imagined, then applying it to an entire group. I asked people on both sides not to do that. America is built on equal treatment.
That was 2001. Fast forward to 2015. We cannot control what politicians say, the fearmongering that passes for political discourse. Yet God calls us as followers of Christ to a higher path, to be different. Ours is to march to the beat of a better drummer. Shall we let our anger result in sin? Will we join in the misguided scapegoating, spreading via social media fears, half-truths and reactionary propaganda? Jesus taught us the Golden Rule:
Do to others as you would have them do to you (Luke 6:31, NRSV).
This is not an option for the one who bears the name of Jesus; it’s a directive. What will obedience to this command look like for us? What it doesn’t look should be obvious. It’s not about registering individuals who belong to minority religious groups or rounding up those who we perceive to be an internal threat, as the U.S. government wrongly did with 127,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry during the second World War. On the other hand, the Jesus kind of love – the kind that loves one’s neighbor as oneself (Mark 12:30-31) – may mean welcoming a religious minority family to the neighborhood, introducing yourself with a smile and a plate of homebaked cookies. It could be as simple as offering to help newcomers rake their leaves or tell them where the most affordable grocery store is located, the best family doctor or dentist. Would we want someone to do that for us?
There’s a lot of garbage can anger festering these days. Like for Bob Benson, so for the People of God, anger can quickly overcome us, leading us to impulsive actions that we’ll later regret. Those of other faith traditions are watching to see if Jesus really makes a positive difference. What will they see? In our anger, let us not sin. Let’s not give the devil a victory. Instead, this Advent season and always, let’s model a love that overcomes evil.
garbage can: Greatwhiteclean.com
cover of Giuliani book: Flapsblog.com