The practical purpose of Lent is to strengthen the will against the passions. Even by checking passions which are natural, healthy and good — like the desire for three solid meals on Ash Wednesday — we engage in spiritual exercise. The self-denial prepares us for battles to come, when our passions will desire ends which oppose the virtues.
The aim of fasting and abstinence is not to suppress the appetites totally, but rather to become practiced in checking our passions, in affixing a bridle. Lately a lot of news coverage has focused on the passion of anger. We’ve seen the expression of civic anger in the new Tea Party movement. Some critics in the media have obtusely compared the angst of Tea Partiers to an angry software engineer turned domestic terrorist, Joe Stack.
On February 18th, after a long and festering rage, Stack flew his airplane into an IRS building in the capitol of Texas. In his more than 3000 word screed, posted on the internet, Stack described the extent of his anger as “the storm raging in my head.”
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, when anger gets so immoderately fierce as to blind reason and destroy its rectitude, it is “sinful anger.” It becomes a capital vice because, via impetuosity, it precipitates the mind into inordinate action. (Summa Theologica II-II,158.1-2)
But “zealous anger” is not sinful, according to the Angelic Doctor. On the contrary, “if one is angry in accordance with right reason, one’s anger is deserving of praise.” (Summa, II-II,158.1) Aquinas continues:
Anger may stand in a twofold relation to reason. First, antecedently; in that it withdraws reason from its rectitude, and has therefore the character of evil. Secondly, consequently, inasmuch as the movement of the sensitive appetite is directed against vice and in accordance with reason. This anger is good, and is called “zealous anger” (Summa, II-II,158.1).
Reason, deliberation, and recourse to a well formed conscience, must then precede anger. Otherwise it may take the form of blind rage. Again, St. Thomas quotes Pope St. Gregory the Great to emphasize the leader/follower relationship between right reason and anger: “We must beware lest, when we use anger as an instrument of virtue, it overrule the mind, and go before it as its mistress, instead of following in reason’s train, ever ready, as its handmaid, to obey.’” (Summa, II-II,158.1; cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 1765, 1772-3, 2302)
Stack’s screed was perhaps an attempt to make his anger seem reasonable as well as understandable. I’ve talked to a number of people who say they understand why Stack was so incensed. None, however, see it as a reasonable response to the political/bureaucratic nightmare many of us face in 21st century America.
Thirty years ago, the IRS put Mel, my old friend, through two years of hell on earth until, at long last, he was completely exonerated of liability for the business malpractices of his boss. But the IRS gave him no apology, no monetary compensation for stress or for countless hours wasted, and nothing but the political insight that goes with being considered guilty until proven innocent by your own anguished efforts.
Mel’s anger was most assuredly justifiable, but he kept his head and remained reasonable. He recognized that he had no way of exacting a just vengeance on the IRS. Mel never seriously entertained the idea, I’m sure. Any right minded Christian who reflects on such a course of action must conclude that killing a few IRS agents would be wrong morally, not to mention inexpedient for everyone concerned.
The inexpediency is another negative aspect to unbridled anger. It fails to produce the desired result. In his essay, Joe Stack indicated that he hoped “Mr. IRS man” would lose some sleep. Stack’s daughter, Samantha Bell, criticized the American tax system as “very faulty;” and she expressed hope that things might change for the better because of her father’s well publicized attack. By Christian criteria, neither Joe nor Samantha had hopes that accord with right reason.
Four days after Stack’s “supreme sacrifice”, IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman spoke to the press in Austin. Secretary of the US Treasury, Timothy Geitner, stood at his side. Applauding IRS agents’ “hard work on behalf of the American citizens,” Shulman added that “an act like this won’t stop us from doing our jobs with dignity and respect for Americans.”
I doubt that the IRS Commissioner’s statement would have filled my friend Mel with warm feelings of patriotism. Nor would it have caused informed citizens to forget that our tax burden today is far greater proportionately than the level of taxation which provoked Americans to revolt against the British in 1776. Note that neither Shulman, nor Geitner, nor the statement he carried from President Obama, addressed the justifiable anger felt by millions of Americans concerning the corrupt and oppressive condition of the Federal Government.
Beltway politicians and bureaucrats tend to be prideful, obstinate, and opposed to fundamentally changing the system. No displays of unreasonable anger, no high-tech temper tantrums, will inspire or force the Feds to clean up their act. Rampages of revenge may well backfire, provoking crackdowns (like the Patriot Act), which reduce our freedoms.
This is not to say that the government is any less culpable than irresponsible citizens. In fact corrupt politicians are guilty of evildoing on a grand scale. They risk unleashing the dogs of civil war by blocking salutary reform. As JFK put it in 1962, “Those who made peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
Compared to the criminals in Washington, D.C., Joe Stack was small fry. The hope in Luke 1:52, “he (God) has put down the mighty and exalted the humble,” does not refer to Mr. Stack’s ilk. Joe expressed the storm raging in his head in a manner that does nothing to solicit the favorable interposition of divine Providence.
Similarly with Marvin Heemeyer, whose rampage in 2004 with a homemade tank destroyed 13 buildings in Granby, Colorado. His high profile act of vengeance, followed by his self-inflicted death, did little if anything to shame the petty tyrants who wrecked his business, or to cause their repentance. Heemeyer’s stated objective was “to sacrifice my life, my miserable future that you gave me, to show you that what you did is wrong.”
A less personal desire for revenge seems to have motivated Timothy McVeigh in 1995 to destroy the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. In the process he killed 149 adults and 19 children, and injured over 680 innocent people.
The decorated ex-army man was understandably outraged at the deaths of scores of people in Waco, Texas, including 20 of the Branch Davidian children. McVeigh was but one of many Americans to ask the question: Since when does the Federal Government execute people for holding bizarre religious beliefs?
The ferocity of McVeigh’s anger knew no bounds, however, and he decided to avenge the massacre at Waco in an impetuous and atrocious way. Evidently McVeigh, a lapsed Catholic, had never heard of, or certainly had not taken to heart, the Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry on anger:
[I]n conformity with the prescriptions of balanced reason, anger is not a sin. It is rather a praiseworthy thing and justifiable with a proper zeal. It becomes sinful when it is sought to wreak vengeance upon one who has not deserved it …. The sin is then in a general sense mortal as being opposed to justice and charity.
And so our Lenten theme here is that spiritual exercises empower us to bridle passions like anger; also to help us choose mortal sin’s alternative, namely zealous anger, which we ought to manifest as tough love.
Lech Walesa showed tough love to the United States in a speech delivered this year (January 29th). Polish hero and compatriot of John Paul II during the Revolution of 1989, Walesa pointed out to his audience in Chicago that the world used to look to the USA for hope. But today, said he, America no longer leads the world politically or morally. “The U.S. was always the last resort, the hope that when something was going wrong we could count on the United States. Today we have lost that hope.”
In 1953, President Eisenhower paraphrased Tocqueville’s epic Democracy in America: “America is great because America is good; and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.” Since Eisenhower’s day, our country has indeed declined morally, spiritually and politically. The devolution derives partly, I submit, from the failure to make the distinctions as discussed above in regard to anger.
Furthermore, many Americans have lost the will to display righteous indignation at all, i.e. by employing zealous anger as peer pressure against vices in the culture. In this sense, St. Thomas cites the lack of angry passion as a vice in itself. Aquinas quotes the maxim attributed to St. John Chrysostom: “He who is not angry where he has cause to be, sins. For unreasonable patience is the hotbed of many vices; it fosters negligence, and incites not only the wicked but even the good to do wrong.” Anger is useful, says St. Thomas, as “conducive to the more prompt execution of reason’s dictate” (Summa, II-II,158.8).
Alas, America has become an increasingly unreasonable nation, embracing the passions that demean us, and disavowing the passions that might lead to restoration of the country and the culture. But a sizeable remnant remains passionately angry in a virtuous way, as evidenced by persevering resistance to abortion.
Indicative also of zealous anger were the 2008-09 victories for traditional marriage in Maine, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida and California. Unlike Dick Cheney, many Americans are far from nonchalant about letting the nation become a postmodern version of Sodom and Gomorrah.
And so, our Lenten reflections should not overlook civic duty. In contemplating the plight being inflicted on our country, do we feel and express sufficient anger? To the extent that “vice prevails and impious men bear sway,” do we discipline the passion of anger, or are we prone to let it degenerate into rage? Lastly, in laying plans for civic action, does anger lead the way? Or do we will to follow right reason?