Zeal and Anger

Jesus made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables, and to those who sold doves he said, “Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.” His disciples recalled the words of Scripture, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 

John 2: 15-17

In a recent conversation, a friend remarked to me that he hoped that when he was angry that it was the anger of Jesus in the Temple. All of us know well the experience of anger. Many of us, especially those of us who are older, are often confused and conflicted about anger. For us, being angry was always at least bad manners and at worst sinful. And the more we repressed our feelings of anger, the more problematic the experience became. By the time it found expression, it was often either displaced onto the wrong person or situation and/or had grown to a disproportionate level.

For many reasons, then, anger is one of the most difficult affects and emotions for us to appropriate and integrate well into our personalities. It is, however, so ubiquitous in our experience that it is impossible for us to develop any sense of wholeness and integrity without coming to understand and appreciate its place in our lives.

The root meaning of the word “exist” is “to step out, to stand forth, to emerge.” We don’t sense our own unique existence until we stand out in our originality and uniqueness. Yet, from our earliest development we are, as René Girard points out, largely “mimetic.” That is, we are constituted by others, and to a significant degree by ourselves, as “imitations” of others. Young children are spontaneously great mimes. They mimic the ways of being of their parents and of others around them. Even as we grow older, we “try on” the modes of being of others as a way of gaining the approval of others and of figuring ourselves out. At the same time, we are what Adrian van Kaam calls an “emergent” self, that is, our uniqueness, our originality, is always aspiring to manifest itself in the world. Our deepest longing is to be and to live out the unique image of God that we are.

So, there is an inherent conflict in life between the unique call that is our deepest life and the bonds of family and culture that, largely unconsciously, would suppress our original selves. The emergence, then, of who we truly are requires a capacity for a positive aggression. When the disciples witness Jesus’ anger at those who are buying, selling, and changing money in the temple area, they are reminded of the scriptural passage, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” This is the same Jesus who at the age of twelve firmly reminded his mother, who reprimands him for worrying her and his father, “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business.” We are a desperate need to be accepted and connected, but we are even more deeply an aspiration to exist, to step out, stand forth, and emerge.

The anger of Jesus in the temple is his assertion that his Father’s business, God’s will, comes first, over other bonds of relationship, over one’s own need to be liked and accepted, over the developed traditions and mores of culture and religion. His wrath is largely reserved for those who have used the cultural and religious system to their own advantage. “Woe to you Pharisees! You pay tithes of mint and rue and every herb, but you disregard justice and the love of God” (Luke 11:42). To say that we hope that our anger will be like that of Jesus is to aspire to channel our aggression in the service of God’s business, of the deeper truth that often enough finds itself in conflict with the “taken-for-granted,” with the way that things are, and for those who have reduced life to its social construction. It is to serve the emergence of our own unique call to live the mission that is our life, whatever the social or cultural obstacles to that may be.

What complicates aggression and anger for us is the reality of our own limited perspective, of our own ignorance. As Albert Einstein points out:

A human being is part of the whole, called by us “universe,” a part limited in time and space. We  experiences ourselves, our thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us.

Because of the basic delusion that Einstein describes, our anger is often based not on the truth of our call but on our own mistaken sense of ourselves as separate. Rather than serving the emergence of our own true originality and of God’s business in the world, we often unconsciously use it in service of our own delusions. It becomes a way of self-justification and self-encapsulation, of a primary narcissism in us. This is why the word of the gospel challenges at every turn all the ways we would encapsulate ourselves. This includes the challenge to our socially constituted identity, the place that we are given by our culture and our family. When Jesus says we must hate anyone who is other than he, he is telling us that we must have the strength to dare to live without the securities that conformity affords us.

As a child, I felt from my mother an ongoing anxiety about my ability to meet the world’s expectations of me. In retrospect, I can see that this anxiety probably took form in her out of the immigrant experience of her mother. From early on in her life, she received from her mother powerful directives to “be American,” which meant dissociating from those ways of being that would betray their immigrant status. The result for me, however, was a pervasive feeling and fear of not being adequate and acceptable. When I entered religious life that (de)formative impulse continued as we were consistently warned about being “different” or “singular.” The good community man was to be a “regular guy.” Thus, it became easy for me to appraise myself in light of how well I fitted in and was accepted. Rather than aspiring to “stand forth” or “to emerge,” the measure of my “success” was to be accepted. This dominated my self-consciousness for so long that to this day I bristle when someone will attempt to complement something I have presented or done by saying it and I were “well received.” I so much desired that when younger, that now it seems to me to be a compromise if the most positive thing to be said of my work is that it was “well received” by others.

It is our capacity to be properly aggressive and angry in service to God’s work and will in us and in the world that makes gentleness possible in us. For much of my life, despite an overall appearance of congeniality with others, I experienced myself as an angry person. As long as I needed the acceptance and approval of the others, I could not overcome my anger and resentment. It was as I discovered a life work, a task in life, that was truly mine that I began slowly to develop a capacity to act without seeking approval and to assert appropriately what I understood to be right and true whether it was well received or not. When I do not need the acceptance and approval of others, then I cease to resent them and be angry with them when they do not give it. When “the way, the truth, and the life” is not determined for me by others, then I am free to firmly reject their intrusions and manipulations and to be gentle with them in their own delusions.

To be angry as Jesus was is to be ready and willing to stand out, even when that requires standing against. Jesus makes clear that his anger at the sellers and money changers is not about him but rather about due reverence for his Father’s house. His reaction at age twelve to  his mother as she seeks him when she believes he is lost is to remind her firmly that fidelity to his unique call comes even before his bonds to her. For believers, there is no true human consonance that is possible without the integration that our transcendent dimension, our spirit and communion with the Mystery, provides. As we develop purity of heart, a desire for God and God’s will in the world above all, our bodily, emotional, and functional lives find their true place. When conformity and acceptance by others is our goal, anger will always be a problem for us. We shall continually experience resentment and frustration because we seek a life outside of our own. As we come, however, to see that our life in the world is an ongoing experience and call for the emergence of the Christ form in us, we shall stand ready with all of who we are to defend and to foster that emergence.

Jesus seems to want to say this: if you love father and mother, son or daughter “more than me,” more than that “me [who am] the way, the truth, and the life,” therefore more than your way, your truth and your life, if you prefer to remain stuck in relationships of friend and enemy, unity and rejection, hate and dependence, disgust and fascination with those closest to you; then you are not yet “worthy of me.”: that is, also, worthy of that me that you carry within you. You are not yet worthy of that Me who, living in me, Jesus of Nazareth, wants to live in each of you and who, himself, is infinitely lovable because he is free of any fusion and confusion. The word that expresses that love in the New Testament is [agapein]. As long as one speaks of loving more or loving less, one is not yet in that love that tries to embed itself in the heart of deep-seated family relationships.

. . . If I prefer to remain tangled up in my relationship with father, mother, son or daughter, if I refuse to allow the sword to pass through to differentiate me from him or her, isn’t that because I am not worth enough in my own eyes to take my own path in the company of the I-way-truth-life who is Jesus, or any other human since who invites me to him in the name of All OTHER? It us up to me to decide one day that I am worthy of this Me who wants to live in me, worthy of listening to him/her, of giving him/her my word, of spending time with him/her.

Lytta Basset, Holy Anger: Jacob, Job, Jesus, 193-4

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