The Angry Jesus

This service was intended to help people through the emotions deriving from the George Zimmerman trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin.

Buddha and the Angry Man

One day Buddha was walking through a village. A very angry and rude young man came up and began insulting him.

“You have no right teaching others,” he shouted. “You are as stupid as everyone else. You are nothing but a fake.”

Buddha was not upset by these insults. Instead he asked the young man “Tell me, if you buy a gift for someone, and that person does not take it, to whom does the gift belong?”

The man was surprised to be asked such a strange question and answered, “It would belong to me, because I bought the gift.”

The Buddha smiled and said, “That is correct. And it is exactly the same with your anger. If you become angry with me and I do not get insulted, then the anger falls back on you. You are then the only one who becomes unhappy, not me. All you have done is hurt yourself.

“If you want to stop hurting yourself, you must get rid of your anger and become loving instead. When you hate others, you yourself become unhappy. But when you love others, everyone is happy.”

The young man listened closely to these wise words of the Buddha. “You are right, O Blessed One,” he said. “Please teach me the path of love. I wish to become your follower.”

The Buddha answered kindly, “Of course. I teach anyone who truly wants to learn. Come with me.”

Reflection – Mark, chapter 3:1-5

Jesus entered the synagogue and a man was there who had a withered hand. The Pharisees watched Jesus to see whether he would cure the man on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. Jesus said to the man, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.

The Bible abounds with allegory, metaphor, and other non-literal parables. In this case, however, the story would appear abundantly literal and blunt. When confronted with suffering, Jesus not only ignored the Law, but disobeyed the Law publicly and in the full view of those responsible for its legislation. Jesus angrily called out the Pharisees for their adherence to an unjust rule. He committed no violence, nor did he stand by idly in passive submission.

Sermon – The Angry Jesus

When I was a child, I attended Sunday School regularly at a Christian Community Church in Ohio, and often participated in their summer vacation Bible camps. I remember hearing the traditional stories about Jesus and coloring pictures of him preaching, healing the sick, and feeding the thousands. I remember memorizing verses to recite during games like spelling bees. I was a real dork, so I always excelled at those kinds of competitions. As I recall, most of the versions of the stories that I learned in my childhood came from the Gospel of Matthew. Then, every year at Christmastime, we would visit the saga of Jesus’ birth and the Nativity as told in the Gospel of Luke.

Imagine my surprise when, as an adult, I finally read the Gospel According to Mark. Many of the stories are the same as ones told in Matthew and Luke. But, the Jesus in Mark is not the Jesus of coloring books. In fact, he is often not at all a nice person. This Jesus gets frustrated with his disciples, when they repeatedly fail to understand his teaching. This Jesus tells off the community leaders who he feels misinterpret the Laws of Moses. This Jesus even gets angry at ordinary people who come to him for help. Once I got over the shock, I really liked this Jesus. This was a Jesus with a backbone, someone I could admire.

But then, I became more confused. You see, my favorite part of the Gospels is the Sermon on the Mount. And I had trouble reconciling my new image of Jesus with that of the man who asserted that the meek would inherit the earth. I think that part of the conflict I faced was over that word…meek. I never quite fathomed what it was about being meek that warranted acceptance in the eyes of God.

As I often do when I have difficulty over the language in a specific verse, I consulted my Parallel New Testament. This wonderful resource displays eight different versions of the Bible all on the same facing pages, so you can study the variations, which are often quite striking. In this case, however, I found relative agreement. Every version of the New Testament used the word meek…except for one. Only the New American Standard Bible quotes Jesus as saying, “Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.”

This discovery sparked my curiosity, so I looked up the definition of the word meek in the dictionary. The first definition concurred with my original interpretation of the verse – easily imposed on; submissive. I never imagined that Jesus taught us to be gullible. The second definition paralleled the New American Standard Bible translation – showing patience and humility; gentle. It seemed to me that this second definition of the word meek – showing patience and humility; gentle – was the one Jesus really meant. Patience, not passivity, would eventually rule the earth.

This kind of difference in Biblical translations, quite frankly, evokes in me the same emotions Jesus frequently expressed in Mark. The myriad of versions of biblical scriptures frustrates me because such ambiguity produces wholly unnecessary division and rancor. The insistence of different Christian denominations on the validity of their particular translation angers me, because the historical evidence for one over another remains insufficient. At best, the most reliable extant accounts of the ministry of the man known as Jesus the Nazarene was written almost 40 years after his death. Can you relate with any accuracy conversations you overheard 40 years ago?

Like the Jesus in Mark, I weary of the anger and frustration such unclarity produces. I grow fatigued of debating scripture with those convinced that they know conclusively what Jesus preached, even though the gospels are filled with inconsistencies and known historical inaccuracies. Whenever I think of the thousands and thousands of people over the centuries who have lost their lives over differing interpretations of the many texts considered sacred by religious adherents, my blood boils. I remember our own Unitarian ancestors, burned at the stake, or condemned to die in prisons for their religious convictions. Most concerning for me, however, is how the anger I feel over textual disagreements makes me less likely to engage with my Christian colleagues in other, meaningful ways.

The point of my discovery, however, was not finding yet another bone of contention for scholarly debate. As much as the historian in me enjoys studying the context of words, and the meanings of idioms and metaphors commonly used in first century Palestine, the gist of this particular epiphany for me was far more personal. For now, I could see how a frustrated Jesus, an argumentative Jesus, even an angry Jesus, could also promote meekness. Because I, too, can imagine expressing my frustration patiently; I can envision stating an argument humbly, yet directly; and I can even think of ways to release my anger gently and compassionately.

As with the wisdom of all great religions, one does not need to adhere to the dogma of a specific faith to find meaning in its language. Jesus shows us throughout the Christian gospels how best to deal with emotions like anger and frustration. Take time alone to separate yourself from the stressors in your life for calm meditation and reflection; if someone gives you cause to be angry, tell them – don’t bottle up your emotions in shame, guilt, or fear of another’s reactions to your honest communication; and, yes, sometimes you need to go into the temple and toss a few tables around. For me, Jesus does not need to be divine to be a wise role model. His actions speak loudly, teaching us ways to cope with our very human feelings and emotions.

Last Sunday morning, we awoke to the news that the jury in the case of the murder of Trayvon Martin had found George Zimmerman not guilty. I was not scheduled to be in the pulpit that morning but I debated coming to the Fellowship anyway. Regardless of whatever service the Worship Ministry Team had planned, I considered coming and leading some kind of activity to help you deal with this news and the emotions you might have been feeling.

But, my anger was simply too great. My heart was sick and my mind was ablaze. No matter how I envisioned it, I could not imagine myself leading anything that would be healing or helpful. I knew that I had to heal myself first before I had any chance of helping or advising you.

I also knew that I needed to be in solidarity with African American people. That morning, of all mornings, I needed to be physically in the presence of the people most truly damaged by this tragic story, which sadly repeats itself in cities and towns across this country every day. I needed to be in the presence of their emotions and to do whatever I could as an ally.

So Jody and I went to the Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Saginaw. We picked this church because they had made an impressive showing at the Great Lakes Region AIDS Walk last fall and I imagined them to be comrades in justice if not so much in theology. I’m not sure what I expected their worship service to be like – I simply knew that I needed to worship with them that morning.

We were greeted by dozens of people. Every one of them was happy to be there and thrilled to meet us. I heard no conversations about the trial, or frankly much conversation about anything that was troubling anyone present. During the entire two hour service, not one mention was made of Trayvon Martin or the verdict. The focus of the sermon was on the importance of taking our problems to God and not complaining when we face challenges. Nothing but joy filled the room and I detected no trace of the heaviness I anticipated on the minds and hearts of those present.

My brain found little to agree with in their message, but my heart left the building less burdened. I returned home no more able to cope with the question of why such injustice exists, but better able to deal with my anger about that injustice. Their worship service reminded me of the need to be gentle, to be active, yet patient and humble.

For what exactly is anger? For Buddhists, anger is a poison. Anger is the hot coal you intend to throw at your enemy yet burns your own hand. Anger is something that we create within ourselves. The jury rendering its verdict did not somehow magically inject me with anger. I allowed my fears to create that anger. I allowed my fear of never ending racism, of never ending violence, of never ending injustice to plant anger into the soil of my soul. And my ego nurtured that seed into a personal anger, an incapacitating venom rendering me helpless and self-absorbed.

So what do we do when society presents us with injustice? What do we do when politicians trample our rights? What do we do when the greedy and power-mad erode our democracy? How do we respond to wrong, to oppression, to evil?

First, we must recognize and admit that we are angry. Don’t run from it, don’t hide it away, don’t deny that it exists. Be mindful of your anger and honest with your humanity. The greatest prophets of love and peace in human history got angry. You should feel no shame in feeling the same.

Next, ask yourself why you are angry. Why was I angry last Sunday morning? The outcome of this trial has little, if any, impact on my life. The verdict has little, if any, impact on the lives of people I know. And, given the long history of institutionalized racism in America, this trial will likely have little impact on the lives of people of color, even in Sanford Florida.

I was angry because the verdict was not the one I wanted. I was angry because my vision of the world faced one more infinitesimally small delay to its fruition. I was angry because I made myself angry. I was angry because I wanted to feel anger about the situation. Ultimately, I was angry because I was selfish.

And out of my selfish desire to feel anger, I resigned myself to the anger – to the helplessness and hopelessness of the poison. This self-indulgence, this careful cultivation of anger makes it impossible to respond to a situation in a positive way. Anger keeps us from responding with love and with kindness. The Dhammapada says, “He who holds back rising anger like a rolling chariot, him I call a real driver; other people are but holding the reins.” Anger turns our lives into runaway cars careening down the highway, sideswiping other vehicles.

What is the alternative? Patience. Patience until we can act without harming others. We take the reins of our rolling chariot and control the horses of anger. Think back to last Sunday morning, or to any other time this week when something angered you. Relive that moment. Feel the hurt of that moment. Now ask yourself, “Why am I angry?” Don’t push the anger away. Don’t cover it up or hide it. Allow yourself to feel the anger. Ask yourself again, “Why am I angry?” Feel the reins in your hands. Grip the leather. Start pulling back on the straps. Feel the resistance, but pull harder until the vibrations throb through your arms.

As you manage the reins, know in your mind that the anger will not help you deal with the problem. Know in your heart that the anger will not help you deal with the hurt. Know in your gut that the anger will not help you respond to those you blame for the anger.

The Dhammapada continues, advising us to overcome anger by love, to overcome evil by good, to overcome the greedy by liberality, and to overcome the liar by truth. We weed the anger out of our gardens by cultivating love – love for others coping with anger as well as those we might see as the source of that anger. We conquer evil in the world not by using the tools of the evildoers, but by doing even more good ourselves.

We reveal the greedy not through violence or revenge, but by being even more giving, more liberal with our generosity. We defeat the liar by telling the truth. And we wield that truth not as a sword, but as a scythe. We swing the scythe of truth to cut down the weeds of lies, of corruption, and of false assumptions. We swing the scythe of truth to harvest the grain of understanding and compassion.

But, most important, we follow the example of Jesus – not the angry Jesus, but the gentle and patient Jesus. When faced with an unjust law, with a law that oppresses and hurts our neighbors, we rein in our anger and drive the chariot of disobedience. When society calls on us to hate, to marginalize, to objectify the “other,” we resist. When we feel anger rising up inside, we stand our ground – not with violence, not with murderous intent, not with self-righteousness. We stand our ground of love, of good, of giving, and of truth.

We all feel anger when others hurt us, intentionally or not, directly or indirectly. We all know that gut twisted sensation, that rush of blood to our heads, that tensing of muscles in our shoulders and chest. When that feeling arises, stand your ground. Feel the love and the goodness. Be mindful of the power of charity and truth. And when you give this of yourself, it will be returned a hundred fold by others.

Closing Words – From the Dedication of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial by Barack Obama, November 13, 2006

Like Moses before him, [Martin Luther King, Jr.] would never live to see the Promised Land. But from the mountain top, he pointed the way for us – a land no longer torn asunder with racial hatred and ethnic strife, a land that measured itself by how it treats the least of these, a land in which strength is defined not simply by the capacity to wage war but by the determination to forge peace – a land in which all of God’s children might come together in a spirit of [brotherhood].

We have not yet arrived at this longed for place. For all the progress we have made, there are times when the land of our dreams recedes from us – when we are lost, wandering spirits, content with our suspicions and our angers, our long-held grudges and petty disputes, our frantic diversions and tribal allegiances. And yet…we are reminded that this different, better place beckons us, and that we will find it not across distant hills or within some hidden valley, but rather we will find it somewhere in our hearts.