Anger, conflict and obedience

Anger, conflict and obedience

Twenty-Third Sunday of the Year. Fr Euan Marley preaches on our Lord’s teaching on the resolution of conflict among Christians.

Whenever I am asked what the most difficult problem of religious life is, I always answer that it’s anger. Very often this answer is taken as something rather extraordinary and perhaps profound. Certainly it surprises people. Yet to me it seems very obvious.

Anger builds up like rust, appears in the most unexpected corners of our hearts and is never quite done away with. Just when we think we have resolved this problem, another piece of our emotional machinery breaks off and we grind to a halt, just when we thought we were making progress.

What puzzles me is why the word ‘anger’ is so little used. Weighty tomes are written about the causes of wars, talking about conflicts and misunderstandings and legitimate aspirations and never suggesting once that the opposing countries might have been angry with one another.

We find this in church speech too. ‘Priests are demoralised.’ It’s unthinkable to suggest that they are actually annoyed about something – you might have to do something about it, or you might have to tell them that their anger is unreasonable.

There’s no point in being angry with the people who phone us up at awkward moments, because they are not blessed with the gift of clairvoyance. It’s perfectly reasonable to phone up to ask what time midnight mass is, since some parishes have it as early as 8pm. Granted the twentieth person to do in on Christmas Eve might receive a less than polite answer.

Anger is not an infallible emotion.

The anger of man does not carry out the justice of God. (James 1:19)

On the other hand, as St Thomas so rightly tells us, it’s not, in itself, a sin either. It can be a sin, if done badly, usually by excessive or unfair anger, but we can sin by not being angry enough.

I remember a priest in Ireland in a sermon who quoted the saying about accepting the things I cannot change, and added:

and give me the strength to change the things I cannot accept.

I should say that this particular priest was not so much in touch with his anger as living in a perpetual honeymoon with it. The point was still right, that we could sin by not being angry enough. That is to say, not being angry in the rational and indeed peaceful way which enables us to begin to change the world. In other words, being angry in the way that Our Lord was angry.

Today’s Gospel is not strictly speaking about anger. It’s about conflict, about one person doing wrong to another, as is the Old Testament passage from Ezekiel. Ezekiel speaks of the wicked and the Gospel speaks of sin. Neither mentions anger as such. Yet behind both is this inability to be rationally angry.

With the prophets it’s more a fear of provoking anger. In the Gospel it’s more a case of not wanting to accept that we can be angry, that there can be conflicts, and disagreements, sometimes unresolvable disagreements. That’s why we have obedience in the Church.

It’s an unhealthy obedience that thinks we obey the truth rather than particular persons. If we all had an infallible tap into the truth, we wouldn’t have to obey anybody. Then there’s that phrase I really hate:

Can we agree to differ?

Well, no we can’t actually. That’s just a way of saying I am not going to admit I am wrong but I am too tired to argue any more.

It might be that at the end of the due process, when all avenues have been tried, the one who is in fact in the right will be found to be in the wrong. We are all brought up on stories of how some saints were persecuted, regarded as lunatics or heretics. That’s true, though most of them were vindicated at the end. Also most of the people in the history of the Church judged to be lunatics or heretics were in fact lunatics and heretics.

There is the question of being silenced. No earthly authority can impose silence on the truth, those who keep the truth prisoner in injustice (Rom 1:18). Yet the Church is allowed to silence people. How can that be fair?

The answer is that the truth of God will be spoken in the Church at some time, whereas the State may suppress truth indefinitely. So be angry and sin not, in a nice way.

Readings: Ezek 33:7-9 | Rom 13:8-10 | Matt 18:15-20

fr. Euan Marley O.P. lives and works at Blackfriars, Cambridge.