Sunday March 8, 2015 is International Women’s Day. The appointed gospel reading for this the third Sunday of Lent is from John 2:13-22 which recounts the story of Jesus turning over the tables in the temple. This sermon is inspired by the work of Beverly Wildung Harrison and the prophetic witness of Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee.
Today is International Women’s Day a day. International Women’s Day has been celebrated since 1911. It is also known as the United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace. Women have come a long way since 1911. Sadly, we must all confess that women have a long way to go before we achieve our vision of a world in which all people have equal access to opportunity. There is much for us to celebrate on this particular International Women’s Day and there is also much to lament. In our world the phrase “war on women” is bandied about by the media and each time I hear it anger rises in me and it is all I can do to stop myself from screaming. In our own country we have watched the steady erosion of hard one gains as our federal government continues to cut funding to women’s organizations and continues to refuse to launch a federal inquiry into the disappearance of far too many of our aboriginal sisters. Any serious reflection on the plight of women in the world makes my blood boil and I can’t help but wonder why we don’t just follow Jesus’ example because maybe if we turn over a few more tables in the halls of power we might be able to draw some serious attention to the abuses perpetrated upon women for the sake of maintaining the status quo.
The story of Jesus turning over the tables of the moneychangers in the temple has always intrigued me. The idea that Jesus could have become so angry with religious authorities for cooperating with the violent and oppressive, Roman Imperial system that he would create such a scene in the Temple is so far from the image of Jesus as the meek and mild long-haired peace-nick that we’ve all come to take for granted.
For generations, biblical commentators have gone to great pains to ensure that any hint of Jesus humanity is scrubbed clean from interpretations of this story. Anger is a perfectly normal human emotion. Jesus was a human being and therefore he was subject to normal human emotions. But the institutional church frowns upon anger. Indeed, in many places one can still find anger listed as one of the seven deadly sins. “ira” which can be translated as anger or wrath made the list of seven deadly sins. This list is often attributed to the early Christians. Indeed, there are those who would argue that these sins are biblical. However, they are actually the work of a 4th century monk named Evagirus Ponticus, whose nickname was Evagrius the Solitary. He spent most of his adult life living as a hermit in the desert. I suspect that if a modern psychologist were to take a brief look of Evagrius’ personal biography they could very quickly make a diagnosis of clinical depression. Evagrius himself prescribed tears as the pathway to God and was known to have spent days at a time alone and weeping profusely. He is best known for his writings on the various forms of temptation, which the institutional church latched onto with a vengeance. His original list included eight deadly sins. But the church erased “sadness” from the list and elevated the seven deadly sins to the category of mortal sins. Mortal sins were those sins that actually placed one’s soul in danger of eternal damnation.
In Latin, “ira” is often translated as wrath, but the church liked the more generic form of ira and so wrath quickly became known as anger. Now, you can call me cynical if you like, but I can think of all sorts of reasons why a budding institution that was developing an elaborate hierarchy might want to warn its members not to get angry. Anger is, if you will pardon the pun, the mortal enemy of institutions and most particularly hierarchal institutions like the church, so it easy to see why Jesus was stripped of this common and indeed most useful of human emotions.
Nowadays, the most common word associated with anger is management. We have become obsessed with controlling our anger, and so we send offenders to anger management courses to insure that they learn not to offend us with their anger. Yet the most commonly diagnosed malady of our modern world is depression. And yes we’ve all been told that anger turned inward leads to depression. By the way, depression is actually on the list of seven deadly sins, only on the list it’s called acedia or sloth. Acedia is described as melancholia characterized as, depression without joy, which manifests itself in listlessness or apathy. But not to worry because the Church at Rome, recognizing the need to keep their flocks in line, took the seven deadly sins and matched them up with the seven virtues and presto, anger is joined in holy matrimony with patience. Incase your interested; Acedia or sloth was married to diligence. But I digress. My point here is that the angry Jesus who was so incensed by the marriage between religious officials and the power of the Roman Empire, that he risked his own life; this angry Jesus is far more useful to the church hierarchy once his angry behaviour is moderated by patience. After all, a church full of patient followers is far easier to manage than a church full of folk who are likely to allow their anger to come into play when they come face to face with hypocrisy.
So the angry Jesus tends to have faded into the recesses of Christian memory. The Jesus whose compassion for the poor coupled with his passion for justice who stormed into the Temple and in an effort to turn things upside down and demonstrate the need for systemic political change, well he’s too much of a radical, troublemaker. So we’ve replaced him with the meek and mild Jesus, who wanders around in the hills with a lamb draped over his shoulders, exhibiting endless patience and choosing to sit idly by with a child upon his lap perhaps, well out of the public discourse over the plight of the poor, and far away from the rattling of sabres as the rumours of war begin once again to permeate the air.
But there’s just one problem with the popular image of Jesus and that’s the crucified Jesus. Jesus was executed by the state not because of his patience with those in power but because of his impatience with those in power. Jesus’ impatience was born out of his anger at injustice. Anger is a powerful human emotion. Anger is a useful human emotion. Anger lies at the heart of human evolution. Our anger at the way things are can be just the impetus we need to compel us to change the way things are. When anger moves us to reject the status quo, our protests can become the means by which we effect change.
Anger is not the opposite of love. Anger is a vivid form of caring. Anger is not to be feared nearly as much as we ought to fear indifference. Our anger means we care—we care about what is happening to our fellow human beings. Back in the 80’s, when women were being chastised for being angry, at a time when people began to believe that women should be more patience in their approach to female liberation, the feminist theologian Beverly Wildung Harrison wrote what has become an important essay for those of who work for justice in the world. The essay was entitled, “The power of anger in the work of love.” Harrison insists that rather than controlling or managing our anger, we need to harness the power of our anger so that we might be about the work of love in the world.
As Canadians, we tend to shy away from anger. We are a quiet, peace-loving people with a preoccupation for being polite. Canadians are not known for public displays of anger. We are a patient people. But lately our patience seems to have turned to apathy. We have become indifferent to the plight of our sisters and brothers. While our sisters and brothers of the First Nations continue to live in poverty we are not moved. As the gap between the rich and poor widens to the point of despair, we are not moved. As multi-national corporations crawl into bed with governments both provincial and national so that the can have their wicked way with our environment, we are not moved. As the power of the almighty dollar threatens to rob us of our political voice and the very nature of our democracy appears to be rotting from the perils of excess, we are not moved. As children slip further and further into the homelessness and poverty, and governments continue to cut and slash programs designed to provide the basic necessities of life, we are not moved. As our once proud medical system continues to struggle under the weight of our demands and our reluctance to seriously engage in reform, we are not moved. We polite Canadians are more than willing to grumble and complain, or at the very least to let Rick Mercier do our ranting for us. But as for tapping into our anger about the injustices in our world, well we’ve got places to go and people to see, and besides what’s the use of protesting?
I must confess that I too suffer from a kind of justice fatigue. I’m all too often simply tired of hearing about the injustices of this world. I’ve become apathetic and those moments when I am able to must a little righteous indignation, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with my anger, so I just forget about it and mind my own business. My days of marching in the streets are all but over, because in the face of so much injustice, what can I hope to accomplish.
Well, today is International Women’s Day, and you gotta know that our own government’s defunding of almost every major women’s advocacy group, well I kinda get pissed off, just thinking about the back-lash that appears to be mounting against women’s rights. And as I was reading about International Women’s day I couldn’t help remembering all that passion that we experienced back in the 70’s when we were struggling for equality. I wonder why we’re not marching in the streets because the truth is we may have come a long way baby, but one quarter of women in Canada are living below the poverty line. 14 percent of single older women in Canada are poor. 24 percent of single women raising children are poor. Women who work full-time earn 71 cents for every dollar earned by men. Women account for 60% of the minimum wage workers in Canada. So why aren’t we angry. Well maybe we are angry. But we’re Canadian women so we’ve learned to suppress our anger and to be polite. But what if we tapped into that anger? What if we began to express that anger? What if we began to protest the not only the plight of women in our society, but the plight of children? What if we used the power of our anger in the work of love?
As part of International Women’s Day a few years ago, a group of powerful women gathered together gathered together south of the border to address the issues of poverty and violence in this world, particularly as it affects women and children. The gathering was podcasted over the internet and I’ve been moved by what so many of these powerful women have done with their anger over injustice. But one woman in particular has moved me in ways that have challenged my own apathy when it comes to public protest. Leymah Gbowee is a powerful woman from Liberia. Leymah Gbowee is also a Lutheran. She is responsible for leading a women’s peace movement that brought an end to the second Liberian civil war in 2003. The Liberian civil war, which lasted from 1989 to 2003 with only brief interruptions, was the result of economic inequality, a struggle to control natural resources, and deep-rooted rivalries among various ethnic groups, including the descendants of the freed American slaves who founded the country in 1847. The war involved the cynical use of child soldiers, armed with lightweight Kalashnikovs, against the country’s civilian population. At the center of it all was Charles Taylor, a ruthless warlord who initiated the first fighting and would eventually serve as Liberian president until he was forced into exile in 2003.
In 2002, Leymah Gbowee led a movement of women who took to the streets and shamed a government into changing its ways. Using a variety of tactics, which included a sex-fast, where the women of Liberia refused to have sex with the men of Liberia until the men who were negotiating achieved peace. The sex-strike went on for several months and while many continue to deny that it had any impact at all, the truth is that it brought world-wide media attention to the ongoing raping and slaughter of men, women, and children and in April of 2003 the women achieved their goal and peace broke out in Liberia. President Charles Taylor was sent into exile and a woman was elected president.
In 2011, Leymah Gbowee won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work to achieve and maintain peace in Liberia. Leymah has asked her North American sisters a question that ought to ring in all our ears. Leymah said she’d been watching CNN and she’d heard about the so-called war on women, and she asked, “Where are the angry woman. You ought to be dealing with these men and putting a stop to this right now.” As those who profess to follow Christ, we can’t but help be moved by Jesus angry demonstration in the temple. Disturbed by the status quo, Jesus angrily turned things upside down.
As followers of Jesus, we might well ask ourselves: “Where are the angry Christians? While the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer. Where are the angry Christians? While the integrity of our democracy is threatened be the status quo of powerful people using their wealth in ways that at the very least warrant investigation? Where are the angry Canadians? As the multi-national corporations obsess over their own concerns to make more and more money at the expense of planet earth. Where are the angry Christians? As children continue to struggle simply to survive in a world where genocide has become something we have chosen to tolerate. Where are the angry humans?
Remember that anger has a powerful role to play in the work of love. Anger is also very dangerous. Jesus’ public demonstration of his anger at the rampant hypocrisy and injustice of the powers that be, led to his execution by the powers that be. But Jesus willingness to display his anger publicly even though he knew it very well might get him killed, began a movement for peace and justice that even death could not conquer.
In her essay the power of anger in the work of love, Beverly Harrison reminds us that, “all serious human moral activity, especially action for social change takes its bearings from the rising power of human anger…anger denied subverts community.”
It was the power of anger that gave birth to the women’s movement, the gay rights movement, and all too many peace movements. When angry people stand up and say “enough is enough” the status quo of powerful institutions and powerful individuals cannot hold sway. Embedded in the angry demands for social change are the seeds of hope that the world can become a different and better place. Without anger there is no hope.
Our failure to understand our anger has driven anger underground and that is precisely where anger becomes most dangerous. Anger that is not named and acknowledged manifests in resentment, rage, passive aggressive behaviour, physical violence, abuse and addiction. We can only paper over our anger with politeness for a while, but if we refuse to find ways to use our anger to effect change, we together with those around us will become the victims of our rage.
The spiritual practice of protest has been neglected by so many of us. Perhaps we have become too comfortable to risk the status quo. But for those of us who profess to follow Jesus, finding ways to use the power of anger in the work of love means that we must learn again to practice protest. If we are to evolve beyond our warring madness, if we are to become more than the sum total of our possessions, if we are to grow as a peaceful people we must put our anger to work in new and engaging methods of protest so that God’s reign of peace through justice can become a reality. It’s long past time for us to turn over a few tables. Let it be so! Amen.