Delivered at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation
November 4, 2007
Part of a series dealing with the Seven Principles
of the Unitarian Universalist Association
Rev. Catherine Torpey
READING 1: from “Anger” by Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger:
It is not for us to seek a defense for ourselves and an excuse for indulgence by saying that anger is either expedient or unavoidable; for what vice, pray, has ever lacked its defender? It is not for you to say that anger cannot be eradicated; the ills from which we suffer are curable, and since we are born to do right, nature herself helps us if we desire to be improved. Nor, as some think, is the path to the virtues steep and rough; they are reached by a level road. It is no idle tale that I come to tell you. The road to the happy life is an easy one; do but enter on it – with good auspices and the good help of the gods themselves! It is far harder to do what you are now doing. What is more relaxing than peace of mind, what more toilsome than anger? What is more restful than mercy, what more frantic than cruelty? ... In short, the maintenance of all virtues is easy, but it is costly to cultivate the vices. Anger must be dislodged – even those who say that it ought to be reduced admit this in part; let us be rid of it altogether. It can do us no good. Without it we shall more easily and more justly abolish crimes, punish the wicked, and set them upon the better path. The wise man will accomplish his whole duty without the assistance of anything evil, and he will associate with himself nothing which needs to be controlled with anxious care.
READING 2: Matthew 5:21-43 excerpted
You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder,’ and ‘Anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who insults their brother or sister is answerable to the courts. And anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.
Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.
Settle matters quickly with an adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
And you have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
This congregation has had a number of ministers over its fifty year history, and Don Marshall served a one year interim in 1981-2. He’s one minister that I never hear stories about; so, the other day, curious to know something about Rev. Marshall, I googled him. I now know only a tiny bit more about him than I did before: I now know that he has, unfortunately, passed on. I know that in 1983, he was an interim in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and the only interesting thing I now know about him is the following incident, which was written up by another UU minister:
Some years ago my colleague, Don Marshall, was waiting at a stop light in Florida, when he noticed a car with the ‘Honk If You Love Jesus’ sticker on the rear bumper. He thought to himself, ‘What the heck, I love Jesus in my own way. Why not give my horn a few beeps.’ So he did. The woman who was driving the other car rolled down her window and cussed him out for being impatient while waiting for the light to change.
Now that woman clearly had not recently read the words of her beloved Jesus. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus famously declared to his followers that they should not only not become angry, but that when someone slaps them on the cheek, they ought to offer their assailant their other cheek—or, in this case, when someone honks at you, offer them the other… I’d say offer them the other bumper, but that would actually be a pretty aggressive move. In any case, Jesus urges his hearers not only not to be aggressive, but not even to defend themselves. He even ends with the admonition that we become perfect, like God.
My sermon today (also on a sort of mount) is another in the series dealing with the seven deadly sins. I’ve spoken already about pride, lust and envy. This morning I am considering anger. If you don’t tick me off this morning, then I’ll be providing you with some wisdom about gluttony, greed and sloth in the weeks or months to come.
As I’ve noted before, none of the deadly sins is a specific action, like murder or theft. Such specific admonitions are taken care of by the Ten Commandments. Each deadly sin, rather, is an orientation toward the world, toward other people, toward things, and ultimately toward God or life. And Jesus is trying to get this idea across to his followers—that it isn’t enough to say that murder is wrong. There is a whole orientation toward our brothers and sisters that is different from murder in degree but not in kind. He wants us not to smugly say, “Well, I haven’t murdered anyone.” He wants to call us to a higher standard.
There are often debates about how literally Jesus meant what he is reported to have said. Did he really mean it, for instance, when he said that we should sell everything we have and give the money to the poor? If so, then once the poor have all our money, they are rich, so they are going to have to give it all back to us, since we have now become poor? Jesus clearly hadn’t thought through his theology. Similarly, I don’t find Jesus’ words about turning the other cheek all that helpful if they’re taken literally. He may have meant them literally, but a seminary professor once explained to us that what Jesus was doing during the sermon on the mount was a typical rabbinical device called “building a fence around the law.” The law is, “Thou shalt not kill.” That’s certainly a good starting point for social order. But, people who have been given a rule will often seek to get away with everything just short of the explicitly stated prohibition. Building a fence around a law means that the rabbis, with their admonitions, would push the behavior back and back so that there is no danger of breaking the law. You want to keep as far back from the precipice as possible. And so the rabbis built philosophical fences around the law in order to keep people away from the worst behaviors.
Seen in that light, Jesus’ admonitions are much more helpful. If we want to live good lives, happy and blessed, our orientation should be toward compassion, non-violence, and non-defensiveness. And in order to emphasize how different that non-violent orientation would be from the undisciplined way of allowing anger to rule, Jesus wanted to shock his hearers by admonishing them to turn the other cheek and to be perfect like God.
A much more subtle and philosophical look at anger was being undertaken across the Mediterranean Sea, in Rome, at the exact same time—maybe even on the exact same day that Jesus was sitting on the hill giving this talk. Seneca the younger was born in Spain in the same year as Jesus, and became the tutor to the emperor Nero. In the tradition of Greek and Roman philosophy, he wrote a lengthy essay on the subject of anger. Not unlike the scruffy Jew of whose existence he knew nothing, Seneca argues that there is no good use for anger, but, helpfully, he considers whether or not anger is voluntary, and whether or not it is useful in situations where we have been wronged.
But while the warnings about anger are persuasive, I’ve also seen how often people will use the precept of not being angry as a way to simply avoid conflict, allowing situations to continue that ought to be changed. And many of us don’t know how to deal well with anger because we feel it, but we don’t think we’re supposed to if we are to be mature, enlightened, spiritually fulfilled people.
Even a simple story—such as the one that our interim Director of Religious Education, Mino, told the children a few minutes ago—can be a little bit dangerous in this regard if it isn’t contextualized, because, like many simple children’s tales it tends to send a blanket message, “Don’t quarrel.” Certainly, we don’t want to bicker; we don’t want to throw insults at one another, make unfounded accusations, or be threatening or intimidating in our demeanor or shout down other people. But we do want to have vigorous debates. We do want to deal squarely with the issues that matter to us. Many people don’t know the difference between the two, and I think that that it is due in part to too many lessons which tell us “don’t be unpleasant,” without giving much guidance for those moments when we do have genuine differences with people.
After all, it seems that some things ought to make us angry. When there is some great breach of the public trust, people ask, “Where is the outrage? Why aren’t people taking to the streets in protest?” When our Congress passed the Military Commissions act last year denying the basic right of habeas corpus to anyone—including you or me—who is designated an “enemy combatant,” many asked why so few have become angry.
Or, there are times when an individual is clearly being used or taken advantage of, and we feel that the person being so used ought to be angry. Maybe we witness a friend whose spouse spends their money on frivolous things and then the mortgage can’t be paid. Our friend always makes excuses for the spouse, but we see how our friend is suffering due to the spouse’s irresponsibility. We want our friend to be angry because their lack of anger seems to be keeping them in an unfair situation.
And, of course, there are the times that we ourselves are treated unfairly. Maybe we’ve been reprimanded by someone when we did nothing wrong. Or maybe we were cheated or lied to by someone important. Isn’t our anger justified?
Aristotle says yes. He says that certain passions, if one makes a proper use of them, serve as arms. But Seneca convincingly disputes this by saying “This would be true if, like the implements of war, passions could be put on and laid aside at the pleasure of the user.” But anger is not something that we control; it has a way of controlling us. Seneca insists that it is folly to believe that anger is needed in order to accomplish the good. Virtue, he says, does not need assistance from vice. “Nature,” he says, “has given to us an adequate equipment in reason; we need no other implements. This is the weapon she has bestowed; it is strong, enduring, obedient, not double-edged or capable of being turned against its owner.”
Seneca argues that reason is a sufficient tool to work against injustice. We need not allow ourselves the bodily quake of anger in order to argue with our against the suspension of habeas corpus, or against the profligate ways of our friend’s spouse, or against the unfair treatment that we received at the hand of our employer.
And yet, what do we do with that bodily quake? That isn’t always something that we can fully control.
What makes it difficult to say that anger ought to be eradicated is that on some level, it is an automatic reaction that we feel when certain types of things are said or done. It is important not to blame ourselves for those things which are natural and normal and cannot be helped. It is this sense that we are bad if we feel anger that seems to interfere with our ability to deal directly when we feel that an injustice has been done.
Seneca helps by explaining that that initial bodily surge of energy is not what he is calling anger. When he says that anger serves no purpose and should not be allowed, he does not mean that we should be able never to have the automatic reactions that we have to certain things. “A man thinks himself injured,” Seneca writes, “wishes to take vengeance, but dissuaded by some consideration immediately calms down. This I do not call anger, this prompting of the mind which is submissive to reason; anger is that which overleaps reason and sweeps it away.” Seneca, then, is defining anger not as that initial impulse, but the giving in to it. The mind’s assent to it; the thought, “I have a right to allow this feeling to become enflamed.”
I have two examples from my own experience: one in which I did what I hope always to do and one where I did not. First, the instance in which I allowed myself to become angry in just the way that Seneca and Jesus would rightly condem:
I was at a full service gas station. “Fill ‘er up,” I said, “And please do not top off the tank.” As the gasoline was pumped, I chatted on the phone with my friend. When the gasoline pump automatically clicked off, sure enough, the guy began topping off the tank so that the charge would be an even seventeen dollars. I leaned out the window. “Please don’t top it off,” I said. He pointed at the price, indicating to me that it wasn’t an even dollar amount, and continued to pump. I made the classic finger across the neck gesture to say, “Cut it out.” The charge now stood at sixteen dollars and twenty-five cents. The man did not speak perfect English, and in order to make it perfectly clear that I was going to pay for the gas that was now in the tank and there was no need for more to go in it, I gave him a quarter with my twenty dollar bill so that he could give me a nice round $3 in change—no fuss no muss. One could understand in any language that my twenty dollar bill plus a quarter that meant that there was no need to round up from $16.25 to seventeen dollars. He took my twenty dollars and twenty-five cents and then went back to the pump to top it off to seventeen dollars. I leapt out. “Stop pumping,” I cried.
Did you ever see that episode of Frasier, where he refuses to pay the two dollar parking fee because it is unjustified? He had driven into the parking garage accidentally, never parked, and when he tried to leave only moments after entering, the attendant told him that it would cost him $2, the cost of being in the garage for up to 20 minutes. Frasier was outraged at the injustice and refused to pay. He sat in his car, unable to leave because, until he pays, the gate will not go up. The other patrons of the garage line up behind him, and he expects them to share his outrage at how badly he’s being treated by the garage. He only pays when he has sat in line for the twenty minutes his $2 allows him.
Well, my interaction with my gas station attendant, I must confess, was similarly out of proportion to the injustice done to me. My gas station attendant was, for some reason that I could not fathom, completely unwilling to stop pumping until the total was an even $17. He continued to pump, and by the time I got from my car to stand next to him the price got to—oh, I don’t know, sixteen dollars and 50 cents, let’s say. I took the pump out of the car myself, and then we had to argue about how much money he was going to give me back, now that the charge was $16.50, and not $16.25. It was a ridiculous thing to argue about—twenty-five cents. But somehow, in that moment, it seemed as though an important principle needed to be upheld.
In the end, of course, I took the three dollars he insisted on giving me instead of the four dollars I was rightly owed, and when I returned to my car, the phone discussion I was having with my friend turned to the injustices of improper dispensing of gasoline. It was a classic case of allowing the passion of anger to overtake me, and not allowing reason to guide my behavior. It would not have been the end of the world if I had allowed the obsessive fellow to do what he wanted to do. No good came of my little outrage. In the moment, it felt as though I were fighting against some injustice. But the only outcome was that I got myself all worked up, the guy probably felt abused by me, although I didn’t call him any names or do anything more than insist on what I felt was owed me. In any case, I’m sure after I left, he told folks about this horrible woman who argued with him about a half a gallon of gasoline. I ended up having less time to chat with a friend I don’t talk to very often, and then the conversation—instead of staying focused on whatever more important things we were talking about—became side-tracked in talking about the ridiculous incident I’d just involved myself in.
But I have matured since then.
In a more recent incident, I did not allow my initial irritation to blossom into anger. Having recently seen a report about disaster preparedness, I decided that I ought to go out and buy an emergency supply of water. I stopped at a grocery store, hoping that they sold bottles of Keeper Springs water—which, you may know, donates all of its profits to clean water organizations. I pulled up into the parking lot and could hardly find a spot because of all the grocery carts scattered around the lot. Two other women pulled into the parking lot around the same time I did. When I got out of my car, I naturally grabbed a cart to bring back to the store. I thought, “Well, with the three of us going into the store, that will be three carts anyway that get picked up from this parking lot.” I was stunned to see the two women nonchalantly walking into the grocery store without having brought carts with them. They had to walk past—dodge past, really—probably seven carts each. I truly began to get angry at them. Why wouldn’t someone bring a cart in to help out? It takes zero effort. And as soon as I thought it, I did what I should have done when that fellow at the gas station kept filling my tank. I stopped myself. I reminded myself that I knew nothing about these women. Maybe they push carts all day every day and just decided to take a break today. Maybe, for whatever reason, it simply had not occurred to them to do this little service to humanity. Maybe they had things on their minds. Who knows? And, anyway, the way to encourage others to be civic minded is not to hold them in contempt for minor breaches.
I was quite able to shift from my initial welling up of irritation—a reaction that Seneca describes as being a bodily, automatic experience—and to have my reason overcome it.
Both of these incidents from my life were very minor, petty things that got under my skin. But there have been times when I have become angry about issues or incidents which truly were injustices. When my friend, Rob, was dying in the hospital, I became almost enraged at the way in which he was being treated by some callous staff who kept allowing his air passages to become blocked when he needed to be frequently aspirated. I was also angered by what I might call predatory religionists who took advantage of his terror at his imminent death to try to persuade him to their religious beliefs.
I’ve also seen many street protests be filled with an ugly and contagious rage, where every unpopular politician is equated with Adolph Hitler—quite a charge. As I look back even on these moments of what could be called righteous anger, I do not believe that the anger—that emotional high pitch—was helpful in any way. When I look back on the incidents, it was never my anger that made a situation better. Any good that I did which was accompanied by anger was done by a sense of deep concern, and a desire to see a situation corrected. The anger only tended to ensure that opponents remained opponents and could not be brought along to help solve the problem.
Seneca claims that not only does anger not help against a foe, but that anger is least helpful of all when fighting an enemy. If you really wish to prevail against an enemy, he says,
the attack ought not to be disorderly, but regulated and under control. … Think you that the hunter has anger toward wild beasts? Yet when they come, he takes them, and when they flee, he follows, and reason does it all without anger. The [barbarians] who poured over the Alps in countless thousands—what wiped them out so completely… [was] that they substituted anger for valor.
Valor is needed. Valor, concern, and a determination to act are all needed in this world in order to steer our country in the right direction, in order to strengthen and protect the people and the institutions and the things that we love; and valor, concern and determination are what are needed in our own personal lives in order to accomplish what we wish to accomplish and to be what we want to be. Let us not mistake anger for valor.
In the words of Seneca, “Shall we, then, not summon ourselves to endurance when so great an award awaits us—the unbroken calm of the happy soul?”
May every creature abound in well-being and peace. May every living being, weak or strong, the long and the small, the short and the medium-sized, the mean and the great—may every living being, seen or unseen, those dwelling far off, those living nearby, those already born, those waiting to be born—may all attain inward peace.
Let no one deceive another. Let no one despise another in any situation. Let no one, from antipathy or hatred, wish evil to anyone at all. Just as a parent, with their own life, protects their only child from hurt, so within yourself foster a limitless concern for every living creature.
“HONK IF YOU'RE NOT SURE -OR LEARNING TO LIVE WITH DOUBT” sermon by Richard M. FEWKES, November 14, 1999.
Essay “Anger” by Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger.
New Testament book of Matthew chapter 5 verses 21-43.