As a social justice minded Christian, my favorite depictions of Jesus are from Matthew 21:12, when he is seen with a whip in his hand, flipping over tables in a rage and driving merchants from the temple. This is the Christ who speaks to me when I look at the mess that is contemporary America and ask myself “What would Jesus Do?”. He was a righteously furious Middle Eastern Jew, who’d been born while his mother was migrating and grew up to put the fear of God into capitalists, putting them on the run with a whip.
This Jesus is angry, and he’s a great role model for the American left, which has been cowed into thinking it must be passive and “nice” in the face of oppression.
Forgoing anger will not save us. Indeed, perhaps the only good thing about Donald Trump is that he’s allowed some wider consideration of what Audre Lorde called the “uses of anger” in mainstream left American discourse.
“My response to racism is anger,” Lorde said at the dawn of Reaganism – because expressing anger was a perfectly normal (and sanity preserving) coping mechanism for a Black queer woman like her. Similarly, James Baldwin accurately said that “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time,” a quote I keep on my desktop to remember that being aware comes with a predictable fury.
But for too long, a misinterpretation of Martin Luther King as never angry (when his speeches, marches and actions against poverty, racist labor exploitation and war were full of fury) , and the too-polite Barack Obama, have lulled the left into avoiding anger and its useful productiveness in demanding change.
No more. Trump – an angry, intemperate manchild who bullies whomever he can – has unleashed the left’s anger. And it’s high time we let it out.
Angry people get things done. But American patriarchy and white supremacy have tried to teach us that anger is the domain of white, cisgender, rich heterosexual men only – and that women, people of color, transgender people, immigrants, workers, the disabled, and others need to be nice and meek in the hope that we will get some crumbs of justice.
We are told that our anger will be destabilizing. But the status quo needs to be destabilized, especially as anger was suppressed too much during the Obama years. When Obama seemed at all angry about racial justice – like when he imagined Trayvon Martin as his son in 2012, or when he even mildly criticized the white police officer who arrested Henry Louis Gates when a neighbor thought he was breaking into his own home in 2009 – Obama was excoriated and usually dialled things back.
His failure to of prosecute the banksters responsible for the 2008 crash, and his denunciation of some protesters during Black Lives Matter uprisings as “thugs,” helped reinforce the sense that while rich, white criminals should face no punishment, black justice warriors require extreme punishment, and that anger should never be engaged to fight economic or police violence.
It was a curious recurring theme for Obama, considering white people and Republicans had no trouble raging at him with substantial political results. And yet, he seemed content to set an example to the left and people of color, that anger needed to be suppressed, and that a calm, polite, technocratic neoliberalism would save the day. (That path gave us Trump.)
But Americans have a lot to be angry about. Women should be, and are, enraged that a man who bragged he could just grab them “by the pussy” occupies the Oval Office. Immigration activists should, and are, rallying people to their cause in anger. Educators and classmates of transgender and undocumented students should be enraged. Writers and readers of the press should be outraged that they are being posited as each other’s enemy. And everyone who drinks water or breaths air should be enraged that a freshman Republican congressman has introduced a bill to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency.
All of this anger needs to be acknowledged and felt, because “anger is loaded with information and energy,” as Lorde said, and it can be used as a fuel for action.
Remember: Martin Luther King’s vision of social justice was not simply about having a passive “dream”, but also about using one’s body to upend the social order with righteous indignation, just as Jesus was as apt to flip the capitalist’s table as he was to silently pray. Anger at the injustice of an unfair world is a moral, and useful, emotion that which motivated both of them – and which can help activate the increasingly emboldened left.
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