John Lewis, Hope, and Anger

Photo: Daniel Curran on Unsplash

“When anger fails to achieve any proportionate degree of redress, what it becomes is despair . . .”1

How does a man remain hopeful all the years of his life?

When John Lewis died on July 17, 2020, I knew him to be one of the last of a generation of civil rights heroes. He had marched, he had taken the blows, he had been jailed, he had carried on. News accounts and stories hailed his persistence. He died at eighty, after thirty-four years in Congress representing Georgia’s Fifth District.

Just days before he passed away from pancreatic cancer, he visited the Black Lives Matter street art in Washington, DC, expressing his hope that the movement would carry on the fight. In a town hall Zoom meeting with President Obama and others, he said the protesters will “redeem the soul of America and move closer to a community at peace with itself.”2

On YouTube I found the speech he gave during the March on Washington, in August 1963. On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, facing thousands of people, the young Lewis, one of the founders and leaders of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, urged his listeners to join the revolution for freedom and equality. “How long can we be patient?” he asked, his voice rising. “We want our freedom and we want it now!”3

Two years later, in March 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson having been galvanized into action by news coverage of Bloody Sunday, in which Lewis and many others were brutally attacked by the Selma police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. But fifty-seven years later, at the end of the arc of his life, John Lewis was still hoping that voting, the most basic right of democracy, would be guaranteed and protected.

I admire his years of service in Congress and his unflinching record working for civil rights. He managed to inspire new generations to work for justice, without giving in to despair. No matter the violence he suffered, he always chose the way of peace. His lifelong hope uplifts us. But it’s the unspoken question of anger that intrigues me.

Does anger cancel hope or can hope and anger live together?

***

Stuart Walton, in his A Natural History of Human Emotions, says, “The Old Norse word angr is the root of both anger and anguish, in both of which a residue of its semantic origins in grief has precipitated. If we see fear as primarily a passive state, anger is very much a driving, compulsive force that encourages action of one sort or another.”4

In the 1840s, Cardinal Henry Manning, the Archbishop of Westminster, asserted that “Anger is the executive power of justice.”5 I don’t know the context of the remark, but it’s surely one that resonates with any who think themselves to be on the right side of history in a popular struggle for justice. Anger, we think, can be justified if it brings a righteous result.

We don’t have many public examples of people who manage their anger well. As Walton drily observes, “. . . Anger is an emotion without an obvious behavioural etiquette attached to it.”6 For most of us it’s a momentary emotion which flares up and dies away too quickly to be examined but long enough to regret.

As Christians, we’re taught to suppress anger, but as people living in a post-Freudian era, we’re told that the suppression of anger causes more damage to us than letting it blow. This “pressure cooker” model blends seamlessly with the emancipation of the individual from social restraints that years ago would have kept private anger from publicly spilling out. We are now a society that values the expression of our most private feelings under the guise of honesty.

There are many occasions in the Gospels when Jesus is angry. How could it be otherwise? He daily battled against prejudice and discrimination, against willful ignorance and smug hypocrisy. The Pharisees were stubbornly self-righteous, the people in the towns he passed through were small-minded, the crowds were fickle and obtuse—even the disciples were recalcitrant and selfish. Like us in every way, he expressed his anger as it rose and then turned it aside.

The story that stands out is when he trashed the Temple. All the Gospel writers feature it, with some interesting variations. Whenever this story would come up in our discussions at church, the adults would be quick to classify Jesus’ actions as “righteous indignation,” a distinction without a difference that didn’t fool us. He was clearly angry, and only if you held him to a shallow standard of spotless behavior could this be sinful.

This was more like performance anger, anger with a point, anger that evolved into a teachable moment. In Mark 11 Jesus and the disciples arrive in Jerusalem late in the day to a triumphal procession. Cheering crowds line the streets as Jesus makes his way to the Temple on a donkey. They spread their cloaks on the road, cut brush to strew the street, bless him for bringing in the kingdom, and shout ‘Hosanna!’ He arrives at the Temple, looks around “at the whole scene,” and then leaves with the disciples to spend the night in Bethany.

In the morning, as they leave for Jerusalem, Jesus is hungry, and seeing a fig tree in the distance he searches it for fruit—breakfast on the run, if you like. But there is none because, as Mark notes, “it was not the season for figs.” And Jesus backs up and says, “May no one ever again eat fruit from you!”7

It’s a response we might have made, irritation at an inanimate object that doesn’t perform as we think it should. We’re hungry, the toaster jams, the car won’t start, and we’re late for work; not a good beginning to the day.

We could brush Jesus’ hangry response aside except for two details in Mark’s narrative. The first is the obvious: it’s the wrong season for figs, something that Jesus should have known growing up in a Mediterranean country. The second is more telling: Mark adds, “And his disciples were listening,” an odd thing to say unless there was a reason to remember what Jesus had said and done.8

I find this endearing: Jesus momentarily flailing in irritation, the disciples glancing at one another and ducking their heads to hide a smile.

Then they are making their way to the court of the Temple, where Jesus immediately wades into the bustling market, throwing over the tables, scattering the money, and setting free the pigeons. He doesn’t allow anyone carrying merchandise to cut through the courtyard and he won’t let the merchants back in. Instead, he begins to teach, to the delight of the crowds and the consternation of the chief priests, who come running when someone breathlessly tattles on Jesus.

The flash of anger gives way to a teach-in; the people are spellbound, the authorities are outraged. They would kidnap him, but they’re afraid of the crowd’s reaction, so Jesus teaches all day, and when evening comes, he and the disciples leave the city.

That is Mark’s story. John’s version is even more pointed: “Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple . . . His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”9

***

The philosophers of Jesus’ time had a lot to say about anger. Seneca, whose lifetime overlapped with Jesus, and Plutarch, who was writing when Paul was executed, around 64-65 CE, regarded anger with horror and wrote some of their most forceful essays against it. Prevention was the best course, said Seneca, “. . . to reject at once the first incitement to anger, to resist even its small beginnings, and to take pains to avoid falling into anger.”10 Anger swamped reason, he said, and drowned our ability to see events clearly.

“I have noticed,” observes Plutarch, “that although different factors trigger its onset in different people, there is almost always present a belief that they are being slighted and ignored.”11 This is anger as the flash point of a bruised ego.

What do we see in Jesus? A man whose anger arises to protect others, but who will not protect himself. He disrupts the worship at his synagogue to heal a man, angry that the leaders value decorum over liberation. He is angry when the doctors of the law burden the people with unnecessary rules, instead of revealing the Law as evidence of God’s care. And he is angry that the house of prayer has become a den of thieves.

Here is a man who trusts God so deeply that in the midst of conflict he can say, “I and the Father are one,” without the slightest hint of defensiveness or pride. When he sees the way things are and the way things could be, he refuses silence. Hope breaks in, the future contradicts the present, anger throws off despair and steps into faith.

It is time, as John Lewis would say, that we got ourselves into ‘good trouble.’

  1. Walton, Stuart. A Natural History of the Emotions. New York: Grove Press, 2004, p. 81.
  2. Remnick, David. “John Lewis’s Legacy and America’s Redemption.” In The New Yorker, July 27, 2020.
  3. https://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/lewis-speech-at-the-march-on-washington-speech-text/
  4. Walton, Stuart. A Natural History of the Emotions. New York: Grove Press, 2004, p. 45.
  5. Walton, Stuart. A Natural History of the Emotions. New York: Grove Press, 2004, p. 48.
  6. Walton, Stuart. A Natural History of the Emotions. New York: Grove Press, 2004, p. 73.
  7. Mark 11: 13,14, NEB.
  8. Mark 11:14, NEB.
  9. John 2:15,17, NRSV.
  10. Seneca. “De Ira (On Anger).” In Seneca: Moral Essays, Vol. 1. Translated by John W. Basore. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1928, p. 125.
  11. Plutarch. “On the Avoidance of Anger.” In Essays. Translated by Robin Waterfield. Introduced and annotated by Ian Kidd. London: 1992, Penguin Books, p. 193.

Being Justin Bieber

“I don’t know who I am, But you know life is for learning.” — Joni Mitchell, Woodstock


I’ve been thinking about Justin Bieber this week, about him racing his Lamborghini up a street in Miami Beach, about him telling the arresting officer that he had been drinking and smoking weed, about him cursing the cop as he was being patted down for weapons, about him smiling as he was photographed at the jail, about him making bail after eight hours in jail, and about him emerging from the police station into a forest of mics and thickets of reporters and clutches of fans. How fortunate he is, I thought, he has been blessed with a stutter-step out of his routine; he now has time to regard himself. 


The ancient Romans had a shrine to the goddess Fortuna. She was often depicted with a cornucopia spilling out with all good things, or an orb of sovereignty delicately balanced between her thumb and forefinger. Most who worshipped her also knew to fear her because she was fickle and capricious: she would shower gifts on a person and just as cruelly withdraw them to enjoy her subject’s misery.  


Cicero, Roman orator and statesman, invoked her as the symbol of the ceaseless rise and fall of people and empires, and Seneca’s play Agamemnon had a chorus which chants, “Whatever Fortune has raised on high/she lifts but to bring low.”


Seneca and Cicero might kindly advise Justin Bieber to place his trust elsewhere than in the hands of his publicity agent, his lawyers, and his handlers. 


The media, today’s equivalent of Fortuna, raised him up to glory and will now exact its price in blood. There is no pain so deep that CNN and E! cannot make a ratings killing from it. The incident will be examined in excruciating detail, legal experts will be called in, maps will be drawn and bystanders interviewed. The judge will make a statement, the arresting officer will be grilled at length with questions like, “What was going through your mind as Justin Bieber was cussing you out?” And so forth. 


It’s all entertainment, all of it, from the racing to the display of the arrest report to the coverage of Bieber’s release to his inevitable statement afterward. There’s nothing in this whole incident— or any others which may follow — that cannot be commodified, wrung dry for its glitter and grunge, or spun off into auxillary revenue. 


In 1985, Josh Meyrowitz, professor of communication at the University of New Hampshire, published No Sense of Place:The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior. The book won an award in 1986 from the National Broadcasting Association for its insights on television’s power to influence our social roles. Meyrowitz wrote that television is the ‘secret exposing’ machine in society that gives us unprecedented views behind the scenes. What once occurred behind doors or beyond carefully guarded physical boundaries is now exposed for all to see. Meyrowitz argued that the roles we play and witness in our lives are now played out to audiences who are not physically present to us in arenas that do not exist in time and space. In other words, electronic media has made actors of all of us and we are always on stage. 


“Truly different behaviors require truly distinct situations,” he says. We react in predictable ways because we associate certain behaviors with certain physical and social situations. But our ability to accept each other in specific roles relies on our unawareness of that person in other roles. For example, a young woman might be uncomfortable undressing in front of a doctor whom she recognizes as a boy who had a crush on her in high school. “By selectively exposing ourselves to events and other people, we control the flow of our actions and emotions,” says Meyrowitz. “Compassion, empathy, and even ethics may be much more situationally bound than we often care to think.” 


The focus of his research was on television’s ability to break down the walls between actors and audiences and to influence the roles we play in our everyday lives. This was in 1985—two years after Sony introduced the first camcorder, a hand-held movie camera that could record film on inexpensive video cassettes. By 1987 JVC had produced a camcorder with broadcast-quality performance. Less than 20 years after the book was published most people carry smartphones that can shoot high-quality stills and video. More than 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, 80% of it from outside the US. Governments have toppled, politicians have been ousted, marriages dissolved, and cats elevated to cultural icons—all because everything we do can be seen by millions in minutes. 


“All the world’s a stage,’ said Shakespeare, “and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts . . .” 


I can’t help thinking that Justin Bieber, like Kanye West, is a brand rather than a person; that no matter what the occasion or the incident—whether it be carefully scripted or emotionally fraught—it’s all footage for the audience, the beast that must be fed. The fact that both Bieber and West occasionally lash out at the paparazzi only increases the suspicion that they are trapped in a cage of their own making. 


Bieber may not yet be fully aware that his life is not his own, that everything he does is on camera for all the world to see and judge. He is a money-making machine, 24/7, with no time off for good behavior. At times he seems both bewildered and bored, yet he compulsively tweets his most solitary and lonely moments. 


Joshua Meyrowitz thought that what children had formerly learned at a later stage from parents, older siblings, or books, was now available for the taking from television without preparation or preamble. Television had changed our sense of place and space; all backstage behavior was now onstage. Similarly, the ever-present cameras not only give us almost immediate access to situations and their behaviors, but “They give us, instead, new events and new behaviors.”


We don’t know whether to be titillated or embarrassed by behaviors we see on YouTube and television. Through such constant surveillance we are creating situations for ourselves that we have no experience interpreting. But the more awkward the situation the greater the selling point, until we are caught in an escalating rush toward a jaw-dropper such as Miley Cyrus twerking at the VMAs.


Life presents us with countless opportunities to learn, but if we are floating on the surface of our experiences we may not even be conscious of them as anything but a succession of moments. Only as we step back, reflect, and see ourselves can we learn from our changes. It’s a lesson Justin Bieber could learn too, but I’m not hopeful he can see it.