A Sermon by Robert E. Dunham
University Presbyterian Church
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time August 9, 2009
The Time with Children each week is both wonderful and unnerving – wonderful because of the children themselves … and unnerving for the pastor and parents because, well, one never knows exactly what any of them might say. In one church I served there was one boy who always had me a bit on edge because of the questions he would raise, or the answers he would give to the questions I raised. One Sunday I was herding the children through a group discussion about growing up, and asked quite innocently, “What are some of the differences between being a child and being an adult?” My young antagonist’s hand shot up, and I really had no choice but to call on him; and as often happened, he proceeded to make me look like the straight man in a two-person comedy act. “One difference,” he said, “is that when children get angry, it’s called a tantrum, and when adults get angry, it’s called nerves.”
What do you call it when someone gets angry? Anger has been described in many different ways across the years. For its part, the church has called anger a sin – in fact, a deadly sin. And ever since it joined the other six on that ancient list of seven, there’s been a problem. The problem is that not all anger is sinful. In fact, there are times when not being angry is a sin. Tolerance or apathy in the face of evil or injustice makes us complicit in such wrongs ourselves. There can be no earnest spiritual life without the capacity for moral indignation.
Jesus was by nature a person of meekness and gentleness, but meek and gentle persons are often the last people to trifle with. Jesus got angry. He was vehement in the word he used to describe Herod – “go say to that fox,” he said. He was filled with wrath as he drove the moneychangers from the Temple, throwing out such invectives as “hypocrites” and “brood of vipers.” But his was an anger never aroused by personal offense or self-interest; instead, his anger was kindled always because of a wrong done to God or an act of inhumanity. It was always righteous anger.
When the writer of the Letter to the Ephesians says, “Be angry,” it is the righteous kind of anger he encourages. As adherents to the life and teachings of Jesus, our capacity for moral outrage can be a mark of faithfulness. But goodness, it is also a tricky thing. So, we always need something like the prayer offered by the old Scottish pastor George Matheson, “O Lord, You know that I do well to be angry at times, but (help me not to mistake) the times.”
Therein lies another problem. While there is surely a proper anger for certain times, too often we get the times mixed up. “Be angry,” says Paul, “but do not sin.” Fair enough, but how does one know the difference and thus avoid ‘mistaking the times’? The answer, I think, lies somewhere along that fine line between righteous indignation and sinful self-righteousness. It lies in remembering that “anger” is just one letter shy of “danger.”
Dangerous, by the way, not only spiritually, but also physiologically. Bedford Williams, a psychiatrist over at Duke, has devoted a good bit of scholarly time to researching the link between anger and ill health. Among other findings, he offers evidence that young people who score high on a “hostility test” are in far greater danger than their peers of dying young. In fact, those who are prone to fits of rage have an earlier mortality on average than those who smoke or those who suffer high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Several other studies have shown that those who easily become hostile have a four-to-five times greater risk of developing heart disease at an early age than those who can contain their rage.
Anger can indeed be deadly. It poses a mortal danger both those who get angry and those who get in the way of their anger. It can be especially deadening to our spirits, for it draws one into a tightly constricted circle of self. It may seem to satisfy for a while; we may find it cathartic to express rage and see others wither under our attack, but its satisfaction is always illusory and never lasts for long.
I was talking last week with a good friend, when he said, “As I listen to people talk today, what I hear more than anything else is anger… a lot of anger.” I could only agree. Some of the rage out there may be justifiable, even righteous indignation. But much of it, I have to say, is just an unhealthy rage that has gotten out of hand. Anger over unwanted change. Anger at perceived loss of control. Do you remember newsman Howard Beale’s on-air diatribe in the old movie Network – “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore?” Somewhere along the way, I fear Beale’s rant became the American mantra. Its bitter fruit is what our nation is being force-fed in our day. We’ve become angrily divided, increasingly fearful, and thus hostile to people who are different, to opinions that are different. It’s all about us… our wants and our fears. The heroes of our bitterness are the likes of Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly, and the casualties of their acrimonious public rants are the almost-forgotten concepts of civil debate and bipartisanship and the search for common ground and the common good.
You and I may not be able to do much to affect the national mood, I reckon. The best most of us can do is work on our own mess. So, let me ask: how about you? Are you angrier than you want to be? Is your anger bringing you satisfaction or only a deeper bitterness? Is your life more emotionally turbulent than you would like? Would you like to be able to get beyond the anger?
If the answer to that last question is “yes,” then the church has a proposal. It is simply this: “Be angry, but do not sin.” Despite its rather simple phrasing, it truly is not simplistic. “Be angry, but do not sin.” Do not let your anger be a force for evil, but channel it as a force for good. If the anger arises out of self-interest, it is most likely sinful. Put it off. If the anger arises from some injustice, then make justice your cause. If anger rises from hurt inflicted, then avoid the temptation to wound in response, and channel your energy toward that which makes for healing and wholeness. There is a deep temptation to retaliate against that which causes us pain, but responding in kind can unleash a cycle of vengeance, toward the end that Gandhi warned against, when he said, “An eye for an eye eventually only makes the whole world blind.”
“Be angry, but do not sin.” Then, says the letter to the Ephesians, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you … and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (4:31-32). Ultimately, the key to getting beyond anger – the key to the future – is forgiveness… God’s forgiveness of us and ours expressed toward others. To forgive is not to condone an injustice done or a wound inflicted; indeed, forgiveness always involves acknowledging the wrong that has been done, but then opens the door to a future of reconciliation and hope.
Do you know the story of Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton? In 1984 Thompson was a North Carolina college senior who suffered a traumatizing sexual assault. A few days later, she picked Cotton out of a police line-up. On the strength of her testimony and identification, Cotton was convicted and sentenced to prison. Over the next eleven years he was moved from one prison facility to another.
The problem was, Cotton was innocent. DNA tests and some thoughtful attorneys proved his innocence in 1995, and he was released. It turned out that a fellow prisoner was guilty of the crime. The story might have ended there, with a heinous crime that caused years of torment to its victim, and another injustice that cost a young man eleven years of freedom. But it didn’t end there. Eventually they met – the aggrieved woman and the aggrieved man. It could have been a day of bitter acrimony, but instead, Cotton stepped forward to offer his forgiveness to Thompson. Of that moment Thompson says, “Ronald gave me something that eluded me in the 13 years since that [awful] summer night: the gift of forgiveness, not because I deserved it, but because that’s what grace is all about. It was the real beginning of my journey back.” Today they collaborate in the work of the Innocence Project, seeking to bring to light other cases of wrongfully or questionably convicted prisoners.
This week Marla shared an article with me that stirred hope, even in the wake of incredible pain and hurt. It was the story of a young filmmaker who bears witness to an amazing journey toward healing and forgiveness in the African nation of Rwanda. Fifteen years ago the world was stunned by news of a horrific wave of genocidal brutality in Rwanda, when the powerful Hutu majority undertook systematic slaughter of the Tutsi minority – a slaughter captured in the film Hotel Rwanda. A couple of years ago a graduate student in filmmaking in Washington participated in a church mission trip to Rwanda and was so taken by what she saw taking place there that she went back with a film crew and a translator to capture some of it for the world to see. Laura Waters Hinson and her crew interviewed many Rwandans during their visit, and the resulting effort, a film entitled as we forgive, was the Gold Award winner in the 2008 Student Academy Awards for Best Documentary.
In short, what Hinson’s crew found in Rwanda were both vestiges of the horror – including churches filled with the bones of those who had been murdered while trying to seek refuge – and the remarkably restorative power of forgiveness. Hinson saw “eyes hollowed by the brutality of torture and rape,” and children coming of age without their parents’ embrace. But it was another part of the story she discovered that moved her most.
To eliminate prison overcrowding, Rwanda’s president… had…ordered the release of more than 40,000 prisoners, many of whom had been members of the death squads. Large numbers of the ex-convicts were returning to the neighborhoods where the families of their victims lived.
In these villages, many people were … co-existing with their enemies. [This would never have worked in America... we wouldn’t allow it.] Other [Rwandans], however, were [going further and] actually extending forgiveness – which caught Hinson off guard.
[She learned of one woman named Rosaria, who was doing just that, and went to interview her.] Rosaria, a Tutsi, told Hinson that most of her family – including her husband, children, and sister – had been killed by Hutu neighbors during the genocide. Rosaria explained that several ex-prisoners [in an act of contrition and penance] had built a new house for her…. One of the men was a man named Saveri, who had confessed to killing seven people during the [slaughter]. One of them was Rosaria’s sister.
Saveri had repeatedly begged Rosaria for forgiveness. [In the end] she had granted it, she explained, because she couldn’t withhold forgiveness from someone…God had already forgiven.
To Hinson such a story seemed almost surreal… a fantasy. She was actually relieved to find another woman, Chantale, who had not been so willing to forgive. Chantale’s face was lined with grief as she told about the way Hutu neighbors had pummeled her father to death with clubs and machetes before her eyes. One of the men who had participated in the murder, John, had asked to meet with Chantale to seek her forgiveness, but she was reluctant. Finally, a meeting was arranged, and Hinson and her film crew were present. After a handshake, John sat down across from Chantale. Hinson remembers being worried that Chantale would freak out.
During the next hour, with cameras rolling, John pleaded with Chantale to forgive him as [she] bitterly drilled him with questions: Why hadn’t he apologized sooner? How could he imagine that she would forgive him? Did he realize that he had destroyed her life?
[Hinson said] “I was really impressed with how Chantale displayed such strength. She didn’t weep. For a woman in Rwandan culture to look at an older man whom she’d once respected and to chew him out… I thought it was really impressive and strong of her.”
Chantale stood her ground. The interview and later the film left their relationship unresolved, with no offer of forgiveness for John. To Hinson’s mind, that encounter seemed more realistic than did the one between Saveri and Rosaria.
But that was not to be the end of their story. Another member of Hinson’s church in Washington, a writer named Catherine Larson, saw the film and decided to go to Rwanda to see for herself. While she was there, working with translators, she, too, interviewed a number of Rwandans who were working on the reconciliation effort in that troubled land. One day during her visit she came across a familiar face – the face of Chantale, whom she recognized from Hinson’s film. But there was something different about her appearance now. Her eyes didn’t seem so hollow, and there was a smile, where only bitterness had been before.
Larson learned that after Hinson’s crew had left, John had begun visiting Chantale to help her with her crops and other chores. Slowly, [over time] Chantale’s heart began to soften. Six months after the filming, Chantale called her neighbors together, in traditional Rwandan style, and publicly forgave John.
“Having seen the raw footage from Laura’s film and the intense bitterness in this woman’s face, it made me wonder if we were talking to the same person,” Larson says of their encounter. “But as Chantale told us her story, [everyone] could see that something profoundly spiritual had taken place in her life.”
What had taken place, of course, was the incalculable power of forgiveness at work in a human spirit. Forgiveness never comes without cost. Grace is not cheap. But it does offer a way beyond anger. The stories of Rosaria and Chantale and their bold strokes of forgiveness are, to be sure, stories of faith, rooted in their own understanding of God’s love and grace and in Christ’s model of forgiveness. And as such, they could well be our stories, too, for we are, you and I, children of that same God and followers of that same Christ. Most of us have never been aggrieved as were these women of Rwanda, but their story of forgiveness and grace could be our story. It could. Or…maybe that’s not the story we’ll choose to write with our lives. Maybe, like so many others in this land, we will simply prefer to live with our anger, to nurture our grudges, to ridicule and belittle those who disagree with us. It’s a choice, really. It is, in the end, a matter of choice.
 As cited by Robert J. McCracken, What is Sin? What is Virtue?, New York: Doubleday, 1966, 26-27.
 Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton, with Erin Torneo, Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2009.