(Luke 18:2-5; Matthew 5:21-22; Ephesians 4:26; Mark 3:1-6)
The Fifth Circle of Hell is a pretty dramatic place – or state of being, I should say. You can see the photo above from the latest National Geographic expedition. Pretty dramatic. I think we’ve all been there, or at least we’ve gotten a close-up look.
The Fifth Circle of Hell is the circle of anger.
Now, this is according to Dante, the poet from long ago, who wrote about the evolution of his soul as it went on the journey from hell to purgatory to paradise. There’s a lot of wisdom and beauty in how he describes these realms, which is why Dante is famous, despite the fact that probably none of us have actually read the books.
At any rate, in his telling, the Fifth Circle of hell is the circle of anger, the realm where souls are stuck in anger. He describes it as being a quagmire – it’s a sticky, mucky bog of toxic sludge.
The souls that are stuck in this quagmire of anger are two types: 1. Those caught up in wrath and 2. Those caught in sullenness.
You can see them on the cover of your bulletin, which is, yes, actually art by William Blake. On the top are those caught up in wrath and on the bottom those caught in sullenness.
First, those who are wrathful. In Hell they are punished by more of the same, forever. They writhe around in the muck bludgeoning each other … for eternity, they beat and get battered in this never-ending battle of blame and bruised egos.
Maybe it’s thrilling for a bit, or even a little fun for a while, but a whole lifetime of it … just ask soldiers and street-fighters, it’s either totally deadening or totally nauseating. War is hell. Then just imagine thrashing around in this toxic sludge for centuries and millennia – endless, repeating cycles of violence. It’s a spiritual sickness.
So that’s the quagmire of wrath, that’s what we can get caught up in when we lash out in anger.
This is the aspect of anger that Jesus warns against in our reading from Matthew, from the Sermon on the Mount. He’s pointing out the connection between acts of violence and the state of anger that leads to them. Anger often has this desire in it to get back at someone. If someone’s hurt me, or threatens to hurt me, or I think they’ve hurt me, or if they hurt someone or something I care about, I get angry and want to hurt them back.
Anger says, “Do unto others as they have done unto us.” (See how that’s very different from “Do unto others as we would have them do unto us, as we know they should do unto us, whether that’s what they’re doing or not.”) Do to others what they have done to us, or what we think they’ve done to us: that’s anger.
And Jesus is saying, “Watch out for that anger, because it could pitch you into Gehenna,” which is the burning trash heap outside of town, the place of soul sickness, a quagmire of wrath.
The wisdom here is that when we answer violence with violence and meet hate with hate, we just get pulled down and get stuck in toxic sludge, and we need a Higher Power to get us unstuck.
Okay, fine, so if I get angry I should just feel guilty about it, and push it down, tuck it away, get over it, move on, grit my teeth and sing “kumbaya.” Is that the message here?
No, that’s not the message. That’s a bad idea. That still sticks me with anger. It puts me with the second group of souls stuck in the Fifth Circle of Hell: The Sullen.
These are the souls who swallowed their anger … only to find that their anger swallowed them.
Look at the image again on the cover. These souls are wallowing at the bottom of the swamp. They’re depressed, defeated, drained out, sunken, sullen, alcoholic, melancholic… This is a state of the soul that has repressed anger.
It often happens among folks who don’t have power. Expressing anger is often the privilege of the powerful; repressing anger is often the obligation of the powerless. If someone doesn’t have power, they have to be real careful about not lashing out in anger, because that’ll just invite retribution from those who have power over them and want to keep them powerless.
Anger can get people killed.
A clear example is someone who is in an abusive relationship where their partner is a lot stronger than they are. If the person who is abused, most often a woman, let’s her anger out, her abuser has already promised that that will be her death sentence.
Or another example is under Jim Crow or Apartheid, and still to this day in some ways, where white folks can literally push around Black folks, and if a Black person finally snaps and lets out their anger about all the endless harassment, they will end up dead the next morning and maybe others with them.
Now, those are dramatic examples, but it happens in more subtle ways as well. Just think about whose anger is taken seriously and even celebrated, and whose anger is chastised or dismissed or treated as a horrible, horrible thing.
But also folks can repress anger just because they just have a mild temperament, or they actually take Christianity seriously and try to avoid anger.
But the problem is that anger happens, it just happens to all of us – we get angry living in this world full of other human beings who can be obnoxious and mean and stupid and short-sighted and selfish and unfair (God help us all).
So what do we do? How do we stay free from the quagmire of anger and avoid getting stuck either in wrath or in sullenness?
The antidote to the quagmire of anger, I propose, is moxie. Holy moxie.
Moxie: Spunk. Piss and vinegar – with a little honey. A stubborn spirited dedication to the struggle for what is good and true and just, come what may.
See, often-times we get angry for good reasons. Now, most times we get angry for petty reasons. But often enough, we get angry for good reasons. We’ve been hurt, we’ve been disrespected, something has happened that should not have happened and now someone we care about, some vision or value deep in us is hurt or under threat.
So anger can be a signal to us that something is wrong. And anger gives us a jolt of energy to do something about it. Now, what we do about it is a different matter. Anger says, “hurt them back” “break some windows” “burn it all down.” Not helpful. But it is helpful in what it signals and in what it can spark in us. So we can respond to our anger and say, “Thanks, Anger. Now I know something’s wrong, and now I have a lot of energy to do something about it. I’ll pass on your proposal of what to do. But now I’m sparked and I’ll take it from here. See you later, Anger.”
Then we can feed that energy into the moxie we need to do what it actually takes to address the problem: creative, helpful, openhearted, dedicated action.
I have for you two examples from the Gospels of this holy moxie.
The first is Jesus breaking the law for the sake of love. A man came to Jesus and needing healing. But it was the Sabbath and you’re not supposed to work on the Sabbath. Jesus challenged the people around him to tell him if it’s okay to work on the Sabbath for the sake of healing. But they were a bunch of biblical literalists, and felt uncomfortable about breaking the rules.
Then, “Jesus looked around at them with anger” – hmm, Jesus felt anger. But hear what he felt next: “He was grieved at their hardness of heart.”
He felt grief. Grief: this is a great signal to us of whether our anger is legitimate, or if it’s just our own selfish blustering. (A lot of anger, as you know, is just a whole lot of show, it’s an alpha ape throwing sand in the air). But if there’s grief along with the anger, that directs us to the legitimate harm that’s giving rise to our anger.
Jesus connects that harm to hardness of heart, and in response he opens his heart. And he acts with a bold, strong, clear act of love. He breaks the law and heals the man.
Then the biblical literalists themselves get angry, but in the hardhearted blustering way – they’re caught in the swamp of wrath, they don’t like Jesus challenging their power, so they plot vengeance against Jesus. They move from anger to quagmire; Jesus moves from anger to holy moxie.
The other story of holy moxie is about a widow, a woman who is one of the most powerless people in her society, who is tenacious in demanding justice from one of the most powerful people in her society – a judge. She pesters him until he relents and does the just thing.
Evidently, somebody has wronged her.We don’t know how. Maybe it’s someone trying to cheat her out of whatever her late husband left her, maybe it’s someone who is harassing her or abusing her or violating her. Maybe she’s fallen in love with a woman and people are terrorizing them for it. Whatever it is, she doesn’t get sullen, she gets spunky – she gets bold and brazen enough to confront the judge in her town and force him to do the right thing.
He doesn’t care about her. He doesn’t care about what the right thing is. Jesus even says he has no fear of God and no respect for other people. But she is so relentless, so clear about what is good and true and just, that she wears him down until he relents.
Jesus says, that’s how we should pray, bold and relentless, and he’s holding this widow up as an example of how we should act, bold and relentless, on behalf of what is good and true and just.
So maybe you’re feeling some anger, maybe some grief, at wrongs that have been done or wrongs that are ongoing, or that are yet to come. Let’s help each other avoid sullenness and avoid wrath, and instead use the energy of that anger as a spark plug for holy moxie.
May it be so.
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered November 20, 2016 at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg.)