Room for the Devil Print
By Brad Miner   
Monday, 15 August 2011

In describing my 2004 book about chivalry, a reviewer wrote that I am “one of those unassuming personalities who is quietly ready for all emergencies. A liberal who became a conservative, a secularized Protestant who became a Catholic, an intellectual who has plunged into the business world, a gentle man . . .” – and then he made mention of my martial-arts training. I blushed when I read it, but not because I’m humble.

I was embarrassed by what I knew to be true about me, and he did not: I’m an angry man. I have a secret enemies list, and the martial-arts training – which I’m still doing (in modified form and in moderation) – is a way of expiating a certain amount of existential rage: indeed, the heavy bag I pummel in the gym represents one or another of my antagonists. Gentle man? Not by a truly Christian measure. (I will note that “gentle,” back when it got melded with “man,” had the original meaning of “polished,” as a sword might be. A sharp-edged man who fought his way to lands and titles was said to have been “gentled.”)

I haven’t been terribly hard on myself about the anger, because in my experience, neither guilt nor shame is a particularly effective means of breaking free of either spiritual or psychological restraints. At one point in my life, I read much of the wonderfully peculiar work of the Dutch philosopher Spinoza (d. 1677), who at one point in his Ethics writes (and I paraphrase from memory): Once we have had a clear and distinct idea about a passion, it ceases to be a passion. By “passion” he meant a sin or an illusion. And it is ever more clear to me that to love Jesus Christ – to have clear and distinct knowledge of the incarnate God – is finally to be free of anger. No doubt I could write the same about the other deadly sins, but my concern here is with ira: rage, fury, wrath.

Not all anger is wrong, of course. Aristotle thought lack of anger or insufficient anger was at times a fault. Detachment is a great virtue, but it’s hard to imagine being so disinterested that we feel no anger about abortion or child abuse or any other grave injustice. And as W. H. Auden wrote: “Anger, even when it is sinful, has one virtue: it overcomes sloth.” Anger is a tool, like a one iron in your golf bag. You may not use it often, but it’s there when you need a long, straight shot. Then you put it back in the bag.

 
         Jesus Driving the Merchants from the Temple (Jacob Jordaens, c. 1650)

           In this regard, the example of Jesus cleansing the Temple in Jerusalem is often cited – appositely, I believe. Our Lord certainly did not feel rage, which is anger exploded into destructive sinfulness, but neither did He speak sweet reason to the buyers and sellers who had turned His Father’s house into a den of thieves. He drove them out. He whipped them. He loved them too. But to do the driving and the whipping, as I have tended to, without the loving is to give back to a reckless and violent world its mirror image.

As a rule, and over the course of my life (all of it as a nominal Christian, most of it as a Catholic), I have not loved my enemies. I have sometimes hit them square on the chin. When my sons were old enough to hear or watch adventure stories, there was almost always a scene in which the hero has the drop on the villain, has him in his sights, then has a moment of doubt and lets the bad man live. I’d close the book, hit the mute or the pause button. The boys would look over at me, and after a while they didn’t have to wait for me to say it, they would recite: “Always take the shot.”

But that’s a literary/cinematic reaction, empirically based on the fact that ten times out of ten the bad guy ends up shooting the good guy or his lady friend or in some way comes back near the end to create havoc – all because our hero hadn’t earlier been more pragmatic. Maybe there’s a Scripture passage to be cited in support. If so, I don’t know it, but I will quote the great Scot philosopher Adam Smith (d. 1790): Kindness toward the guilty is cruelty to the innocent. This is why Catholics have just-war theory.

And yet the line between criminal and scapegoat is thinner than I ever acknowledged. The Catholic “default” position is forgiveness, which comes from love, which is the single word that most adequately describes our faith. James writes: “Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger . . .” He could have ended there, but he adds: “for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God.”

I suspect there are other angry Catholics out there – folks who, as I do, find it hard to turn the other cheek; who believe that their anger indicates commitment; that all indignation is righteous. It’s not.

What’s most chilling isn’t recognizing this mortal sin in myself but seeing it arise as what “social scientists” call a “leading indicator,” here in the United States and around the world. Nations are on the verge of self-destruction, because anger – rage even – is tearing them apart. Spinoza also wrote that peace isn’t a lack of war; it’s a virtue arising from the courage of the soul.

Paul warned us not to “let the sun set on your anger” lest we “leave room for the devil” (Eph. 4:26).

Let it be ever so.

 
Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing,  a senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA. One of his books, The Compleat Gentleman, was recently published in a revised edition.

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