Lent gives Christians a refreshing opportunity to bring the topic of sin out into the open. In this season, we’re reminded that Christ’s love takes away our shame and sets us free to be honest. Hopefully this invitation generates not only personal repentance but critical thinking about what we consider sinful, and why.
Contemplating the Seven Deadly Sins, for example, I’m struck by the fact that they’re all feelings or states of mind, not actions. True, a lot of our day-to-day misbehaviors are the mindless result of bad dispositions that we’ve allowed to become habitual. If I approach others with a routinely suspicious and fault-finding outlook, people are less likely to respond to me with intimacy and candor, which then perversely confirms my distorted view that everyone is a cold-hearted liar.
On the other hand, we can be deprived of a crucial tool for healing when careless over-generalization misidentifies the emotion as the sin, rather than its unskillful expression or unfair choice of target. Fear or anger may be a perfectly rational response to conditions in a person’s life, now or in the past. For some, those conditions were so extreme or long-lasting that the emotional response is neurologically ingrained, not amenable to shutdown by an act of willpower. When the religious community judges and stigmatizes the emotion itself, that person is impeded from coming out of denial and learning the emotion’s true cause.
In the conservative church, where faith is the primary command, fear may be targeted as a sign of failure. The liberal church, which prioritizes social harmony and benevolence, may struggle to have a nuanced conversation about anger. As we Episcopalians unpack our legacy of establishment privilege, we should take a fresh look at our checklist of sins from the perspective of the oppressed — those who “hunger and thirst after righteousness”, those whose anger has a just cause and represents a step toward self-determination. In a paradigm where there are only benefactors and sufferers, this perspective goes unheard.
Anger is the torch by whose light we see what has been done to us. Do we douse it because fire can sometimes go out of control?
In her book Sermons for a Lesbian Tent Revival, radical feminist playwright and activist Carolyn Gage includes a provocative (and funny) exposition of “The Seven Deadly Sins and How to Bring More of Them Into Your Life”. I don’t endorse all of Gage’s work — like many Second Wave rad-fems, she’s offensively transgender-phobic — but when she’s on, she’s on. Here, “Sister Carolyn of the Sacred Synapse” analyzes the varieties of angry experience, better than any preacher I know:
Okay, but what about Wrath? Sister Carolyn believes in Wrath. She believes a woman’s Wrath is sacred. What does the dictionary have to say about Wrath?
1: strong vengeful anger or indignation
2: retributory punishment for an offense or a crime: divine chastisement
Divine chastisement. Yes ma’am!
And where does this word come from? It comes from an old English word for “twisted”. And that is when you are trying to turn one way and something is forcing you to turn the other…and it is SQUEEZING you, sisters…just wringing the breath out of you. Like trying to know the truth when someone is feeding you lies. Like trying to be free when someone is trying to control you. Like trying to do something radical and counterclockwise with your life, but finding out that all your old conditioning is just going to keep twisting you clockwise.
WRATH. Yeah! Like loving a planet when it’s being ruined. Like caring for your sisters and seeing them have to live every day in a war zone. WRATH. Like raising your children and seeing the whole world geared up to violate them…Yes, sisters, bring it! Let’s get our Wrath on! (pgs. 142-43)