When Justice Goes Mad
“A time is coming when [people] will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, ‘You are mad, you are not like us.’” St. Anthony of Egypt (c. 251-356)
There’s an interesting connection, in various cultures, between anger and madness. For example, while British English traditionally has kept the two words, “mad” and “angry” separated, in American English, “I am mad” and “I am angry,” became virtually synonymous, both of which meaning angry. On the other hand, in some Asian cultures, to be angry is to be (if only temporarily) insane.
I’ve been wondering about the relationship between madness and anger in light of a dinner conversation I overheard while on a visit to northern California.
Two respected Presbyterian colleagues were talking about a young person they both know well and admire. One said to the other something like this: She is really working hard for justice. I’ve seen her on the front lines of protests. She is angry about all the right things.
The sentiment of the conversation as a whole had to do with the vital role these colleagues believe anger plays in motivating us to “fight for justice,” and this young woman was held up as a fine example of the sentiment.
This conversation became a sort of pebble in my soul. Usually I’ll just stop, take off my shoe, and dump out the offending stone, and keep on going. But, for whatever reason, I decided to walk around with one in my shoe for a while.
Something just didn’t feel right about the conversation. What was it?
These colleagues and I are pretty much like political peas of the same pod. I’m not sure I could find a social, cultural, political or religious issue on which we would disagree. So that wasn’t it.
The longer the pebble irritated my foot, though, the more clearly I realized what bothered me.
I’ve come to a point in life when I really don’t think that anger is a good motivator when it comes to justice or much of anything. Indeed, anger and madness are so closely related that it might just be that our anger is the source of many of our most intractable social conflicts and not a good resource for solving or resolving these conflicts.
I’m not saying that anger has no role in our moral lives, nor that anger always leads to madness. Far from it.
Some time back, for example, as I watched on television news the father of sexually abused girls leap across chairs and tables in a courtroom to physically assault the doctor who had abused his daughters, and scores of other girls, my initial response was, “Give that man a tire tool and leave him alone with that doctor for ten minutes.” What was it the ancient Greeks called this, “a kind of wild justice”? At that moment, I would have to doubt the moral seriousness and sanity of anyone who didn’t understand and empathize with that father. But, of course, we also know the judge was morally serious, sane and right in having the father restrained and that the father was right also later to apologize to the court.
However, I still doubt that anger makes a reliable engine of motivation for justice.
Anger clouds our minds and in extremity results in a kind of madness. Even (maybe especially) righteous anger tends to narrow our vision, thwart our moral imaginations, and divide humanity into simplistic categories beyond right and wrong: Good person/Evil person. Victim/Victimizer. Compassionate/Judgmental. Godly/Ungodly.
Anger allows us to praise some and damn others with impunity and without remorse. Anger tends to calcify into hatred. And however much anger may motivate us to get up and march, hatred will inevitably lead us to march in the wrong directions; and to march, sometimes, with a single-minded compulsion and obsession, disregarding and treading underfoot anyone who gets in our way.
But I was left in a quandary: “What might be a more adequate motivating force for justice than anger?” I wondered.
As with so many things, a helpful perspective was waiting in biblical texts that many of us know by heart. In this case, the key seemed to rest in a passage probably most of us have heard and quoted often: “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)
Suddenly a possibility emerged in this text that I had never before contemplated. It may be that this text is reminding us that IN ORDER TO DO JUSTICE we must LOVE MERCY, and we learn to love mercy by WALKING HUMBLY WITH GOD. Maybe this text is not just listing the basics of godly living, but actually disclosing the relationship between these three essentials of life.
So what in the world does this have to do with anger as a motivation for justice?
Just this: I have come to believe that compassion is the best motivation for justice because compassion works for restoration, redemption and reconciliation of the damaged and of those who do the damage and of those who damaged the damagers long before they began to hurt others. Anger, as a basis for justice, only tends to assign blame, to shame, and to make the “bad guys” pay.
It seems to me that compassion is grounded in a realism that recognizes that none of us are wholly good or wholly bad, that all of us have done things of which we are ashamed and for which we feel guilty. Idealism, by contrast, tends to breed anger just as often as it breeds contempt and cynicism. I’ve met few cynics who are not disappointed idealists.
Realistic compassion, by contrast, starts with a truer and more humble assessment of ourselves; it acts in love to restore “the broken” and “the breaker”; and, instead of wasting its moral energy longing for a perfect utopia that never comes (and never will), it just keeps showing up for the sake of love and forgiveness for all who need it while trusting God for the ultimate outcomes.
Someone might argue that compassion only leads to “compassion fatigue,” but I have found that with most of us, it isn’t the compassion that wears us out. It is our arrogance, our vanity, believing that we are the indispensable solution, that our way is the right way, and that we can make it all right.
That way leads to yet another form of madness. But we’ll leave that conversation for another day.
A selected bibliography for reflection on this subject:
There’s probably nowhere better to start than with Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, (New York, 2012). Truly a landmark book. In examining our own humility, compassion and tendency toward anger, I don’t think anyone has done it better than The Desert Fathers. As in the past, I highly recommend Benedicta Ward’s distinguished edition of their sayings (London, 2003); and in this same vein I suggest taking a fresh look at Thomas Merton’s The Wisdom of the Desert (New York, 1960) and Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Way of the Heart: Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Ministry (New York, 1981). It is from Nouwen that I took the epigraph today (p. 33). Finally for those seeking to understand and deal more effectively with their own anger, I highly recommend the delightful book The Cow in the Parking Lot: A Zen Approach to Overcoming Anger by Leonard Scheff and Susan Edmiston (New York, 2010).