Is anger a Christian virtue?

We often see anger as a sin, but is that always the case? As Christians, can our anger lead to good? Catalyst Live 2016 speaker Sam Wells says we should put reason before emotion when dealing with anger:

Anger is a rational and emotional response to a perceived injustice and a desire for retribution, punishment, or at least calling to account.

It is flawed if it puts emotion ahead of reason, in any of seven ways:

  • if its judgement is incorrect, and there has in fact been no such injustice
  • if it leaps to conclusions, apportioning responsibility to the wrong party
  • if it inverts its emotion and, in order to maintain a sense of control, blames oneself, thus reversing anger and turning it into guilt
  • if the punishment envisaged is disproportionate, and ceases to be an act of love, for example if it exhibits vindictiveness rather a becoming a means of restoration and eventual reconciliation
  • if it wilfully remains ignorant of its own power, and reacts intemperately and self-indulgently to discharge a sense of powerlessness
  • if it ignores the realities before it, and acts out of a prior narrative that has made pre-judgements about rights and wrongs
  • if it insists on acting for a wronged person, thus exacerbating their diminishment, rather than with them to empower them as an agent in their own right

But if it does none of these things, and puts reason before emotion, anger can be a helpful, indeed sometimes necessary, stimulus to turn appropriate perception of injustice into suitable calling to account. Bill Clinton described the civil rights historian John Hope Franklin as “A happy angry man and an angry happy man.” This describes a good kind of anger that sees and responds appropriately to injustice, but does not allow bitterness to cloud its judgement over all other matters, and never forgets the purpose of anger lies in eventual restoration of relationship. Nelson Mandela could be described in similar terms.

Sam Wells is vicar of St-Martin-in-the-Fields, London. This is taken from the autumn 2016 issue of Engage, due to be published in September. To see Sam at Catalyst Live 2016, book your tickets to the Reading event today.