Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
“But for those who freely serve you, for them, you are their joy. And this is the happy life, this alone, to rejoice in you, from you, through you.” (Augustine, Confessions)
The Christian life goes hand and hand with a peculiar palette of emotions. At times I’ve reflected that to be welcomed into Christian community–to realize that these defining convictions have become one’s own—is the prelude to (and condition for) feelings of anger and even a sense of alienation or being a stranger among one’s own.
Emotions may seem a superficial matter, especially in comparison to Christian doctrines of God and the commandments by which God binds us. But, like the psalmist who ties both delight and anger to God’s law, theologians like Thomas Aquinas found emotions worth discussing in the Christian moral life. Thus, in the Summa Theologica, Aquinas considers the “passions” in his discussion of voluntary human actions. For him, freedom was key to understanding human beings as made in God’s image and thus to “the return of humans toward God,” the subject of the “Second Part” of the Summa.
Emotions, he understood, have cognitive content. They are constituted by judgments of reality and its significance for us. Our emotions, moreover, seem to provide a space for humans to work on ourselves, on who and what we are. That is, for Christians, learning to feel in certain ways, rather than others, is a way we contribute to our end of holiness.
Psalm 119 displays the relation between anger and love in Israel’s history. Love for that law by which God chose the Israelites for covenant relationship leads to the psalmist’s anger at fellow Israelites because they neglect it. Philosopher John Casey praises anger as an emotion that grasps the person to whom it is directed as a unique individual. It thus carries respect for the other person in her concrete standing before oneself.
One cannot become angry at an abstraction or stereotype. But one can hate them. People taken as representative of some class or other become a natural object of hatred. Thus, anger and hatred represent a key moral choice in each person’s life.
Anger is a crucial emotion for communities that seek together to realize high standards or virtues. Through anger such communities preserve traditions of excellence by reminding one another that vicious acts are betrayals of the standards that give us our identity. The psalmist is enraged by his fellow Israelites’ betrayal of the common moral journey to be God’s holy people. To be on this journey is for him a source of delight in the midst of persecution.
Let us turn for a moment to our current political culture in the United States. I believe it symptomatic of that culture in these times to cultivate hatred toward political figures and the ideas and people whom they represent. (From where I am sitting, this seems to be particularly pronounced with reference to our current president, but I saw the same several years ago when the pendulum had swung in the other political direction.)
Following on Casey, this means that both our leaders and many of our fellow citizens exist for us as abstractions, as types rather than persons. Our political climate is generated and sustained by a system able to create identities rooted primarily in ideological packages: abstract groupings that mesh political, religious and cultural meanings or viewpoints.
The political climate in which we live, in other words, already tutors our emotions. Those of us who find ourselves opposed to one leader or another must ask ourselves, “Are we being shaped by a politics that trains us to see fellow citizens not as particular human beings but as abstract symbols of the opposition?”
This may seem but another feeble admonition to one’s fellow citizens to try and be a little nicer toward one another. What has happened to civility, after all? But for Christians the hatred cultivated in us by a system of manufactured political identities is much more than wasted energy. It is a betrayal of our relation to a God who has chosen to renew all creation by the incarnational strategies represented by Israel and Jesus Christ.
Because our worship of this God must constitute our deepest identity, we cannot be who we are without cultivating those emotions in and through which all persons are seen primarily as concrete individuals who image God uniquely, and only secondarily as partisans of this cause or that group. We should seek to uncover the common goods we share with fellow citizens—those shared projects that make anger possible and necessary, but render hatred unintelligible.
Christians are not simply called to cultivate different emotions from those of our non-Christian neighbors. In fact, in many cases, to say so would be misleading. The Decalogue is not a discipline for our emotions and actions that turns us away from the human nature we all share. Indeed, its purpose is to make us more deeply and truly human. And yet the reception of the law as God’s gift to us—the gift of revelation—manifests a program of disciplining the emotions that is in no way self-evident.
God has loved us while we were still lost. The law lays bare what is at the heart of our fractured common life at the same time as it reveals the way to restored communion. This is why an ordering of the emotions proper to the Christian moral life centers upon joy. Joy, as our response to the revealing of a life we didn’t really know we wanted—a life more abundant than we dared to hope for—bookends the journey of the Christian life.
The story of Zacchaeus displays this dramatically (Lk 19:6). It is because of joy that our anger turns not into hatred or vengeance but to a rebuke of our neighbor lined with the readiness to forgive. (Lev. 19:17-18) And it is because of joy that suffering and persecution serves not derail our Christian journey, but is re-channeled as the work of God in us to make our beatitude complete.
“Trouble and anguish have come upon me, yet your commandments are my delight.” (Ps 119:143)