Anger and Compassion

“God Hates Fags!”

“Matthew Shephard is Burning in Hell!”

“No Tears for Queers!”

Those were just some of the signs being held aloft by the protesters at this year’s Gay Pride Parade in Atlanta. The protesters had come all the way to Atlanta from their “church,” Westboro Baptist in Topeka, Kansas, just to deliver their “gospel” of bad news. One sign even said “Thank God for Sept. 11” — supposedly because the terrorist attacks on that date were God’s judgment on America for tolerating homosexuality (a view which was popularized by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson). Another sign read “God Hates America.”

Let’s face it: to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender is to have enemies. They may not be as vocal or as outrageous as the folks from Westboro Baptist but they exist just the same. While our society is more open and accepting of us than ever before, there are still a lot of people out there who stand against us. This opposition is codified in laws that prohibit us from marrying our partners, or in state laws that make it perfectly legal for employers to fire us just because of our sexuality. Or the opposition may take the form of quiet prejudice, as in a parent asking us not to “cause a scene” by bringing a partner home for Christmas dinner.

If just being LGBT gets us enemies, being LGBT Christians gets us even more enemies — from Christians who regard “Gay Christian” as an oxymoron, and also from people in the larger gay community. Many LGBT persons have been so wounded by organized religion that they can’t imagine why anyone who is LGBT would be Christian. And I can’t say I blame them, especially when I see some of the foolishness that masquerades as Christianity in our culture.

In the face of such opposition, how can we as believers in Christ cultivate the compassion he asks us to have? Jesus told his followers to “be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate” (Luke 6:36, NLT).

But how can we do that, when our natural response to signs like “God Hates Fags” is anger, not compassion?

Jesus felt a lot of anger, too. In fact, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin writes, “Jesus was angry over 50% of the time, and it’s very dangerous to try to improve on Jesus. The anger needs to be focused, but anger is what maintains your sanity. Anger keeps you from tolerating the intolerable.” (from The Heart is a Little to the Left)

Most of Jesus’ anger was directed at the religious fundamentalists of his day. We see this in the following story from the Gospel of Mark (3:1-5, NKJV):

And He entered the synagogue again, and a man was there who had a withered hand.

And they watched Him closely, whether He would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him.

Then He said to the man who had the withered hand, “Step forward.”

And He said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they kept silent.

So when He had looked around at them with anger, being grieved by the hardness of their hearts, He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored as whole as the other.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day saw themselves as guardians of the law, the defenders of their faith. In the same way, many of our enemies today oppose us because they believe they must stand against anyone who violates their interpretation of God’s law. I recently received an angry email from a “concerned Christian” regarding a previous article I had written for Whosoever. He was writing, he said, because it was his duty to “protect God’s reputation” — as if God needed such protection!

But Jesus saw beyond the religious leaders’ outward expression of piety. He saw the hardness of their hearts — and he was grieved. He allowed his anger to be transformed into compassion for those who were trying to trap him (and who would ultimately execute him).

Jesus then used his compassion as a channel for healing. He allowed his anger to motivate him to do something: to be a healing presence in the life of a man who needed healing.

Jesus recognized that the religious leaders who made him so angry were, despite their hardness of heart, still children of God, still bearers of the divine image. It’s easy to forget that we are all God’s children, and so we are all related in the interconnected web of life.

In Thomas Merton’s final talk, delivered two hours before his death, he said: “The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another and are all involved in one another” (quoted in A Spirituality Named Compassion: Uniting Mystical Awareness with Social Justice, by Matthew Fox). So, if I allow myself to burn with anger toward those who oppose me, without channeling that anger into an appropriate response, I will only end up diminishing myself, for I am connected (whether I like it or not!) to the person who has angered me.

But because my natural response is anger, I need help transforming it into compassion. I can’t do it by myself. And so I turn to the Source of Compassion and ask God to help me. I pray the prayer of the Jewish mystic, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov:

Teach me to search for the fine qualities in others, to recognize their immeasurable worth. Teach me to cultivate a love for all Your children, for no one, no one is without redeeming value. Let the good in me connect with the good in others, until all the world is transformed through the compelling power of love. (from The Gentle Weapon)

Cultivating this connection, the good in me connecting with the good in others, is the reason many people in Eastern cultures greet one another with the word, Namaste (pronounced “nahmah-stay”). Namaste means “that which is divine in me honors that which is divine in you.” Namaste is a strong reminder that we are all God’s children — all are made in God’s image.

Namaste also helps us to not fall into the trap of returning judgment for judgment. As Henry Nouwen says in The Way of the Heart, “Compassion can never co-exist with judgment because judgment creates the distance, the distinction, which prevent us from really being with each other.”

In our attempts to overcome this distance and to cultivate the compassion of Christ, here are some questions we might ask:

  • Who arouses feelings of anger in me? Is it possible for me to see this person as a child of God, as a person of infinite value and worth? Do I need to ask God’s help to do this?
  • Can I use my anger at injustice as a motivation to do something positive for justice?
  • How can I use my anger as a channel for healing, as Jesus did? In what way can my life be a healing presence for others?
  • In what ways is compassion already a part of my life? How can I fan those embers into the flame of Christ-like compassion and love?