What to Do With American Rage

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I recently saw that Religious Broadcasters Association’ spokesperson, Daniel Darling, was fired for supporting vaccinations on a cable news channel.

Darling wrote in USA Today, “We are experiencing a deficit of trust in our institutions. At almost every level—political, business, religious—we have seen profound catastrophic failure by those we’ve asked to lead us. . . And yet, in spite of this cloud of confusion and air of mistrust, I felt it was important for me and my family to get the vaccine.” 

It’s reasonable to think that his employer feared the rage of a constituency to which Darling was not towing the party line. Collective rage gets results. 

A week before Darling was fired, Lt. Michael Byrd showed his face in an interview for the first time. As a Capitol police officer, Lt. Byrd shot and killed insurrectionist Ashli Babbitt when she tried to enter through a window on January 6.

Byrd recalled the fear and urgency of the moment he was in. Speaking to NBC’s Lester Holt, Byrd said, "Once we barricaded the doors, we were essentially trapped where we were. There was no retreat. No other way to get out. If they get through that door, they’re into the House chamber and upon the members of Congress."

Byrd saw American rage up close and personal. Babbitt’s rage prompted her to seek redress by any means necessary despite being fueled by unfounded claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. Most of us witnessed collective American rage like we had never seen before.

According to a survey American Enterprise Institute conducted in February 2020, three in five white evangelicals believed Joe Biden was not the legitimately elected winner. Byrd’s life had been threatened and he fears for his life because this American rage isn’t based on righteous outrage about something to be corrected, but on a lie that felt righteous despite any evidence. 

Darling and Byrd were both victims rage looking blame than repentance. 

Why does American rage feel so right? I am calling white rage ‘American’ because other racial groups could never get away with their rage and not feel the righteous blunt response of retribution from white Americans.

The Edison Research exit polls after the 2020 election found that 76% of white evangelicals voted for the previous president. Historian Randall Balmer concluded, “White evangelicals no longer have a hold on society. Rather than accept that all Americans enjoy civil rights and protections under the U.S. Constitution, they seek desperately to cling to the majority status that white Protestant, especially evangelicals, enjoyed for most of American history.” (stlouistoday.com, January 25, 2021) 

Reading David Damico’s book, The Faces of Rage, proved helpful in trying to understand the source of American rage. He wrote, “Rage is a self-protective shield we use to avoid loss, threatening circumstances, or events. It gives us a false sense of control. . . It is empowered by vows we make around our buried losses to ensure we won’t be trapped by them again.” (p. 24)

In other words, rage comes out as avoidance of unresolved loss and needing a scapegoat story of self-justification than the facing the hard truth. Civil War historian and Pulitzer Prize winner David Blight concluded the Lost Cause narrative of defeated Confederacy reinterpreted loss as righteous rage. Blight concluded, “All Lost Causes find their lifeblood in lies, big and small, lies born of beliefs in search of a history that can be forged into a story and mobilize masses of people to act politically, violently, and in the name of an ideology.” (New York Times, January 9, 2021)

Both Darling and Byrd were both victims rage looking blame than repentance. 

What can white evangelical America do with its rage? One of the most powerful people in the Bible was King David. In 2 Samuel 12, David raged as the prophet Nathan told him a story about bullying and inequity. David was ready to go to war until the story sharply and surprisingly turned on him.

The late author Eugene Peterson reflected, Nathan pounces, "You are the man…The word of God is not about somebody else. It is a general, abstract truth, but always personal address…it is always about actual persons, actual pain, actual trouble, actual sin: you, me; who you are and what you have done; who I am and what I have done." (1 and 2nd Samuel, p. 184)

The second story of wisdom comes from 2 Samuel 16. The prophet Shimei threw rocks and cursed David for his handling of the house of Saul. David’s commanders asked David if they could shut up this problem. David, with holy restraint, said “if (Shimei) is cursing me because the Lord has said to him ‘curse David’ who then shall say, why have you done so.”

Peterson added, “summarizing David’s response in these words: Shimei is right; he is telling the truth about me…He faces what he has become.” (Ibid, p. 213) Instead of dismissing the reports with rage, David was then open to repentance. 

Rage doesn’t have to have the last word if it’s received and absorbed into repentant action. 

God’s rage against sin, pride, and hubris was absorbed on the hill called Calvary. There is a place to take unresolved loss and pain rather than trying to assault white marbled buildings in Washington DC or trigger happy fingers on social media. American rage can choose a better way by choosing a target that can take their rage.     

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I much appreciate Pastor Smith's thoughts on these matters that have made the term "evangelical" a dirty word in so many respects.   When journalists make use of the term, would that they prefaced every use with a phrase like "persons claiming to be" "evangelicals."  Perhaps generalizing such a characterization of the label would give pause to so many that might otherwise find shelter in, or take comfort from ideologies that might pit believers against one another for temporal reasons.

Pastor's Smith's conclusion that "rage doesn't have to have the last word if its received and absorbed into repentant action" is particularly instructive. 

In the temporal setting, imagine - just imagine - what would be different today, or how things might be different today, how the events of the last weeks might have been different - had we as a nation, driven by the salt and light provided by the nation-wide bride of Christ, had responded to the events of September 11, 2001 differently - if rage had not resulted in war.  And instead caused us U.S. to take stock, grapple with the "why," and intentionally apply use of the God-given tools of reflection, collaboration, diplomacy, etc to engage in more enduringly constructive ways to bring about justice.    Perhaps all that could be done to slow the stampede to war was done.   

Regrettably, the message of the gospel seems too remain too radical for today's world -  to the point where the  "evangelical(s)" is a mere label, useful as a rod(s) to stir conflict rather than a reference to a conflict-tempering collective, whose wise counsel is worth seeking in an effort to devise effective, repentant actions designed to absorb rage, death and destruction in the name of temporal national pride?  What if Christians embraced, rather than eschewed tools God has given mankind to douse rage, especially collective rage?  What if the "evangelical(s)" were revered and sought out for collective counsel as effective conveyers of how to find paths to justice through effective repentant activity rather than destructive warfare? 

I understand the flow of reasoning in Smith’s article to go like this: 1) The current tendency for Christian America to fly into a rage over many issues -- forced vaccinations, the close loss suffered in the past presidential election, Covid-19 lockdowns -- is explained by the threat (fear) felt by many conservative Christians over the loss of white Protestant Christian cultural dominance in America.  2)  Faced with this devastating sense that theirs is a “lost cause,” Christian America is engaging in a practice common to those faced with lost causes: Creating and believing lies (“the election was stolen,” “the Covid-19 threat has been blown out of proportion to tank the economy and get Trump out of office,” “the vaccination is not safe”).  3) Instead of flying into a rage (as David initially did in response to the prophet Nathan’s story of the stolen lamb) or embracing lies, Christian America needs to acknowledge its sins of the past, admit the falsity of its face-saving lies, repent, and accept its humiliating ‘lost cause’ (as David did with respect to Shimei.) 

I believe that this article is correct in identifying the reason that many conservative Christians are currently short- tempered: we have lost our cultural dominance in America and are feeling threatened by this loss.  As a conservative Christian, I have no stomach for talk-show hosts or politicians (conservative or progressive) who make a living by stirring up people’s fears, dealing in the dingy gray atmosphere where half-truths thrive, and promoting unfounded conspiracy theories.  It is true that fear can provide fertile soil for planting lies that only add to the fear and increase the feeling of being under threat.  Where this is the case, repentance is called for.

What this article fails to acknowledge and pastorally address is that the underlying feelings of loss and threat are not baseless.  The underlying anxiety created by the successful efforts of progressives in government to force conservatives to accept, practice and fund (not simply tolerate) a lifestyle contrary to Biblically Christian beliefs is not baseless.  Nor are these feelings ones for which conservatives need to repent (while allowing the Shimei’s of our world to hurl humiliating insults.

While it has been coming gradually, America turned a cultural corner when President Obama’s position on same-sex marriage ‘evolved,’ the Supreme Court changed the definition of marriage that had been in place long before the days of the Christianized West, the LGB movement added T, Q and Z, and a progressive government began to force these perspectives/practices on the country as a whole through its public school policies regarding transgender sports, and government-funded healthcare provisions forcing all companies (initially) to pay for all forms of birth control and sex-change operations.  In addition, the lower courts supported attempts by same-sex couples to force religiously-opposed bakers to bake their wedding cakes (when many others would gladly have done so).

Pleas on the part of those seeking tolerance for views and lifestyles contrary to Biblical Christian values – once granted – turned into aggressive intolerance for those with Biblical Christian values.  These cultural changes moved from being disturbing to threatening when all the branches of government rapidly progressed (de-gressed) from endorsing a plurality of lifestyle options to enforcing non-Christian options.  President Trump was elected, in part, because he gained the support of those who were convinced that these cultural changes came too fast and went too far. 

I have no difficulty acknowledging that many conservative Christians are currently short-tempered because of feeling threatened by the loss of cultural dominance.  People seldom are on their best behavior when they feel under threat.  Improper behavior requires repentance.  Yet, in my assessment of the situation, the threat felt is not due primarily to the loss of cultural dominance but to the attempt of progressive branches of the government to forcefully impose the “new” values on the nation as ones we all must embrace, fund, and teach to our nation’s children.

The article would have benefited by carefully distinguishing what requires Christian repentance and what does not, and by offering Christianly commendable approaches to handling feelings of loss.

This article contains some good insights, but it is quite partisan and careless with facts. The author suggests that Daniel Darling and Michael Bird are victims of white rage. Before attributing Darling's firing to white rage against vaccination, keep in mind that vaccination rates are lower among blacks than whites. Before depicting Bird as a victim of white rage, keep in mind that black officer Bird shot and killed an unarmed white woman without facing any charges. He's alive; she's dead.

The author equates American rage with white rage, but American rage is not unique to white, conservative evangelicals. Vast numbers of liberal Americans refused to believe that Donald Trump was the legitimate winner of the 2016 election. They erupted in rage and embraced false narratives about Russian interference. They tried to undo the election by impeaching the President. When a white officer killed an unarmed black man, George Floyd, there was widespread rioting, destruction of property, and loss of life. Sad to say, rage infects people of all races and all political persuasions. We all need to repent and go to the cross--the author is surely right about that.

The article states that Shimei was a prophet, but this is incorrect. Shimei was from Saul's clan, hated David due to political rivalry, and cursed him when David seemed doomed. David did not immediately retaliate against Shimei, reasoning that maybe the curses were prompted by the Lord. But David later instructed his son Solomon to arrange a bloody death for Shimei (2 Kings 2:9).  So this is probably not a good example for Christians to follow.

Well, Reggie,

I guess you have told us a few things we didn't want to hear, but needed to hear. Thanks for your thoughts and reflections. It's not possible to cover every angle in a piece that length. But you put before us some things we need to face.

Carry on,

Tom Niehof