Is Anger an Appropriate Response to Suffering?

In the last post, I said that I was going to do a series of posts on some of the thoughts I have been having related to the “theodicy” issue, or the problem of evil and suffering in light of the belief that God is all-good and all-powerful. In this post, I am going to use as my starting point a quote from Harold Kushner, who I mentioned in the last post wrote a very famous book on theodicy called When Bad Things Happen to Good People. In his effort to explain God’s involvement in the suffering humans experience on this earth, Kushner writes,

We can recognize our anger at life’s unfairness, our instinctive compassion at seeing people suffer, as coming from God who teaches us to be angry at injustice and to feel compassion for the afflicted. Instead of feeling that we are opposed to God, we can feel that our indignation is God’s anger at unfairness working through us, that when we cry out, we are still on God’s side and God is still on ours (45).

In this post, I am going to expound on Kushner’s provocative idea about anger from a Thomistic framework in order to determine the moral and theological significance of anger, and whether Kushner is right is saying that suffering should prompt anger.

We tend to think of anger as vicious or harmful. Somebody may say, “I didn’t mean to do X, but I was blinded by anger,” or “anger is wrong; I want to be a more peaceful person.” Aquinas is aware that anger connotes sinfulness. There is good reason for this. In Matthew 5:22, for example, Jesus claims that one who is angry with his brother is liable to judgment. In his discussion of anger, Aquinas asks whether all anger is contrary to virtue, to which he answers a resounding no. Anger, which is a passion, can be aroused according to reason, which makes anger in some situations virtuous.

So how do we determine if anger is virtuous (according to the standards of reason) or not? Aquinas looks at the object of anger, or that to which the anger is directed. He identifies two objects to anger: one is the injury that the person suffers, and the other is vindication (vindicatio) that the person seeks. The vindicatio is the justice that one seeks to exact against an perceived injustice. It is the way of making an injustice right. The vindicatio is an evil under the aspect of good. Denying a person his freedom for a number of years in punishment for theft, for example, could be a vindicatio because it is an evil (imprisonment) that seeks to rectify an injustice (the theft), thus rendering the vindicatio itself a good.

If a person seeks a vindicatio against a person who does not deserve it, for example, the anger would be sinful. If a person seeks too great a vindicatio, such as when a person repays an injustice with a much greater injustice (beating a child for spilling milk), such anger would be sinful. So anger is virtuous if a truly unjust offense occurs and the response is proportionate to the injustice.

What about Matthew 5:22 that says that anyone who is angry against their brother is liable to judgment? In light of scripture, how can Aquinas still say that anger can be virtuous? One way which Matthew 5:22 has been explained is using the person/sin distinction. That is, it is wrong to be angry against a person, but okay to be angry against a sin. Because Jesus is referring to the former in his condemnation of anger, it does not contradict the thesis that anger can be virtuous. This is the explanation Augustine used, claiming that one is properly angered at the sin of one’s brother, not one’s brother himself. Thomas disagrees with this, claiming that if a person is unjust, it is fitting and proper to be angry towards that person, granted that one’s anger is proportionate and the vindicatio sought is just.

The reason is that anger is that, according to Aquinas, has a two-fold object—the injustice, and the rectification of that injustice. An injustice is when a person is not given their due. The order of the universe which is in natural things and in the human will reveals that there is justice in God. God orders things and orders that they be in right relationship, and this is what is meant by God’s justice. Kushner is right in identifying that when we recognize that things or people are not in right relationship, we are participating in God’s justice.

Anger, then, because it is concerned with justice, is properly determined by relationships. In order to determine if anger is appropriate, one must be in some relationship of justice, that is, a relationship that is ordered according to God’s standards. This requires a little explanation. I cannot be angry against an inanimate object, for example, because the inanimate object cannot do me an injustice. I may stub my toe on my desk, but my anger cannot rightfully be oriented towards the desk. Nor can I be angry at a hurricane or a virus for the same reason. I may be hurt by these things, but they cannot be the object of my anger because they did not commit an injustice against me. Anger, for Aquinas, is really properly directed at people.

Additionally, if anger is to be justified, the right rectification must be sought. A child who commits a grievous fault–perhaps he hits one of his siblings–has committed an injustice which the parents, due to their relationship of justice with the child, have a responsibility to rectify. Perhaps they will ground the child, or require some sort of positive compensation to the assaulted sibling. However, the sibling who has been harmed is not in a relationship that allows him to seek the necessary vindicatio. It would be inappropriate for the sibling to ground his own sibling or to hit his sibling back. It would also not be appropriate for a stranger to punish the pugilistic sibling. Nor would it be appropriate if a child was the victim of an injustice committed by a parent to seek vindicatio. If a child is hit by a parent, the appropriate response is to appeal to a higher authority, like the police. In short, in order to seek a vindicatio, one has to be in the right position of seeking justice.

This is why we frown on vigilantes, or civilians who go out to seek vindicatios against injustices that are going unpunished. Because such civilians are not in the proper relationship of justice to the people whom they are punishing, they are actually committing an injustice in their actions in seeking a vindicatio that is not theirs to seek. Their anger is not virtuous, because the vindicatio sought is not virtuous.

Reasonable anger (and hence, virtuous anger) according to Aquinas is (1) prompted by an occasion of injustice, (2) directed at the perpetrator of injustice, and (3) seeks a just vindicatio to restore the injustice. If anger meets these three requirements, Aquinas would say it is virtuous.

So how does this play out regarding the theodicy question as Kushner sees it? First of all, the object of anger must be an actual injustice, not just something that makes us unhappy. Aquinas would not say it is virtuous to be angry if you, for example, get diagnosed with a terminal illness. This is not an injustice that should rightfully prompt anger. Moreover, there is no committer of an injustice towards which one can direct their anger. A more proper response would be sorrow at the fact that one is experiencing an evil, but not an injustice. But it would be proper to experience anger at a news story relating how somebody has been raped or murdered, or to be angered when you hear about the violence in the Middle East or Zimbabwe. Here, we do have an injustice, and perpetrator, which can be the object of our anger.

Second, the anger must be directed at the right person. If I read about what is going on in Zimbabwe and get angry at Robert Mugabe, my anger may be justified. If I read about Zimbabwe and get angry at black people, my anger is definitely not. Similarly, if I get angry at God when I hear about Mugabe’s egregious offenses against his people, my anger is not targeted at the right person. Such anger, according to Aquinas would not be justified.

Lastly, the vindicatio sought must in itself be just. If I decide that I am going to go assassinate Mugabe to stop his injustices, the unjust vindicatio thus renders my anger unjust. A more just vindicatio might be writing to the UN or raising awareness in this country by writing letters to the newspaper or marching in DC, or praying to God for the Zimbabweans who are suffering.

Kushner is right that we should feel compassion and sorrow for those who suffer. But I am not quite sure that an appropriate response to suffering is anger. Anger connotes that an injustice is being done that one can do something about. Sickness, death, and natural disasters are indeed evils, but they are not injustices. Such tragedies may be handled in an unjust way. Hurricane Katrina, for example, was not itself an injustice, but the subsequent way it was dealt with in many ways was.

This is not to say that Aquinas thinks we should remain Stoic in the face of suffering. He acknowledges that the passion of sorrow, which is the apprehension of some pain or evil, is a appropriate. When one is faced with a pain or evil, it may be appropriate to weep, to seek to remove or alleviate the harm, or even, as is the case with Job, demand answers from God. But for Aquinas, and I think he is right, it is not an injustice to experience pain, nor does God owe us any answers. The proper response to suffering, I would argue against Kushner, is not anger, but rather sorrow. The situations that concern Kushner, the death of a child for example, do not arouse God’s anger because no injustice is being done. God’s universe is still in order, even if we suffer.

But this is not the final word for Aquinas against Kushner, which will be the subject of another post on the issue. Aquinas, as a Christian, has not only a God that gets angry at injustice, as Kushner does, but also, a God who through the incarnation, is capable of suffering with, or feeling compassion and sorrow with his creation. And through the resurrection, Aquinas has a God who not only suffers with his creation, but has also ultimately defeated suffering in the grand eschatological scheme. Thus, for Aquinas, suffering should prompt not only anger if an injustice is done, or sorrow if no injustice is done, but should also prompt us to reflect on the God who loved us so much, that he suffers with us, and is himself ultimately the remedy to our sorrow.

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