Saved from Rage

Saved from Rage
Brian Zahnd

Rage — Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls…
What god drove them to fight with such fury?

–The Iliad

Homer’s Iliad — the closest thing the pagan world had to a Bible — is a five-hundred page war poem. Homer doesn’t sing his song in praise of war, though courage and valor are given their due; rather Homer alerts the world — then and now — to the senseless carnage that can be wrought once rage is let loose in the world of arrogant humans. It’s no accident that the first word of the ancient world’s greatest epic is Rage. And it’s noteworthy that in just the ninth line of the poem Homer asks, What god drove them to fight with such fury? Indeed, what god?

The ancient world saw rage not as a mere human emotion, but as a kind of malevolent entity, a demon, a monster that if let loose could not easily be brought under control, and in its chaos could lay waste entire civilizations. The Iliad is Homer’s beautiful, but bitter testament to the destructive potential of unchecked Rage.

The Apostle Paul often speaks of the blood of Jesus saving us from “the wrath” to come. Christians after Calvin have a cultivated instinct to interpret “the wrath” as God’s wrath, in part because we have lost the concept from antiquity of Rage as a god-like phenomenon that threatens our shared well-being. One would do well to read Homer’s Iliad and then read Paul’s epistles and realize that the “Rage” of The Iliad is what Jesus saves us from as he sheds his blood upon the cross, bestowing forgiveness and forsaking revenge. By his blood Jesus saves us from “the wrath,” because in his forgiving death Jesus provides a place for rage to die. Jesus is not an incarnation of Achilles perpetuating rage, but the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Today we live in an age of exponential rage. Cable news and social media have become factories of perpetual rage. We’ve conflated being informed with being enraged. Of course, the objects of our ire may indeed be manifestations of massive injustice. ISIS-inspired acts of terrorism, black men gunned down in the streets by the state, oligarchs pillaging the planet in their unbridled hubris. Yes, it’s maddening. But if all we do is rage, we will be sucked into the vortex of “the wrath” that ruined Achilles, Hector and “so many sturdy souls.” As Nietzsche warned, “Beware that when fighting monsters you yourself do not become a monster. For when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” Or as Bono adapted it for the U2 song, “Peace On Earth” —

Where I grew up
There weren’t many trees
Where there was we’d tear them down
And use them on our enemies
They say that what you mock
Will surely overtake you
And you become a monster
So the monster will not break you

Rage can create ISIS, but rage cannot conquer ISIS. Those who seek to eradicate terrorists by the rage of violent retaliation will eventually become terrorists themselves, though they will be unable to recognize the monsters they have become. Had Jesus succumbed to the temptation to violent revolution he would simply have become a Jewish version of Julius Caesar. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. And if quoting Pete Townshend doesn’t make the point, let me appeal to James the Just, the brother of Jesus.

The wrath of man does not produce the justice of God.
A harvest of justice is sown in peace by those who make peace.

–James 1:20, 3:18

If we will become a people formed in the wise liturgies of prayer and worship instead of the raging liturgies of cable news and social media, we can enact a prophetic otherness that will endorse the gospel we are called to proclaim. If we can transcend the raging polemics of Us versus Them, East versus West, Christendom versus Islam, Liberal versus Conservative, we can offer the battle-weary a shelter from the storm in churches distinguished by the peace of the Lord. But if not, our churches will be little more than houses of religious rage turning Christians into “just a million little gods causin’ rain storms turnin’ every good thing to rust.” Arcade Fire is right when they call us to “Wake Up.” Unless our churches can enact a peaceful otherness, we will be just another part of the problem.

When the risen Christ appeared to his disciples, with the wounds of his suffering still visible, he did not say, “Let us rage against Rome and the Sanhedrin.” No, Jesus spoke a word from elsewhere. He spoke the first word of the new world. He said, “Peace be with you.” And in due course these earliest of disciples turned the Roman world upside down by embodying the Pax Christi, a transcendent peace that exposed the Pax Romana for the empty propaganda that it was.

So here is my advice for those of us who inhabit this age of rage.

Pray more; especially lean into the well-crafted liturgies that form your soul in peace.

Consume less of the concocted echo-chamber rage of cable news and social media.

Expend your rage in praying the Psalms. Leave your anger in the presence of the One who alone knows what to do with it.

Read more Wendell Berry, Thomas Merton and other poets and mystics — ancient and contemporary.

Get outdoors more. The more you are cut off from the soil of the good earth and the expanse of an open heaven, the more it tends toward a pathology of the soul. In short, being indoors too much is bad for your mental health.

Connect yourself with a church that emphasizes peace, love, and compassion. Sunday morning is not the time to cultivate religious rage.

Learn some practices of contemplative prayer — or what I call “sitting with Jesus.” Reactive people incubate rage; only contemplatives have the capacity to dispel rage and make room for peace.

Get enough sleep. Let sleep be an expression of trusting the Lord.

In peace I will both lie down and sleep,
For you alone, O Lord, will keep me safe.

–Psalm 4:8