Father Rutler is Pastor of the Church of Saint Michael in New York City. He is the author of twenty-five books and many essays, and has lectured widely at home and abroad.
The tears of our Lord gazing on Jerusalem, cannot be separated from his violent whipping of the moneychangers in the Temple the next day. Both were acts of love, for he saw how the Holy City had been profaned, and he saw that profanation most glaring in the House of God itself. The word “profane” means to be “outside the holy place.” Distancing oneself from holiness is at its worst when it takes place in a sacred space: “...your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit...” (1 Corinthians 6:19). Philologists say that use of the term “profane” has declined about 80 percent in the last two centuries. Because Christ knew what Heaven is like, the fracturing of its reflection on earth was not a mere annoyance. It provoked him to wailing and whipping.
The violent cleansing of the Temple was an instance of righteous anger, using the strength of temper. Sinful anger, on the other hand, is a loss of that temper. Christ’s righteous anger at the Anti-Christ was far different from the crowd’s anger at Christ.
Observers of the human condition remark how our society seems so angry. Political debates degenerate into shouting matches; comedians abandon wit for coarseness; commentators on websites let loose all sorts of invectives. Unrighteous anger is anger for its own sake—rather like Homer’s Achilles who supposedly was angry at the Trojans, but in fact was angry at the world, shouting down King Agamemnon and even cursing a river when it did not flow his way.
The Ten Commandments temper passion like tempering steel. An intemperate society turns those Commandments backwards: worshiping false gods, blaspheming, killing, lusting, stealing, envying and coveting. It is no coincidence, for instance, that in the past 50 years, with their precipitous decline in moral certitudes, teen suicides have increased nearly 500 percent, and violent entertainments rival ancient blood lust. The anger of young men in street gangs is not the anger of the young Christ with a whip.
Trying to correct this without God inevitably fails. When Hollywood personalities, having profited so long from intemperance, suddenly affect the mantle of righteousness, the result is hypocrisy instead of salvation, with witch hunts instead of reform. In his novel The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne describes the ambiguity of the Puritans: “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.” Hawthorne’s daughter Rose, the widow of an intemperate husband, became a Dominican religious and founded a community for the care of dying cancer patients.
Sinful anger makes people into cowards, succumbing to the fads of the mob rather than the Gospel of Christ, which is why St. Gregory of Nyssa called that kind of anger a twisting of courage. It makes one a bully instead of a hero.