by Dave Markay
Nearly fifty years after the “Summer of Love”, will the months we have just lived through be known as the “Summer of Anger”? Vicious terrorist attacks, attempted coups, military crack-downs, heightened referendum rhetoric, political party in-fighting, populist rage, a rise in hate crimes, growing movements of intolerance… It’s been one of the hottest summers on record, and there’s no sign of the temperature falling any time soon.
Writing after a week of particularly violent tragedies, the columnist Fidelma Cook turned the focus on ourselves, lamenting, “Life goes on but, oh, at what cost to our souls?” (The Herald, 23 July 2016). Or, as one person I know sighed with exasperation: “How much more of this can we take? I mean, I want to be a Christian and all, but I can feel myself getting swept up in all this anger, almost like I am getting radicalised.”
Reflecting theologically on anger – around us and within us — addresses not only the safety pins on our lapels, but the condition of our hearts behind them. It forces us as individuals and congregations to confront the question: “Who would God have us be in the midst of all this hatred?”
I have found some comfort in a 3rd century letter in which one Christian described his place in a violent world:
“…if I climbed some great mountain and looked out over the wide lands, you know very well what I would see – brigands on the high roads, pirates on the seas; in the amphitheatres men murdered to please applauding crowds; under all roofs misery and selfishness. It is really a bad world, Donatus, an incredibly bad world. Yet in the midst of it I have found a quiet and holy people. They have discovered a joy which is a thousand times better than any pleasures of this sinful life. They are despised and persecuted, but they care not. They have overcome the world. These people, Donatus, are the Christians – and I am one of them” (from Cyprian’s ‘Letter to Donatus’).
What was their secret, that little band of Jesus-followers? I suppose they were not entirely consistent, not always Christ-like, nor “quiet and holy” 100% of the time. But they must have been on to something — enough to be noticed as slightly peculiar and even appealing to those who observed them. Amidst the brigands and pirates of their day, they seem to have been paying attention to Someone else more intently.
Prayer has sometimes been defined as ‘paying attention to, stretching towards…listening carefully for God.’ When other voices scream out, our quietness is not a contemplative escape; more a counter-cultural way of listening. Amidst argumentative chatter and loud vitriol, it is not easy to hear the voice of the One who commands Peter to put his sword back in its sheath, or who looks down from the cross at the angry faces, and forgives them. With so many other voices clamouring for our attention, his is not an easy voice to catch or to follow. Cyprian’s Christians had to be quiet for a reason.
Baptising a little baby one sultry Sunday morning in July felt innocently incongruous after the headlines of the previous week. The parents of the child gave me a prayer they had been inspired to write for the occasion. So, somewhere between asking them “Will you turn away from evil and all that denies God?” and “Will you set before your child examples of faith that through your prayers, words, and deeds, she may learn the way of Christ?” I read their prayer. In it, they thanked God for their daughter and concluded with these words: “We pray for every child, born so full of hope, each one as precious as our own; help us to raise a generation of goodness to build a beautiful future for your wonderful world.”
After reading their prayer on that hot morning, the water in the font felt especially cool. In fact, the whole baptism felt different: less show, more purpose; less ritual, more resolve; less ceremony, more faithful defiance against all that is bad. If radicalisation means ‘getting back to the roots’, we were being reminded of our own.
We finished the liturgy: “Do you trust in Jesus Christ as Lord, and the Holy Spirit as Helper and Guide?”
Response: “With God’s help we will.”