When (Righteous) Anger is Justified

In one of my favorite Flannery O’Connor stories, Revelation, Mrs. Turpin—a very large, very cheerful, and heartily judgmental soul—amuses herself by mentally sorting people into their respective categories. She places all the people she looks down upon beneath herself and her husband, and only those who have more of what she and her husband have go on the top of the list. When I was a kid listening to my Dad read Flannery O’Connor out loud, Revelation merely made me laugh. Now I read it and wonder “Oh Lord. Have I become Mrs. Turpin?”

For many months, I have been angered by a family that sits in front of us at Church. They file into the front pew chewing gum, and drinking pink McDonald’s smoothies. They plop down and someone surfs the net on his iphone, while another chews gum through every Mass. Once, one of the kids let fly a paper airplane. Sometimes it is very hard to know whether anger is fitting, and if so, how to distinguish between anger at an injustice and judging the offender as beneath oneself. Revelation’s Mrs. Turpin is a fantastic help when it comes to distinguishing between denouncing the sin and condemning the sinner.

One of the first things to determine before justifying anger is whether a real offense has taken place, and against whom. There is a wide range of annoyances that do not merit anger. But blatantly disregarding the reverence due to God in his own house is more than just annoying. Jesus Christ himself resides in the tabernacle, and the Mass is a solemn ritual of worship. St. Thomas Aquinas categorizes worship as an act of religion, which in turn is part of the virtue of justice, whereby we must render what is due to others. In the case of worship, adoration and reverence are due to God. St. Thomas says “Reverence is due to God on account of his excellence.” And further, “Since we are composed of a twofold nature, intellectual and sensible, we offer God a twofold adoration; namely, a spiritual adoration, consisting in the internal devotion of the mind; and a bodily adoration, which consists in an exterior humbling of the body.” Therefore it is not sufficient simply to be present and to offer up mental or spiritual adoration. One should also valiantly attempt to show reverence physically.

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Consequently, if it’s rude to look at your phone when you’re in the middle of a conversation, then you certainly ought not to fiddle around with your phone when you are supposed to be lifting your mind and heart to God in worship. For the sake of God himself, be reverent and try to pay attention. Lower on the totem pole, but still weighty enough to discuss, is the harm done those around you. Perhaps this is the only day of the week they make it to Mass, and you’ve blasted the peaceful atmosphere with slurping noises. Disrespectful behavior in church could dishearten others, or completely disrupt the family with small children behind you. It’s an injustice towards God, towards oneself, and towards others to culpably distract from worship of the Creator.

Having determined that a real offense has taken place, against God himself no less, anger is an appropriate response. St. Chrysostom says “He that is angry with cause, shall not be in danger: for without anger, teaching will be useless, judgments unstable, crimes unchecked.” Just anger shows a certain amount of connatural knowledge—that knowledge whereby a reasonable passion increases understanding of a particular truth. Just anger in this case may increase a soul’s understanding of God’s excellence, and his right to human reverence. In fact, St. Thomas says, “the lack of (righteous) anger is a sign that the judgment of reason is lacking.”

That being said, having righteous anger alone is not sufficient. It must be paired with humility and charity, lest one become confused that the ability to recognize errors makes one superior to others. Mrs. Turpin can help illustrate this pitfall. By her own estimation, she’s a “respectable, hard-working, church-going woman.” Yet, while she stood in a doctor’s waiting room, tacitly putting everyone around her in their respective categories—mostly beneath herself—someone else in the room selects Mrs. Turpin for a whopper of an insult. “The girl raised her head. Her gaze locked with Mrs. Turpin’s ‘Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog,’ she whispered.” Though she was surrounded by those “lesser” than herself, she, Ruby Turpin, was the wart hog from hell. She could never have imagined such a humiliation. The situation is such that many of Mrs. Turpin’s judgments prove accurate, and her anger probably justified.

Most of us, like Mrs. Turpin, have a fine opinion of ourselves and find humility difficult, especially in the face of humiliation. I, for one, feel some kinship with her as she vents her frustration on God. On the evening of the same day as the doctor’s visit, Mrs. Turpin tends to the few pigs that she and her husband raise, and tries to process the insult she had suffered. Addressing the Lord, she demands “What do you send me a message like that for?” How could he allow his faithful servant, Ruby Turpin, to be put lower than (in her opinion) white trash, negroes, and lunatics? How could she be the wart hog from hell? As Mrs. Turpin distractedly hoses down her little parcel of pigs, “A final surge of fury shook her and she roared, ‘Who do you think you are?’” Indeed. Who do you think you are, little created one? Flanner O’Connor masterfully uses the sun as an image of God throughout the story, and during Mrs. Turpin’s spiritual crisis “The sun was behind the wood, very red, looking over the paling of trees like a farmer inspecting his own hogs.” Because, ultimately, we are all God’s little pigs. Good, maybe, for our kind, wise even. But we are his, and our judgments of one another clumsy and limited by nature.

Benedict XVI, in a description of humble souls says, “These are people who do not flaunt their achievements before God. They do not stride into God’s presence as if they were partners able to engage with him on an equal footing.” Mrs. Turpin’s error is not that she judges the actions of others, it’s that Mrs. Turpin judges others as if she has, as Pope Benedict puts it, “equal footing with God,” and therefore above everyone else. Humility requires us to understand our utter dependence on God. St. Augustine fills out the notion of humility with respect to other human beings, saying “we should in truth think it possible for another person to have something that is hidden to us and whereby he is better than we are, although our own good whereby we are apparently better than he, be not hidden.”

With that I must return to my own crisis: the smoothie-drinking family in church. The anger that I felt for so long has dissolved. Now all I can feel is great sadness—because they no longer come. I have no idea how God is working in the lives of that family. I have no idea what baggage they carry, or has been laden upon them. They could have been cruelly treated, or wildly misled and I have no way of knowing. God, their true Father has no obligation to give me a play by play on how he works behind the scenes of their lives. He truly sees the greatness those souls are called to achieve. He sees them as they are, and as they can be, and perhaps will yet become.

Righteous anger has its place, but humility helps temper our judgment. Unless you have a relationship with someone, there is little gained by fraternal correction and much to be gained by prayer, love, and good example. Instruction on proper etiquette in Mass, for example, is best left to the parish priest. God is patient with us, let us also be patient with one another, especially as holidays bring many flooding into the Church who have been long absent. Perhaps our reverence, our sincere love, and our humble witness may be the conduit for a Christmas grace for someone else. Let us together offer to God our anger, and beg for mercy for others and for ourselves. After all, it is the Year of Mercy, and we all need it.

Editor’s note: The image above titled “Expulsion of the Moneychangers from the Temple” was painted by Luca Giordano in 1675.


  • Elizabeth Anderson

    Elizabeth Anderson is a stay at home mother and independent writer. A graduate of Christendom College, she also worked for several years at Population Research Institute. She resides in Michigan with her husband, Matthew, and their five children.

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