Review: When wrath is not a sin

Participants in the Women's March in New York City on Jan. 21, 2017 (CNS photo/Octavio Duran).

Almost 60 years ago, Valerie Saiving published “The Human Situation: A Feminine View,” a groundbreaking study of the concept of sin in which she argued that mainstream Christian theological understandings of sin depended on an androcentric (male-centered) understanding of human experience, an understanding that would change if the experience of women were taken seriously. Thinkers in this sexist framework had concluded that the root of sin was pride or overestimation of self, when in fact, for women, lack of self-worth or self-assertion was the central manifestation of sin. The essay remains a fundamental contribution to feminist theology because it hints at the many blind spots of a theology elaborated almost entirely by and for men.

Good and Madby Rebecca Traister

Simon & Schuster, 320p $27

Catholics learn early on that anger is a sin. One of the seven deadly ones, in fact—a real problem for the spiritual life. Children are taught to channel their anger productively by using language to diffuse situations of conflict, and we are encouraged to include those times when we have been angry in our examinations of conscience and trips to the confessional.

Rebecca Traister carefully notes the ways that white male anger is encoded in culture “as stirring, downright American, as our national lullaby,” while women’s anger remains shrill, toxic and an emotion that must be suppressed and removed from the public square.

Are Christians really anti-anger? Does this make us countercultural? After all, outrage is the order of the day, and we see evidence of this everywhere. Hate speech and violence are on the rise, and social media is rife with increasingly incendiary rhetoric. Twitter is, as the kids say, a “dumpster fire” of rage, bullying and threats.

Moreover, anger has been hailed as a frame to understand the contemporary political reality in the United States: It is the anger of the white working class at their seeming economic marginalization that pundits claimed in 2017-18 had propelled Trump to the presidency, and the mobilizing backlash of anger on the part of women, non-whites and other marginalized constituencies that resulted in a wave of women candidates winning local and national elections in 2018. The productive power of rage, especially the once-taboo manifestation of women’s rage, is the premise of Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger.

Traister, a feminist and a journalist, traces how anger has shaped the American political imagination, from the righteous anger at tyranny expressed in the Revolutionary War through various waves of civil rights, the women’s movement and finally the Tea Party and #MeToo movements. Throughout, Traister carefully notes the ways that white male anger is encoded in culture “as stirring, downright American, as our national lullaby,” while women’s anger remains shrill, toxic and an emotion that must be suppressed and removed from the public square.

Traister also provides a power analysis of U.S. culture, particularly the ways in which an increase in the power of the marginalized (through economics or, more relevant, politics) prompts intense backlash from those who will lose standing and influence as a result: the white men who dominate our national discourse, our boardrooms and government buildings, our media landscape.

Rebecca Traister posits that anger can be both fruitful and generative, and that social movements that are born of the anger of the marginalized have proven successful time and again.

She cites examples, from the frequent portrayal of women politicians with their mouths open in an angry posture to the recurring debates about civility in public discourse, that underscore how we tend to ignore the initial violence of systemic marginalization, oppression and harassment, and instead zero in on and condemn the incivility of the reaction of the less powerful toward the more powerful in society. The Black Lives Matter protests, the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements all exemplify how violent structures and cultural mores (like police brutality in black communities or widespread sexual harassment in the workforce) are rendered invisible until the victims of this violence organize a response, which is then deemed frightening, violent or an overreaction.

With Audre Lorde’s foundational essay “The Uses of Anger” as a guide, Traister posits that anger can be both fruitful and generative and that social movements that are born of the anger of the marginalized have proven successful time and again in gaining more equitable power-sharing arrangements in politics and in the private sector. Further, she encourages women to refuse attempts to silence their anger:

What is bad for women, when it comes to anger, are the messages that cause us to bottle it up, let it fester, keep it silent, feel shame and isolation for ever having felt it or rechannel it in inappropriate directions. What is good for us is opening our mouths and letting it out, permitting ourselves to feel it and say it and think it and act on it and integrate it into our lives, just as we integrate joy and sadness and worry and optimism.

Though Good and Mad is not a work of theology, Traister’s mapping of the double standard of tolerance for men’s and women’s rage, and her profound analysis of the structural “first violence” (as Gustavo Gutiérrez would say of poverty) that marginalization represents, serves as an excellent conversation starter for those of us fighting marginalization and abuse in the church today. Perhaps one addition to Saiving’s 1960 essay on women’s “original sin” as lack of self-worth can be Traister’s prescription for liberation: embrace your anger, integrate it and let it fuel transformative action.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Christopher Lochner
3 months 2 weeks ago

Many of the people who lead reactionary protests to injustices are themselves looking for power to wield, not all, but most. Much of it is as simplistic feel good thought. BLM is much more concerned with the isolated atrocity by the police than the overwhelming levels of violence in community (See Baltimore). In order to combat injustices of the past the new leadership appear to strive to be as much as alike to their counterparts than not. (see Hillary Clinton: the candidate of choice by woman who was owned by whomever paid the huge speaking fees. But men always did this in the past, That a woman could do this to gain power is somehow indicative of equality? I think not. ) And, goodness, Gustavo Gutièrrez being held up as a positive symbol? No, the man is a modern imp with psedo theological leanings, as in, "You have something which I want, I will take it, I am from God and am thus justified, Why, I even created my own theology!!" (I've always had a mental picture of Gustavo having a sacred painting of Jesus wearing a bandolier in his office, the caption being, "I have come to liberate you.") But, hey, who am I to critique the powerful and mighty and this is what it's all about, right? Power meets power and if any good is derived it is only as an unintended consequence. Sheesh!

Alan Johnstone
3 months 2 weeks ago

Wrath is still one of the deadly sins, and such sins are equally deadly whether committed by males or females.
This article and book are misleading in the extreme.

"Catholic" teaching about anger is mentioned when to me it is "American" teaching which is being referenced.

We have several instances of Jesus Christ, before His crucifixion, manifesting anger in word and deed in various ways.
The key scene is the cleansing of the Temple when His male anger had Him fashion a whip and drive racketeers out of the Temple.
Remember, He said "When you see Me, you see the Father". We see the anger of Almighty God at blasphemy, crooked dealings at the core of the Hebrew cult and public worship.
Another is verbal, He pronounced that offences of a certain kind committed against children were so evil that in truth it were better that the perpetrator were never born, but deserved to have a heavy stone tied around the neck and cast into deep water to drown.
Yet another was a severe rebuke to Peter for daring to contradict the will of the Father and plan on preventing His arrest.

This barely touches the moral theology of angry words and deeds.

The article is talking about particular cultures and about discernment and judgement of imagined or real social evils. At the least it is junk pop psychology.
I go so far as to say that it is so wrong that it poses a moral danger to young females who might read it as gospel.

Sin as a cardinal reality has been taught by Almighty God to the human race by a long tortuous path involving selecting one ethnic group and conduction them through a process lasting at least a thousand years.

3 months 2 weeks ago

I was fortunate to be educated by enlightened nuns who used the story of Jesus chasing the moneychangers out of the temple to indelibly impress upon us girls (and boys, as well) the validity and value of righteous anger. It is a lesson I will never forget: It has given me, a woman who basically hates confrontation, the motivation and courage to speak up against injustice, untruth and unkindness when I see it. But the trick is to temper anger with diplomacy, not in order to be “a nice girl” but to be effective, to make the point clearly and to avoid stooping to the level of the offenders. Not easy, but I think I am getting better at it. Thank you, Holy Cross and Visitation sisters!

Marjory Saulsberry
3 months 1 week ago

Amazing article!


The latest from america

Lest the reader assume that Sister Prejean’s work against the death penalty—the legacy that most will have in mind when reading River of Fire—is the sum total of her story, she spends the final pages of her afterword calling out the places where she sees continued injustices, particularly in the
Colleen DulleAugust 16, 2019
The Troubles in Northern Ireland were fought mainly by children—young men and women from Northern Ireland and young British soldiers from other parts of the United Kingdom.
Kevin SpinaleAugust 16, 2019
Over the course of the mid-to-late 20th century, notions of social justice went very, very wrong.
Dominic LynchAugust 09, 2019
Rejecting the implications of the label “minority,” Carrie Gibson tells the entire 500-year history of Spanish-speaking peoples in what is now the United States.
Antonio De Loera-BrustAugust 09, 2019