I’ve been arguing against moral anger ever since the day Dorothy Day chided me in a letter, “But isn’t anger a sin?” (At that period I was arguing that feminists should cultivate anger as a means to energize the struggle for women's equality.) My conversion to peaceful non violent resistance necessitated giving up anger and embracing meekness in all its forms—such as compassion, gentleness, charity, forgiveness and kindliness.
Now I have found some surprising support in philosopher Glen Pettigrew’s article in Ethics (Volume 122,January 2012) “Meekness and “Moral Anger.’” Pettigrew seeks to rehabilitate and endorse meekness as a crucially important personal and civic virtue. As a philosopher he invokes the authority of 18th century thinkers such as Hume, Shaftesbury, and Butler. They champion meekness as an important personal and civic virtue and define its core as the ability to govern one’ temper when provoked and act with calm beneficence.
Pettigrew declares that the virtue of meekness doesn’t mean devaluating yourself or becoming mindlessly submissive. Nor does it entail ignorance, indifference or approval of moral transgressions and evils. After all the great exemplars of the virtue in history, such as Socrates, Buddha and Christ, dedicated themselves to achieve moral revolutions for the sake of others. Neither could modern exemplars of the virtue of meekness, such as Ghandi, King and Mandela, be accused of moral apathy or ineffectiveness.
Moral anger, by contrast, despite its great press, actually has many drawbacks. It alienates others and provokes their defensive opposition to changing. When individuals are provoked and give way to anger they do not find catharsis, but enkindle more anger. Anger distorts balanced judgment and lessens accurate appraisals of risks. When an offended person seeks redress or revenge they tend to misread others and miscalculate situations. Instant angry aggressive responses may have served survival in the primitive evolutionary past, but they are counter productive in developed societies.
Christians who seek to love their neighbor as themselves and follow Jesus can understand that anger and contempt are sinful. When Jesus showed bursts of anger it seems more a sorrowing lament over human hardness of heart. Much more consistently and essentially Jesus models and preaches forgiveness and love of enemies. Since love leads to creativity, mutuality and peace, it is true that the meek will be blessed or deeply happy. And yes, the meek also will inherit the earth. Why? Because anger seeks to annihilate the offense and destroy all before it. How then can anger be moral?