The journal of Christian Reflection: A series in faith and ethics (Baylor University) that I am looking at is a 2014 publication on “Anger”. There are articles on inappropriate anger, Jesus’s anger, righteous indignation, and divine wrath, as well as other items. As I read through the contributions it reminded me of a number of anger instances: growing up with an (often) angry father, my own anger, and what anger seemed to mean to the Kewa people of Papua New Guinea, with whom we lived for 15 years and have had additional contact up to the present time.
My father had a lot to be angry about: his mother died when he was born, he was brought up by what seemed to be dysfunctional grandparents, he accidentally ran over my little sister and killed her, he had two lung collapses in midlife, and his wife (my mother) was also killed in an automobile accident. He would often say “I didn’t ask to be born.” His nickname was “Temp Franklin”, after “temper”.
Dad was never physically abusive but he was vocally obnoxious. He swore, disliked many of his neighbors, accused church goers of hypocrisy, smoked heavily and drank too much. Later in his life he was an alcoholic. However, I loved my dad and he loved his three surviving children and his wife, although I never actually heard him tell any of us that he loved us—he expressed his love more in writing. He was a hard working man and extremely capable and talented. He was musical (trumpet, piano, violin) and also an amateur magician. He worked as a coal miner, machine operator and, after his lung collapses, he became qualified as an electrician. He enjoyed studying German and his philosophy was bound up in Rosicrucianism.
I was shy and somewhat introverted; my brother, who was 18 months older than me, was an extrovert with whom I quarreled and fought; my sister, 19 months younger, was more passive and a peacemaker, like our mom. It may not sound like a happy household but I cannot remember being unhappy or wanting to run away from my family. I did leave home at 17 to attend college and rarely went back home after graduation. I took jobs where I could find them during the summers—one summer boarding away from home in Pennsylvania and three summers in Detroit working at a diary factory.
I played sports and my anger was sometimes directed at the umpire or referee, rarely at a teammate or classmate. If I felt angry about something or at some one, I most often bit my lip and said nothing about it. Except with my brother—we would wrestle and fight and he, being much bigger, would always win. I would throw things at him and became quite adept at slinging stones and once hit him on the head (at some distance). Another time I threw my toy cap pistol at him, missed, and broke my favored toy gun.
There were a number of guns in our house and we learned to use them for hunting or target shooting. One time I shot into the air to scare my brother and it worked. He ran to the grade school teacher and told her I was trying to kill him. When I arrived at school a few minutes later the teacher read to us (and others—it was a one room school) the story of Cain and Abel. I don’t remember my folks saying anything about it.
Discipline was left to my mother; dad never laid a hand on us, perhaps fearing what he might do. Mother had no such inhibitions and whipped us (boys) soundly on many occasions. I did the same with my son later in life (but never my daughter). I am sure I was angry when I spanked him but I was immediately remorseful and told him that I loved him.
I asked my wife when I have been angry with her and she says it is when she tells me that my clothes don’t match or that I have hairs in my nose or ears that need trimming. That momentary anger always worked wonders however: I repent, sometimes in absentia of her gaze, and change my clothes or trim the hairs.
My wife has never been angry with me, although she has been somewhat “mad” upon occasions. My children have never, as far as I can tell, been angry with me.
I mentioned playing sports and getting angry with the umpire or referee. I was never ejected from a game, although I remember one time when I was warned. My moments of anger have been more in the cultural situations I found myself.
First of all, living among the Kewa people in the Southern Highlands of Papua, I watched what the people did when they were angry. The men would bash their women over the head with a fencepost and the women would wrestle with each other and attack with their garden sticks. And they would yell and scream at each other in the process. Rarely, however, would they physically punish their children. They would shame them, yell and threaten, but they would not hit them.
It is not pleasant in any culture to see men who are angry fight: it leads often to violence and even bloodshed. When fighting, the Kewa men resorted to axes, knives and clubs, in that they did not have (at the time we lived among them) guns. Usually violence was restricted to “payback”, retribution for some wrong, real or imagined.
There are a number of words and phrases for anger and related concepts in Kewa. First and foremost is ratu yawa, derived from rata ‘to chase’ and yawa ‘to cook in an earth oven’. This is a hot-headed, mean type of anger, not at all like Jesus had.
A milder type of Kewa anger is called ini rutu pi or pea poa, which is more like “pouting” and refers to the way the nose is shaped when emotionally disturbed. Children most often exhibited it when they didn’t get what they wanted.
The seat of the emotions for the Kewa is the stomach or liver, depending upon the dialect. An upset liver or stomach is most often an emotional condition and modifications of either present some strong feelings: ‘liver standing up’ represents excitement; ‘liver carried’ is to tease someone; ‘liver with blood’ characterizes a person who is tired; ‘liver dead’ epitomizes disappointment; ‘live bad’ means pity; and so on.
Like in any culture, the people argued a lot—arere it was called—but the arguments often did not seem “logical” to me. They often were about whose pig got in someone’s garden, loaning and borrowing things and domestic problems of all kinds.
In some circumstances I have gotten mad at Kewa men: they often (it seemed to me) lied or deceived me and I would resort to yelling at them, mimicking what they did to each other. It was effective, but I didn’t feel good about it, even if I was mainly ‘acting’.
My anger to the Kewa men was not exactly like that, in that I wanted it to be like that of the Kewa men. As I said, I got loud and “in their faces”.
Perhaps Jesus acted out his parables when he threw the money changers out of the temple. He wanted them to be clear about the functions of God’s house. And the Pharisees made him mad as well: they were hard-hearted legalists who accused Jesus of not following the law. The phrase “righteous indignation” is used to cover the anger Jesus expressed at times. Indignation has a number of synonyms besides anger: resentment, annoyance, exasperation, irritation, frustration and impatience are a few. None of them seem to be fruits of the Spirit.
My anger comes from inside of me, some genetically passed on perhaps, but I really cannot blame anyone else. Is my anger appropriate? I might think so, given the cultural situation, but it is sometimes hard to tell; after all, I am a sinner, although I am thankful I am a redeemed one.
My conclusion is that I cannot be pious about my anger. It must be subdued and overcome with the kind of talk that is pleasing to God. Proverbs 22:24-25 is a good template to follow: “Don’t make friends with people who have hot, violent tempers. You might learn their habits and not be able to change”.