Thursday, April 02, 2009

A Reflection on Rage and Praise

Why do the nations rage?

Likely a rhetorical question for the psalmist but I want to let that question stand for a moment. I can clearly remember a time when I was at my grandma’s apartment probably in junior high or younger. A few of my relatives were gathered watching TV. As we flipped through channels we came across Much Music or MTV and there was a music video for some metal band like Slayer. It was heavy, hard music and the video was of a large group of people in a cage and they were raging within it; shaking, rocking the cage as the music played. I can remember my uncle saying something like, “See the rebellion of this generation.” What he did not do was ask why were they raging, against what or who were they raging? This is not a question to justify actions because there is little we can do well when gripped by anger but the question should give us pause and help us to think of the internal and external environment that nurtures anger.

John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath can be read at least in part as a meditation on the origins and complexities of anger. The story begins in Oklahoma at the start of the Great Depression. The Joad family attempts to hold on to their farm but as conditions worsen they become allured to the promise of land and work in California. As they travel across the American southwest towards California they begin to see how deep and widespread the hardships are for other Americans. Then as they draw closer to the promised land of California some of the family members begin to wonder whether there will be enough work for everyone. And sure enough arriving in California they are greeted by multitudes, waves of other families who were also hoping for work and a new life. Steinbeck presents the mounting desperation of those who are scrambling for any type of work they can find. He describes the wealthy farms and businesses profiting off of these people. He paints a picture of the hostility that the locals showed towards these foreigners who threaten to take their jobs. These migrant people were pressed on all sides. The locals fought the migrants out of fear and anger for losing what little they had. The migrants fought to under bid each other to secure what little work there was. Steinbeck writes,

“The roads were crowded with men ravenous for work, murderous for work. And the companies, the banks worked at their own doom and they did not know it. The fields were fruitful, and starving men moved on the roads. . . . The great companies did not know that the line between hunger and anger is a thin line. And money that might have gone to wages went for gas, for guns, for agents and spies, for blacklists, for drilling. On the highways the people moved like ants and searched for work, for food. And the anger began to ferment.”

But anger is not the final word in Steinbeck’s vision. Like the in the psalms rage is not given infinite space to consume and destroy. Rage instead is released into the confines of liturgy. And within this space it is transformed. This is the sort of transformation that Tom Joad experiences in The Grapes of Wrath. The family’s and indeed the country’s situation spirals downward throughout the novel. Tensions and anger increase as work and pay decrease. The Joad family’s friend Casy, an old preacher, who travelled with them started to organize some workers to try and strike so that they can hold out for a liveable wage. Farm owners caught wind of this and begin to hunt those organizing strikes. One night Tom finds Casy who is trying lead a group of migrant workers in a strike.

A group of men come and surround them and eventually kill Casy. Tom losses control of himself becomes enraged and kills one of those men in return. The pure reality of his anger that culminated in that moment lashed out in death against that man. In fear of the trouble that he would bring to his family Tom goes into hiding. His family is still able to bring him food but he no longer interacts with the outside world, the world structured in anger and violence. Tom’s hiding spot acts like a monk’s cell as he is forced into a type of reflective patience thinking about what is going on around him. As he says later to his mother, “you get thinkin’ a lot when you ain’t movin’ aourn.”

Towards the end of the book Tom’s mother brings him some food and she is invited into his small den. Tom begins to articulate to her a vision of how the people could restore their quality of life and work together again. Tom’s mother warns him that this will be dangerous and he might end up like Casy did. Tom does not claim to know all the details of what should unfold but knows that his life needs to be offered in the service of another order. The words and actions of the unorthodox preacher Casy and the circumstances of the world around him began to form a type of litany in the den where he stayed.

He knew that his life was now in the order of the people not of power. His anger was transformed into liturgy, a higher ordering. In the climax of the conversation Tom’s mother is concerned about him going off on his own. She asks how she will know whether he is okay or not, alive or dead. Tom laughs uneasily and says,

“Well, maybe its like Casy says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big on – an’ then – ” Then what, Tom’s mother asks. “Then it don’ matter. Then I’ll be aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where – wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be the way guys yell when they’re mad an – I’ll be the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build – why, I’ll be there.”

Tom’s anger was transformed so that his life now became a part of a new order. This is the vision of Psalm 2. There is an anointed one of God, a child of God, already enthroned in this new world. This Kingdom is achieved not through the immature or violent outburst of anger but through entering into communion with God and neighbour.

So why do the nations rage? We do we rage? Our anger can lead us to control and violence. Instead, in our anger we should not sin. Like Tom may we find ourselves drawn or even forced outside the world that fuels our anger so that in patience God would transform us to be love in the midst of those things we once hated. That we might be peace in the midst of all that rages. That the anointed one of God would be rule in our hearts and to the end of the earth.

1 comment:

Heidi the Hick said...

Sorry for being such a pop culture nerd... but as I read this I was thinking of a Rage Against the Machine cover called "Ghost of Tom Joad."

(cuz y'know, Be Passive Aggressive at The Machine is not a good name for a band!)

In all seriousness, anger is still something a lot of us "nice" people don't like to deal with or talk about - especially those of us who want to be pacifists.

I really appreciate the idea of transfiguring it into something positive. And now I must re-read the Grapes Of Wrath because I barely remember it. And I think twenty years later it would sound a lot different!