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Burning Shoes & Cracking Whips (on the Extremely Limited Usefulness of Outrage)


It's easy to tell that Americans are alive and well angry, because we keep yelling at each other about all manner of Stuff That Makes Us Mad. The best way to express your outrage over the controversy of the day? A good old-fashioned boycott, of course.

Boycott Nike.

Boycott Starbucks.

Boycott Netflix.

Boycott football.

Honestly, it's sort of impressive to me how much emotional bandwidth people seem to have; how can everyone get so worked up about so much? I sometimes tell people, "I only have the mental and emotional capacity to care deeply about a precious few causes." I can't afford to get distracted from the central calling of my life, by stopping along the way to start fires about all the things about which I could get bent out of shape. (I haven't even mentioned partisan politics, and the enormous potential for outrage that exists in thatworld!)

Is there an appropriate occasion for outrage? Are there things that should make our blood boil, and lead us into action, even public protest? Of course. But here's my hunch:

Not nearly as much as we think.

Here are a couple questions to help us evaluate whether our instinct toward outrage is fitting:

1) Does outrage characterize my life and public witness?

If we live at perpetual fever pitch, ready to be set off by the next irritation or inconvenience, the weight of our outrage is almost entirely lost. Many of us are so angry so often that no one even hears what we're saying anymore.

We see Jesus in Jerusalem, driving salesmen out of the temple, swinging a whip around and calling people "robbers." But that's the only time in the gospels that Jesus "makes a scene" like this. His life was not characterized by fits of rage and outbursts of indignation. In fact, it is precisely because he was usually characterized by peace, patience, and gentleness that THIS scene, when he's flailing around the temple courts with a whip and shouting at the top of his lungs, lands with such impact. It makes people stop and go: Wait a minute - I've never seen Jesus this worked up before. This must be REALLY important to him!

Is that how people see my outrage? Do they think, "Wow, I've never seen Kyle so worked up before; this must be important," or do they think, "Great, here he goes again?"

2) Am I outraged by the right things?

All things are not equally worthy of indignation. If I am prone to fits of anger over matters ranging from personal annoyance to human injustice, it might be a sign that my personal sense of righteousness and justice is skewed. Should I care as much about getting cut off in traffic as I care about the evil of human trafficking?

Again, consider Jesus' temple-cleansing scene. What is it that was so important to him? What, in Jesus' mind and heart, was worthy of such a public outcry? John tells us, "His disciples remembered that it was written, 'Zeal for your house will consume me'" (2:17). Indeed, that's what Jesus declared as he drove the salesmen out: "My house shall be a house of prayer; but you have made it a den of robbers" (Matt. 21:13). Jesus was worked up because the glory of God had been cheapened. The honor of his Father's name was at stake.

We don't have a hard time getting angry, but I suspect that most of our anger is selfish, not Godward. Our outrage is rarely righteous indignation - that is, being moved to anger for the cause of holiness. When is the last time that you were provoked to outrage for the sake of God’s glory? When’s the last time that dishonor brought to God’s name bothered you to the point of anger? We should examine ourselves to see whether the things that boil our blood, and send us to social media with rants and memes, make us angry because they rob God of worship, or because they undermine our personal opinions or preferences.

3) Is my outrage fostering relationships, or damaging them?

Angry social media posts and sarcastic jabs at "the left" or "the right" or "the liberals" or "the media" almost always alienate us from others, rather than inviting them into relationship and dialogue. You may like the way it feels when your Nike-burning meme garners dozens of "likes" and approving comments. But while it has gained the approval of those who already shared your view, it has likely driven away, and possibly belittled, the people (divine image-bearers) with different ideas, understandings, and experiences. It is almost certainly more valuable to seek to listen to and understand those with whom we disagree, than to loudly ensure they "know where we stand" on any given issue. (For example, have you asked an African-American friend or neighbor whether they identify with Kaepernick's protest, and why they feel the way they do?)

I'm not a perfect example of this. I don't intend to self-righteously wag my finger and ask you to be more like me. I feel my own temperature rise at certain aspects of our cultural and political discourse, and am not above the temptation to take my opinions to Facebook with a slam-dunk, mic-drop statement. But I pray that the Lord will grant me, and all of us, the patience and humility to "seek more to understand, than to be understood," as the old prayer of St. Francis goes.

And let's follow Jesus' example in reserving our whip-cracking (and shoe-burning) for the things that are truly worthy of our outrage.