A new book is out: Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness, by Jennifer Berry Hawes. It tells the remarkable story of how some survivors (and family members) of the murderous rampage at that church forgave the shooter at his bond hearing. What makes the remarkable even exceptional is that the shooter, to this day, is unrepentant and maintains his belief in the rightness of what he did. Those who forgave did so without his having done anything to merit it.

In case you’ve forgotten, on June 17 of 2015 the murderer walked into a Bible study at the historical black Emanuel A.M.E. Church with a loaded Glock and 88 rounds of ammunition and killed nine people while leaving three alive.

If anything deserves our anger, it is this. If anyone is undeserving of forgiveness, surely it is him.

And yet…

Elul Preparation for the High Holidays

Today is the 4th of Elul, the month of spiritual preparation leading to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. We turn our focus to the year now ending. We look for things we have done well as well as times that we’ve erred. We consider harm we’ve done to others while also considering pains that we have suffered at the hands of others.

In her 2016 book Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice the University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum explores these topics. In my four blog posts during Elul I’ll share with you some ideas from the book, providing fodder for your introspection. We’ll discuss these posts during our two Shabbat gatherings as well as at our Selichot program closer to Rosh Hashana.

The Problems With Anger

Nussbaum begins with an exploration of the nexus between anger and justice/reconciliation.

She poses questions. Is anger a useful tool in achieving reconciliation or justice? Is it effective? Is it moral?

What about justice itself? Is justice well-served when it springs from anger? What kind of justice is it that responds best, or only, to anger? Can it be a real justice? Or does the poison that anger often holds threaten too much damage?

Anger Is Not Necessary to Justice
In our culture, some argue that anger is necessary to the pursuit of justice. Nussbaum disagrees.

Many argue that when one is wronged, anger is necessary to the protection of dignity and self-respect. If I don’t get angry when someone does me wrong, I haven’t adequately projected my respect for myself, I haven’t maintained my dignity. Anger is the proper – and perhaps only – way to achieve these things.

Nussbaum disagrees, and illustrates how often our anger – uncontrolled, perhaps – denigrates our dignity rather than elevating it.

Many argue that anger is the proper expression of the seriousness with which we take the wrongdoer. Rather than treating him like a child, or a person of diminished responsibility, anger expresses our respect for the person in his agency.

Against this, Nussbaum argues that such respect and seriousness can be expressed without anger.

Finally, many argue that anger is essential to combating injustice. To which Nussbaum responds that not only is it not necessary, but that some of the greatest combatants of injustice in our lifetimes – Gandhi, King, Mandela – eschewed anger to the greatest extent possible.

Anger Is Problematic, Practically Speaking

Nussbaum reminds us of the multitude of ways in which anger is practically problematic.

We can think of our intimate lives – spouses, partners, children, close friends. Does the expression of anger more often lead to resolution or to increased friction? For the many cases of reconciliation between people who don’t speak to one another, aren’t there at least as many cases wherein reconciliation has not been effected, and where tremendous amounts of pain have been inflicted in the meantime?

As far back as the Bible, personal retribution was replaced by a system of impersonal courts, implementing fair laws so that the result of A killing B wasn’t B’s family seeking revenge against A and his kin. Anger begets anger, vendettas and an unending cycle of Hatfields & McCoys.

Anger is Problematic, Morally Speaking

More significant, perhaps, is that anger as a foundation for justice is morally problematic.

Nussbaum writes that “…anger includes, conceptually, not only the idea of a serious wrong done to someone or something of significance, but also the idea that it would be a good thing if the wrongdoer suffered some bad consequences somehow.” (5)

The road of payback, as she calls it, is flawed because it mistakenly believes that “the suffering of the wrongdoer somehow restores, or contributes to restoring, the important thing that was damaged.” (5). Of course, rationally we know that she’s right. Shooting someone who had shot someone else would not undo the victim’s pain or suffering. Torturing a torturer or raping a rapist is not going to restore the well-being and dignity of the person tortured or raped. We might feel that justice had been served, but would it?

Regarding the road of status, as she calls it, anger makes a lot of sense. If what I have suffered is embarrassment, and the lowering of my status by someone else, it makes sense that paying that person back with equal “down-ranking” would be effective. With which Nussbaum can agree. But then she points out: if things like this happen to us, perhaps the real problem is that we are too sensitive to other people’s slights and insults. Perhaps, even, we see them where they don’t exist.

Can Anger Work? Be Helpful?

The final piece of her exploration of the terrain of anger asks, after all of this, is there anywhere that anger can be effective in moving towards justice and reconciliation? Almost surprisingly, her answer is yes.

Anger can be useful as a signal – to one’s self and to others – about what is and isn’t morally acceptable. Anger also can serve to motivate people to do something about the injustice. Finally, anger might be useful as a deterrent to future instances of wrongdoing.

However, when all is said and done, Nussbaum concludes that the down sides of anger far outweigh these few pluses.

Last Words

Of course, I have given you only a capsule summary here of the first part of a rich and complex book, filled with supportive text from ancient Greek philosophers as well as contemporary thinkers, and applied to real live cases in our world today. For those, you’ll have to read the book or watch Prof. Nussbaum speak to these issues herself.

Next week, I’ll share with you her concepts of “Transition” and “Transition-Anger” and the ways in which these are the more effective tools in the search for reconciliation and justice than anger.

And this Friday night, we’ll have a chance to discuss both of those.