Those readers of The Imaginative Conservative who are as old as I am will remember the punk explosion or punk revolution of the 1970s. At the vanguard of this anarchic assault on sense and sensibility was the Sex Pistols, an English punk band that boasted the aptly named Johnny Rotten as its vocalist and the charmingly named Sid Vicious as its enfant terrible. Whereas Vicious took the band’s nihilism to its logical conclusion, killing his American girlfriend and later committing suicide, Rotten reverted to his original name of Lydon and became bourgeois enough to reach ripe middle age, recently publishing his autobiography, Anger is an Energy.
The title of Lydon’s book, which might be seen as his own personal motto or as the label that he has chosen to append to himself, is a line plucked from one of his hit records. As a title of his autobiography, it seems appropriate enough. Lydon is nothing if not angry. Indeed, whether or not he is “rotten” to the core or bad to the bone, he is certainly angry to the very root of his self-enclosed ego. Raised, at least nominally, as a Catholic, being the son of Irish immigrants, Lydon is dismissive of all religion, claiming that he “never had any godlike epiphanies or thought that God had anything to do with this dismal occurrence called life.” Nor has he mellowed with age. Relatively recently, he has been accused of physically assaulting two women and of racially abusing a black singer. In spite of his anger and aggression, or perhaps because of it, he was voted one of the hundred greatest Britons of all time in a nationwide poll in 2002 by the BBC. (Truly great Britons, such as Blessed John Henry Newman, G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis failed to make the grade.)
In spite of his status as one of “the hundred greatest Britons of all time”, Lydon does not warrant the attention that I’ve just afforded him. It is not so much Lydon that interests me as his claim that “anger is an energy”. It is. Indubitably. Yet it is almost always a self-destructive energy. An energy that destroys and obliterates charity and its multifarious fruits. It also distorts and ultimately destroys reason, as any viewer of the standard news coverage on Fox, CNN or MSNBC can testify. Always a sordid business at the best of times, politics has been polluted by anger.
None of this is to say that there’s not a great deal in our meretricious and benighted world that should provoke us to anger. Heaven knows, there is more than enough evil in the world to test the patience of a saint, let alone the rest of us! And yet when patience is tested, the thing to do is to pass the test by retaining our patience. Similarly, when we are tempted to anger, the thing to do is to temper our anger by not losing our temper. Like patience, temperance is a virtue. When we lose our temper it is we who are the losers, as well as our neighbours and enemies. Nobody wins when anger holds sway.
At this point, one might object that there’s nothing wrong with righteous anger and that Christ Himself was angry on occasions. One thinks of His driving of the unethical entrepreneurs from the temple, or his rant against the scribes, Pharisees and hypocrites who cause scandal through their failure to practice what they preach. If anger is good enough for Christ, why is it not good enough for us?
The problem is not that anger is good enough for us but that we’re not good enough for it. As fallen, broken and pathetic individuals we always let anger get the better of us. We fail to control it so that it ends up controlling us. In our hands, as opposed to Christ’s, anger is addictive. The more we succumb to its power the more it has power over us. The more that anger reigns in our hearts, the less room there is for love or reason.
The sobering fact is that we should follow Christ with the love that takes up the cross but we should not follow him with the anger that overturns tables. There are some places that Christ goes that we are not necessarily meant to follow. Indeed, he calls us to follow Him in suffering. He does not call us to follow Him in anger. “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord. It is, therefore, not ours.
Needless to say, this does not mean that we should stop fighting for justice. I’m all for the March for Life and for prayer vigils outside abortion mills. It’s just that we have to do it with love—and without anger.
If visiting certain sites on the internet makes us angry, visit different sites instead. If watching the news makes us angry, switch it off. If watching the banal hedonism on TV makes us angry, switch it off. Better still, throw out the TV—though not with anger but with a joyful sense of liberation!
Nor is the solution so-called “anger management.” Anger cannot be managed; it can only be checked. No, the solution is not anger management but anger banishment. The more that we succeed in banishing anger from our hearts, the more room we will have for the charity that saves the world.
Like John Lydon, I was an angry young man. In the 1970s I rebelled against the angry nihilism of the punks by running with the angry Nazism of the skinheads. My tribe hated his tribe and we fed on each other’s hatred to our own mutual loss. Like John Lydon, I wrote my own autobiography as a middle-aged man. Mine has the title Race with the Devil: My Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love. I know from bitter experience that anger is indeed an energy. It is, however, an energy that is bigger than us and which crushes us, squeezing the last vestiges of love from our hardened hearts. It is for this reason that anger is not merely an energy but an enemy.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.