“You’re a liar.”
“No, you are.”
Billy is a jerk. Billy and I grew up on the same street in Levittown, N.Y., and I remember this thought flying through my head just before he and I got into another one of our countless fights. I’ve edited out the expletives—it was New York, after all—but every fight always ended the same: With each of us yelling at the other and storming off. We were friends because we were neighbors, but mostly we fought. As kids, that’s how most arguments go. Yelling. Fighting. Insults. Running away.
Eventually I lost touch with Billy. If I saw him today, we might still fight, but I imagine there would be fewer expletives and tears. After all, we’ve both grown up. But when I look around at the way our world deals with conflict today, I realize culture has not.
Suddenly the go-to move of politicians and journalists has become “You’re a liar,” followed by the rejoinder “No, you are.” We’re bombarded with this level of discourse every day.
And it’s filtered down (or maybe it filtered up) throughout the culture. Facebook is a cesspool of conspiracy theories, straw-man arguments, and schoolyard bullying. We have reached the point where the comment sections of major newspapers are a greater testament to the depravity of man than all the theology of the Reformers put together. Many publishers have removed comments from below their online articles so the vitriol will end.
These arguments have a cumulative effect, with each successive interaction ratcheting up the outrage. Even those rare instances of well-intentioned and reasonable discussion eventually fall victim to misunderstanding and offense. In these cases, I often remember Godwin’s Law: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches one.” In other words, people eventually start comparing others to Hitler. And just like that, we are off to the races of anger, insults, and division.
Outrage from Christians
Lest we get on our high horses about all those bad, angry people out there, we need to recognize that outrage often comes from Christians. During his 15 minutes of fame, Joshua Feuerstein started the 2015 Starbucks Red Cup controversy. Soon people were saying that Christians were upset, though I saw only one person—Joshua Feuerstein—truly outraged. He posted a Facebook message saying, “Starbucks REMOVED CHRISTMAS from their cups because they hate Jesus.” He also tagged media to attract attention. Without fail, the outrage cycle began.
Of course, Starbucks denied the accusation, assured worried Christians everywhere they were welcome to say “Merry Christmas” to their hearts’ content, and insisted that the company did not hate Christmas. Can you imagine the conversation in the Starbucks boardroom? Did they say, “Those Christians are fair-minded, gracious, and thoughtful”? I am guessing not.
The reality was that Feuerstein tried to use Christian outrage to raise his platform. As a writer on the news and opinion website Vox later pointed out, “Feuerstein’s most blatant untruth … is the implication that Starbucks at one time printed the word ‘Christmas’ on its holiday cups and is now being stifled or stifling itself from doing so. In the past six years, Starbucks, which doesn’t identify itself as a Christian company, has never put the words ‘Merry Christmas’ on its holiday cups—instead, it’s used wintry and vaguely holiday-esque imagery and language, including ornaments that say things like ‘joy’ or ‘hope,’ snowmen, and holly.”
So literally we can show that what Feuerstein said is not true. But the outrage of the culture overwhelms the truth of the moment. And when it does, it hurts our witness.
You’d think that someone had broken into churches and desecrated the altars if you looked at some Facebook feeds. When outraged Christians feed media outlets with stories that make Christians look foolish, that hurts the Gospel. It adds to the perception that Christians are rage-addicted snowflakes and, more important, distracts Christians from their mission. That’s what fake controversies and unwarranted anger do.
Outrage Toward Christians
Yet outrage can just as easily be directed toward Christians by a hostile world intent on shaming and attacking rather than engaging.
In early 2018, the online publication Pitchfork turned out this clickbaiting headline: “Coachella Co-Owner’s Latest Charitable Filing Shows Deep Anti-LGBTQ Ties.” Coachella is a music festival that is connected to AEG, an entertainment company owned by Philip Anschutz, who is an evangelical Christian. The story listed five of the “deep anti-LGBTQ” organizations: The Navigators, Dare 2 Share Ministries, the Center for Urban Renewal and Education, Movieguide Awards, and Young Life. The biggest gift among these was to Young Life ($185,000; June 21 and November 15, 2016), which was pilloried for their policy that “anyone ‘sexually active outside of a heterosexual marriage relationship’ shouldn’t work or volunteer for the organization.”
In other words, Young Life holds the traditional view of marriage that has been a foundational component of Christian theology for centuries and is held today by most evangelical (as well as Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and other) organizations. Even so, the publication made no attempts at dialogue, gave no empathy or consideration as to why these views are important or nuanced. Just blanket insults aimed at provoking division.
Outrage has no time for dialogue, and it won’t be distracted by nuance or even truth.
Get the pitchforks, Pitchfork.
Outrage is all around, so we have to decide how to walk through this. We are living in a day—and this is indeed our moment—when we need to live like Christ, as Gospel Christians in the midst of shouting, anger and hatred. And it’s going to get worse.
To be sure, there is a lot in this world that is outrage inducing. Terrorism, sex trafficking and exploitation, systemic racism, illegal immigration, child poverty, opioid addiction … the list goes on. These issues deserve a measure of outrage, don’t they? They certainly deserve our anger.
And this is part of the problem. What do we do when the anger becomes too much? When our righteous indignation at injustice morphs into something completely different? How do we know when righteous anger has made the turn into unbridled outrage? These questions do not have easy answers, but they deserve our consideration if we want to be faithful disciples of Christ.
Steward Your Anger Well
The Age of Outrage has succeeded in trapping Christians by wrapping itself in one very appealing lie.
The center of this lie is a bait and switch, trying to pass off outrage as righteous anger. We try to disguise our worldly anger behind appeals to theological or ethical justification. Yes, there is a lot in this world to anger us, and Scripture does call us to be angry about many things. In fact, we can actually contribute to the outrage when we fail to get angry about the things that anger God.
So while this lie originates from a truthful premise, it develops when we conveniently ignore the fact that not all anger is the same.
Righteous anger, for instance, must be—wait for it—righteous. Outrage is nothing but a cheap imitation of righteous anger. It is a production of our flesh that may at times give the appearance of godliness without the substance to back it up.
If the age of outrage has taught us anything, it’s that we Christians are exceptionally bad stewards of our anger. Thus, while Christians can and should be righteously angry, we need to be far more vigilant. With this in mind, let me offer three characteristics of righteous anger.
1. Righteous anger is directed toward things that anger God, including injustice, corruption, immorality, oppression of the poor and needy, as well as the defamation of his glory (false teaching, hypocrisy, etc.).
2. Second, righteous anger mirrors how God is angry. While most people view “the God of the Old Testament” as all about fire and brimstone and Jesus as loving and kind, this reveals a fairly high ignorance of Scripture. God’s righteous indignation flows from his love and faithfulness. In order to earn the responsibility of displaying God’s righteous anger to the world, you first need to demonstrate that you can be a faithful vessel of his steadfast love and forgiveness. Anyone can be angry. The Scriptures teach us to be angry in the way that God is angry by leading us to His holiness first.
3. Third, righteous anger submits to God’s role as the ultimate Judge. When it comes to how we reflect God’s righteous anger, we need to be cognizant of the vast gulf between God and ourselves. Even though we may feel moral certitude on an issue, we are limited and prone to misunderstanding. While we can rely upon God’s Word and the indwelling of His Spirit to assess and respond to injustice, oppression and rebellion, we are not the ultimate judges who will bring retribution.
When Scripture depicts righteous anger, it sets the bar high. Outrage exhibits few if any of the short- or long-term characteristics Scripture associates with righteous anger. Righteous anger is aimed at the glory of God, but outrage is an angry reaction to personal injury or insult. Where righteous anger is purposeful and designed to advance specific objectives and ends, outrage exhibits little critical thought as to its underlying focus, motivations, expressions or ends.
Outrage is motivated by a desire to punish or destroy rather than reconcile and refine. It is frequently accompanied by hubris and a confidence in its judgment, categorically rejecting any nuance. Outrage is fast and decisive rather than reflective, choosing to exhibit God’s retribution rather than mimic His persistent, steadfast love.
Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself
Sadly, there is a ready supply of examples of outrage in our culture. From them, we can derive six broad characteristics.
1. Outrage is disproportionate. Outrage often unleashes on people in smothering waves of anger. There is little or no thought to the level of intensity; all offenses are treated the same. Even when anger begins in response to a real offense, it quickly snowballs. One of the principles of a just war is that combatants must think in terms of proportionality. This discipline is completely lost on many social media warriors and cable news talking heads.
2. Outrage is selfish. We often vent and rage against others because in the end, it feels good. We believe our anger puts others in their place. Whether it’s a politician we despise for his or her economic policy or a journalist we perceive as anti-Christian, we unload our anger, deriving pleasure from the perception that we are fighting back. In this way, outrage functions as an odd catharsis for our insecurities, fears, and sense of powerlessness. Such anger becomes about me; my needs, wants and desires rather than about injustice.
3. Outrage is divisive. In this era of cultural polarization, outrage bends anger to serve a spirit of tribalism. Outrage rants and raves about them, their group, their ilk; about the injustice and evil of those politicians or communities, journalists or even pastors. Conversely, when we are outraged, we can accept no criticism of our own team and are quick to explain or justify the same behavior in ourselves. Because of this, outrage will always ring hollow over time.
4. Outrage is visceral. In the digital age of rapid reaction, outrage is often produced by our uncritical, gut reaction to things, people or ideas we perceive to be wrong or offensive. When we aren’t thinking critically, we do not consider context or try to understand the why or what. Instead, we simply lash out. As the pace of our world increases, it can feel that we need to comment as things happen or risk being left behind. This lack of careful reflection inevitably transforms anger into outrage.
5. Outrage is domineering. Because its aim is to shut down, silence or shame those who disagree, outrage is not interested in truth or nuance. The world is binary and defined solely by winning and losing. Often when we encounter pushback, warning or calls for moderation—even from friendly voices—we respond by trying to berate others into submission. Hyperbole, insults and even profanity become justifiable tools to ensure the battle lines are clearly drawn.
6. Outrage is dishonest. Outrage often cares only about scoring rhetorical points, not about giving fair and honest treatment. We use terms and descriptors to disparage and reject others rather than their ideas. Complementarians are defenders of the patriarchy while egalitarians are militant feminists. Those who vote differently from us are unpatriotic. And those who call for tightening U.S. immigration policies hate all immigrants. While there may be legitimate reasons for disagreement and reasonable people continue to have substantive discussions, outrage cares more about getting good sound bites that disparage the opposition than affirming the dignity of others.
Adapted from Christians in the Age of Outrage: How to Bring Our Best When the World Is at Its Worst by Ed Stetzer. Copyright © 2018. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the November 2018 issue of Citizen magazine.