Martin Luther King and Anger's Right Uses, Temptations, and Transformation

Anger -- particularly though not necessarily confined to righteous anger -- can be a powerful motivator, affectively sustaining criticism of, and resistance to, oppression and injustice.  It can function as emotional fuel for the many steps to work for changing of social conditions (and even more difficult, human hearts and consciences).  One's own anger -- and that of others -- can even exert an unveiling effect, permitting one to perceive conditions of which one was previously unaware or concealing from oneself.  It is not surprising that anger played a role in the Civil Rights struggle for desegregation, anti-racism, and equality in America, nor that it was a force in the non-violent approach of Martin Luther King.

 King's thought and action, I have claimed elsewhere, is clearly situated within the mainstream of a long-running and well-developed Christian theological tradition grappling with ever-present problems of violence, hatred, unjust social relations, and oppression, elaborating responses to these with the example and words of (and in mainstream tradition, in communion and relationship with) Jesus Christ.  This is not to deny his originality or importance, but rather to stress continuity with other thinkers he names and draws upon, not least of which are SS. Paul, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas, all of whom made contributions to the ongoing project of making fuller sense of anger, as an emotion, a response, a virtuous or vicious habit, a dynamic.


As in certain other religious traditions (e.g. Buddhism) and in more or less secular philosophical traditions (e.g. Stoicism, the rationalism of Spinoza), one can find Christian thinkers for whom anger is always wrong, bad, harmful, opposed to the love at the center of Christianity.  The great monastic Father John Cassian provides one example, when he argues that the only good use anger can have is when it is turned on oneself to indict one's own vices (including that of anger!).  Saint Anselm, who certainly experienced enough of it and enough reasons to feel it in his life, also takes this position.  It's understandable, given the centrality of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus teaches a way of life requiring his followers to turn the other cheek, pray for one's enemies, and . . . (a passage that has generated very interesting commentary) not to be angry with one's brother.

Doesn't anger always involve violence of some sort, seeking revenge, indulging the urge to hurt another, one might ask?  If one acts on it, isn't there an ever-present risk of lapsing into cruelty or rage, allowing oneself to become like the aggressor, commencing or contributing to a cycle of continued reprisals and violence? If it goes unexpressed, might it not turn into seething resentment, passive-aggressive ploys, or even become directed inwardly against oneself?  Even if  an understandable human response to clear wrongdoing, doesn't anger just at best remain a motivating passion, a necessary evil that might be harnessed for good in the circumstances?  All of these are important questions to ask and to re-ask in each generation.

Within the Christian theological tradition, which at its best incorporates and assimilates what is best in non-Christian traditions of moral enquiry, there are currents which adopt and develop more positive though cautious attitudes towards anger. Setting those out in greater detail is something best deferred to other posts and to my upcoming lecture on the Ethics of Anger, so I'll just hit a few points from the theological current King fits into:

In Paul's highly unsystematic, but so fecund Letters, there are a number of condemnations and cautions about anger, often placing it within a listing of sinful states or actions to be avoided. Still, he brings up the possibility of anger which could be non-sinful, even righteous, when kept within bounds, in writing: "be angry but do not sin."  Interestingly, since many of his Letters are written specifically to point out and correct abuses and errors within the early churches, Paul himself might be regarded as providing a model of how rightly directed and moderated anger can motivate productive and needed criticism.

St. Augustine's position on anger is likewise complex. Consider two passages.  In the City of God, he writes:
In our ethics, we do not so much inquire whether a pious soul is angry, as why he is angry. . . . for I am not aware that any right thinking person would find fault with anger at a wrongdoer which seeks his amendment.
This would seem to give an unqualified approval to a very qualified use of anger.  If anger can be harnessed for good and right acts of criticism and amendment, there is nothing wrong with it.  Still, in Letter 38, he counsels:
in the midst of such offenses, we must watch lest hatred of any one gain a hold on our heart. . . no one who is angry considers his anger to be unjust.  For anger habitually cherished against any one becomes hatred, since the sweetness which is mingled with what appears to be righteous anger makes us detain it longer than we ought to in the vessel, until the whole is soured, and the vessel itself is spoiled. Wherefore it is much better for us to forbear from anger, even when one has given us just occasion for it, then, beginning from what seems just anger against any one, to fall. . . into hating him.
It is interesting that Augustine uses the metaphor of sweetness, hearkening back not only to Aristotle's doctrine that anger includes both pleasure and pain, but also back to literary sources, consolidating and crystallizing human experience, in which  for all of the  pain and agitation involved, the ancients realized that anger could be "sweeter than honey from the comb."  It is interesting because one of the terms found conjoined with "anger" in King's thought, where he counsels against allowing anger its sway, is the seeming opposite of sweetness:  bitterness.

Anger long held, and unable to be readily, safely, openly expressed often does turn inward, to bitterness, even, as ancient and medieval theologians and philosophers noted, to grief, to sorrow, to sadness.  To continue the metaphor of tastes, anger may evoke not sweetness and bitterness, but also, as Augustine notes, sourness, eventually rottenness.

Anger stems from the perception of some harm being done, on some level, to oneself or to those people or those things with which one has a connection. In the case of systematic, generation-after-generation of  open oppression, belittling, demonizing, undermining of an entire class of people, denying both their humanity and the sheer facts of the existence and the injustice of the oppression -- one would expect to find anger arising constantly.  King himself experienced anger from those causes, and had to deal with it.  The position we can see emerging from his works, never systematized or turned into a doctrine, bears similarities to those of his Christian predecessors, but also adds what I think are some new contributions of his own (if not by absolute originality -- being the first to ever say those things, which is not worth all that much -- by clarity, focus, and emphasis.

I'm not going to post an exhaustive or systematic treatment of King on anger, reserving that larger task for a presentation I hope to give at my university later this semester.  Instead, I'll just  raise a few ideas, passages, and texts, and point out what seems particularly important in them. 

When the word "anger" is used in his writings, King does caution against the feeling and the typical dynamic of anger, for three reasons in particular, both reflecting anger's easy transmutability into other affects and behaviors related to but going beyond anger:  bitterness, hatred, and violence.  In "Desegregation and the Future,"  he recounts his discussion with a manager of a segregated establishment, sketching a representative image of the dynamic and dangers at play:
It makes me almost angry.  I know that I shouldn't get angry.  I know I shouldn't become bitter, but when you put me back there, something happens to my soul , so that I confront inequality in the sense that I have a greater potential for the accumulation of bitterness because you have put me back there.
Anger choked down congeals into bitterness, a natural response to injury done by persons, communities, and a perceived world (even perhaps God as one conceives him).  In "Unfulfilled Hopes," King writes:
Now, some people deal with this problem, as you well know, by getting caught up in the response of bitterness They feel that the best way, they end up dealing with their frustration by taking out their anger with the universe, their anger with life, on other people and other things In short, they become mean
The "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" revealingly refers to bitterness twice.  First, it poignantly depicts the emotional effect of segregation upon King's own daughter, "beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people."  Later, it contrasts the nonviolent action approach against another, a "force . . . of bitterness and hatred." This is not the only place where King sets the term "bitterness" side by side with "hatred," for the two are closely related, and represent strong currents into which the legitimately felt emotion of anger can flow.

Again, from "Unfulfilled Hopes":
he discovers that he can’t get life itself to beat on and pay back for what the universe has done to him, so he finds people that are tangible, and he finds things that are tangible, and he takes this bitterness and this hate out on these things And this is the solution to his problem, he thinks. The bitterness within, and the anger, he becomes angry with the universe. And he fights the universe through people and things. This is one way that people deal with this problem of unfulfilled hopes. They react with bitterness and mercilessness and meanness
One key component of the emotion and the response of anger is that, having been aroused by insult or injury, by inflicting of some pain, it seeks, it embodies, a desire to retaliate, to punish, to inflict something in return on the other.  This element of anger is what King regards as particularly dangerous.  In many other texts, but also in "The New Negro of the South:  Behind the Montgomery Story," we find several themes bearing on anger connected to each other:
We must not think in terms of retaliatory violence. . . . Violence creates many more problems than it solves.  we must not seek to fight our battles for freedom with weapons or arms. . . . The Negro in his struggle for justice must never succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter.
In one of the ellipses I have introduced here, King invokes love as the "regulating ideal," an apt designation.  For, anger on its own is incapable of properly regulating itself.  It naturally flows, in the beings we are (damaged both by original sin, by the repeated deformations of unjust societal and personal relations, and even by our own choices) into hatred, violence, retaliation, going beyond measure taking directions that are liable to spread and perpetuate injustice.  Anger always remains liable to quickly fall into that "internal violence of spirit" (as he calls it in"Non-Aggression Procedures to Interracial Harmony"), precisely what love as the regulating ideal bears upon, hems in, and even dissipates.

Still, anger is not only understandable; like his predecessors, King recognizes that it possesses legitimate purposes. Referring to W.E.B. Dubois, he noted:
History had taught him it is not enough for people to be angry.  The supreme task is to organize and unite people so that their anger becomes a transforming force.
In the process, for King, anger does not simply fuel calls and movements for social transformation.  If it does merely that, the risk is that the affect of anger festers, becomes one or another form of hatred.  The hard alternative is for  anger to become transformed under the regulation of agapic love.  In "The Time for Freedom Has Come," King speaks of "nonviolent direct action" as "sublimat[ing] anger," and lauds students for having "anger under controlling bonds of discipline."   In "The Trumpet of Conscience," its scope is  extended internationally, globally, taking form as a project of working with "oppressed peoples . . .  so that all their anger at injustice may be channeled into a revolution of love and creativity."