Thursday, April 29, 2010

Sigmund Wollman and the Wrath of God

The other morning when I got to my office, the first thing I did was listen to several impassioned phone messages from my friend and co-author—messages inspired by his reading of the most recent excerpt from our book that I posted on this blog, as well as by the brief exchange in the comments that followed it. At the emotional height of his monologue (interrupted occasionally when the answering service cut him off and he had to call back), he said something along the following lines:

“Please don’t take God’s wrath from me! I want to bathe in it and be cleansed by it, by this wrath born of love that cannot tolerate my sin. I don’t want some milk toast God whose love expects nothing from me.”

And because I’m in the midst of a series of community theatre performances of “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” (based on Robert Fulghum’s essays), I immediately thought of a scene from it in which I play a young hothead (based on a young Robert Fulghum) who flies off the handle when the owner of the resort inn where he works serves the employees the same thing for lunch—wieners and sauerkraut—for more than a week. My character’s fit is directed towards the night auditor: Sigmund Wollman, a survivor of Auschwitz.

As the scene is played out in our rendition of it, my character rages on and on until Wollman rises from his chair, gets in my face, and chews me out for not knowing the difference between an inconvenience and a problem. In a way, the scene is a study in anger—the young hothead’s anger, and Wollman’s. And the contrast between the two kinds of anger may be one of the most significant features of the scene.

Wollman’s anger is palpable—but unlike my character’s rage (which, because of its foolishness, generates nothing but laughter from the audience), Wollman’s anger has the force of moral authority. And although he is angry, there is nothing abusive about what he says or does. While my character’s outraged monologue is littered with put-downs and self-righteousness and absurd excess, Wollman’s responsive anger is focused, adding intensity and moral power to the words he speaks. That doesn’t mean it’s pleasant to be on the receiving end of it. But it is transformative. Its aim is not to destroy, but to repair, to redirect, and so to build up.

Even though I am an actor playing a role, I feel what it is like to be the target of that kind of moral anger. Here’s how Fulghum describes the experience: “Seldom in my life have I been hit between the eyes so hard with truth. There in that late-night darkness of a Sierra Nevada inn, Sigmund Wollman simultaneously kicked my butt and opened a window in my mind.”

It is a sign of maturity, I think, when we no longer run from such anger, no longer resent it, but hope that it will rain down on us whenever and wherever our own faults and failings warrant. To long for a God of wrath, in the sense in which my friend does, is to long for having truth hammered into us at those points where we most resist it.

Part of the truth that this sort of anger nails into us is the truth that we have an inherent dignity as persons that calls us to be better than we are. And so, to long for a God characterized by this sort of wrath is decidedly not about longing for a violent and brutal God, a God of put-downs and self-righteousness and absurd excess, one who casts sinners into the fires of an eternal hell.

Those who long for that kind of God (and there are plenty who do just that) don’t typically perceive themselves among the targets of God’s wrath. The God whose wrath inspires damnation is the God of us/them ideology, the God who loves us and hates them, and hence the God whose anger does not challenge us, does not force us to confront our own faults.

The God of hellfire’s wrath cannot challenge us, because a wrath that inspires damnation isn’t the kind of wrath we can coherently wish upon ourselves.* Its consequences are not transformative but destructive. And so, to believe in a God of wrath in that sense is to believe in a God whose wrath is a thing we must avoid at all costs. If that wrath turns towards us, it means our doom. And so those who believe in that kind of wrathful God are inclined towards justifying themselves in everything they do, scapegoating others, calling attention to the slivers in other people’s eyes rather than the planks in their own—anything to avoiding conceiving of themselves as the proper objects of God’s wrath.

It is easy to forget that anger can be about love, that being the object of someone’s anger is sometimes about experiencing their love in one of its most intense forms—in my co-author’s words, that its no can really be about a deeper yes. We forget this, I think, because for human beings anger has a dangerous volatility.

And it is volatile even when it is rooted in love. How many times have parents who adore their children lost their tempers and then been stricken with guilt over their failure to channel their anger in the most constructive way? I mean my children well, and my anger at them is born out of that love…but in my case the volatility of anger sometimes generates bursts of unhelpful sarcasm. For others, it can generate righteous lectures that berate the child so egregiously that every bit of transformative potential is lost. For some, it can generate physical violence.

Anger that is not only born of love but perfectly shaped and bounded by it, anger that is morally pure, is hard to find in the human world. If anger is a surgeon’s blade, then some of us use it to wound or kill rather than to heal. And even the most well-meaning of us more often than not wield it without the skill or discipline that enables it to do its healing work without causing damage. The best we can hope for is that the scars are small.

In the midst of this reality, it is easy to be afraid of anger, to see it as a threat. And so it may be hard to understand one who cries out, “Please don’t take God’s wrath from me!”—at least when what he means by that cry is not that he wants God’s wrath directed at his enemies, but that he longs to have it directed at himself.

What we need to remember is that those who, like my friend, long to be the targets of divine wrath are longing for a God who comes to us in the way that Sigmund Wollman came to Robert Fulghum, simultaneously kicking our butts and opening windows in our minds.

To desire such a thing isn’t incoherent or foolish--it isn't about self-loathing or some desire to be abused, but is rather an expression of our longing for the good. And in a world where even those who most long for the good aren’t as good as they ought to be, there is a place for anger—not the anger that tears people down, but the anger that nails us with the truth we most need to hear, right at the moment when we most need to hear it, and in a way that shocks us out of our ruts of self-deception and self-righteousness.

In a world where too many people pray, “God, destroy my enemies with your fiery wrath,” let us instead pray, “God, turn your cleansing wrath on me, and in other ways blanket me with your love.”

*Some of us can be caught in the grip of a self-loathing that inspires us to wish harm to ourselves. And so we seek out that which might destroy us--include God's hellfire. But when this happens, it is because we have lost sight of who we are at the core--the divine essence, the image of God, the beloved child of the creator. As such, this is not a coherent wish. We aren't wishing for the destruction of who we are. We've forgotten who we are.


  1. Eric,

    I admire your friend’s non-fear of God and his trust in God’s salvific love, when he says he wishes God’s wrath directed at him when he sins. Actually I always thought that to fear God is an incongruent idea, for what is there to fear of someone who loves one perfectly? Rather, what we should fear is our own shortsightedness of mind, and shallowness of desire, and weakness of will, and most of all we should fear the very fear which holds us back from trusting in God. What we should fear are the things that make us waste our life by keeping us from following Christ. As for God the only attitude that makes sense is to long for His/Her closeness in any shape, way, or manner, as your friend so strikingly expresses.

    On the other hand I can hardly imagine what it means to have the experience of being “bathed in God’s wrath” (but I understand the symbolism of the expression). Nor do I think there is such a thing as “having truth hammered into one”. Truth is sometimes found easily and is sometimes found laboriously, but I don’t think truth is ever hammered into one. On the contrary it seems that God so much values our freedom of consciousness that S/He created our condition in such a way that reasonable people may and often do disbelieve a truth as basic as the existence of God.

    Also, to expect or to wish knowledge to be hammered into one strikes me like a curiously passive demeanor. As it is to expect salvation to be had as a "free gift". Actually there is a great free gift that Christ gave us, namely His illuminating for us, in His teaching and in His life and in His presence, the path towards God. And it may be that Christ, through His sacrifice, has actually created this path for us. This is the path which we are all entitled and invited to take - but it's us who must do the walking. I mean it’s not like heaven is a resort which offers free shuttle service, just for the asking. Indeed, Christ's path as described in the Gospels looks like a very proactive one, and one where nothing is gotten for free. So we are asked to forgive in order to be forgiven, to give in order to own wealth, to trust in God in order to be secure, to abandon violence in order to be strong, to be humble in order to be great, to clean our heart in order to see clearly, to make peace in order to be at peace with God, to imitate Christ and be willing to sacrifice everything in order to become like Christ, to give our life to God to receive life in God.

  2. I was reading about Julian of Norwich, whose famous “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well” can only be interpreted a the affirmation of universal salvation. Indeed I read that Friedrich von Hugel in his “The Mystical Element of Religion” thinks that such optimism is present “in the recollective moments of all the great Mystics”.

    Julian of Norwich has something to say about God’s anger, or rather lack thereof. For example she speaks of “that fair, sweet judgment which was shown in all the fair revelation in which I saw [God] assign to us no kind of blame”, and “our Lord God cannot in his own judgment forgive, because he cannot be angry – that would be impossible”. From the human point of view, “we are sinners and commit many evil deeds … so that we deserve pain, blame and wrath”, but in her revelations “I saw truly that our Lord was never angry, and never will be. Because he is God, he is good, he is truth, he is love, he is peace; and his power, his wisdom, his charity and his unity do not allow him to be angry … God is that goodness which cannot be angry, for God is nothing but goodness.”

    And, I might add, one can only be angry *at* something, but there is nothing outside of God for God to be angry at. If God were ever angry S/He would have to be angry at His/Her own creation, which is incoherent.