Checking our anger at the violation of the sacred

In part this blog represents my efforts at thinking through the ways in which evangelicals respond to those in other religions. So readers shouldn't be surprised to see some development in my thought. I'm hoping you're on this journey with me.

You may recall that in the past, as I've tried to understand why many conservative evangelicals have negative feelings about other religions, I've suggested that a concern for purity in relation to our doctrine and worldview is at work. I still think that's the case, but how we react emotionally to violations of purity and the sacred is open to consideration. Now I wonder whether disgust plays as large a role as I thought previously. Disgust is a boundary protection reaction. We find something disgusting and we keep it away, or expel it if it's compromised our integrity, and this helps us to maintain health. I think this may play a part in understanding evangelical reactions to other religions, but with some recent research and reflection I think another emotion may play an even greater role.

But let me summarize my thinking before we consider something new. As I reflect on scripture, theology, our reactions to other religions, and scientific studies of human behavior, I think it's clear that as evangelicalism  considers the teachings of other religious groups these are understood as potential threats to our spiritual health. They pose a spiritual harm, and as a result we react in various ways. One of those ways is by disgust, keeping the potentially harmful doctrinal contaminant away. But another emotion also seems to be at work.

I recently read an article by Edward Royzmann and his colleagues where they looked at the body of research on disgust in relation to violations of the purity or divinity moral foundation. They conducted a series of five studies that critiqued the dominant view that purity was the primary emotional response to perceived violations of the sacred, and their work predicted that "anger, not disgust, will characterize most people's affective reactions to known contraventions of the divinity code." The studies confirmed the predictions. "This prediction was largely realized: it was anger (desire to retaliate), not disgust (desire to purge and to withdraw), that characterized our participants' affective attributions."

These findings ring true for me in my experience. While any group is diverse and will include a range of reactions, I've seen many evangelicals respond angrily to the teachings, and even the members, of other religious groups. This is most evident among evangelical apologists who seek to refute new religions (or "cults") that claim in some sense to be Christian (e.g., Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses) but which evangelicals consider heretical. But an angry reaction to perceived violations of the sacred isn't limited to evangelical apologists, or evangelical Christians in general. Muslim responses to the burning of the Qu'ran by a Florida pastor, Buddhists reacting to ISIS terrorists blowing up sacred shrines, and even the burning of the American flag as a sacred national symbol, all evoke anger when the perception is that desecration of the sacred has taken place.

I understand why this happens for evangelicals. We emphasize right belief, and our concern for truth is an important part of our individual and collective identity. When our sacred beliefs, truths, values, and symbols are under assault, or even when the threat is present, anger comes quite naturally. And having a righteous anger isn't necessarily bad. Consider Jesus in the gospels with the overturning of the tables of the merchants in the temple (Matthew 21:12-17), or his denunciations of the scribes and Pharisees (Luke 11:37–54 and Matthew 23:1–39). So anger can be a legitimate response to violations of the sacred. But we shouldn't assume this is always the case, or that our anger is necessarily righteous and pleasing to God.

In Ephesians we are told that "In your anger do not sin" (4:26). I wonder if this is happening with many evangelical responses to other religions. When our anger and zeal for orthodoxy prevents us from loving neighbor, when we build barriers instead of bridges, and denounce rather than extend hospitality, then we need to take another look at our emotional response. The story of Jonah seems helpful here. Jonah was a reluctant prophet, called by God to go to Nineveh. Jonah disobeyed and tried to evade God by ship. He was thrown overboard, swallowed by a fish, and thrown up on land. Eventually Jonah went to Nineveh to preach a message of repentance. Nineveh responded and God did not judge its inhabitants.

Here's where the story gets really interesting. When God doesn't judge Nineveh Jonah gets angry at Him. He tells God that's exactly why he fled previously. He knew God was gracious and merciful, and he wanted Nineveh to be judged and destroyed. Twice in chapter 4 of the book God asks Jonah whether it's right for him to be angry. 

The story of Jonah can easily be applied to us conservative evangelicals. We are very concerned about the purity of our doctrine and worldview, and we are concerned that the teachings of other religions are not only false, but may contaminate our own understanding of the truth. We get angry with those who reject and desecrate our sacred truths. We anticipate God's judgment on them. But as Jonah learned, God is "a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity" (4:2). We need to hold onto this understanding of God in relation to our concerns about Muslims, Buddhists, Mormons and others. And maybe God is also saying to us in our zeal for the truth as he said to the reluctant prophet, "Is it right for you to angry?"

John Morehead