Wrath — an old-fashioned word, today almost used only in reference to God’s anger and in “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, from which novelist John Steinbeck drew the title of one of his best-known works. Synonyms abound, each with slightly different shades: anger, fury, outrage, rage, ire (from the Latin ira). As one of the seven capital (or “deadly”) sins, it occupies an odd position, for anger can be just and appropriate within the bounds of reason. But those bounds are easily crossed; Wrath, bereft of charity, becomes the mother of other sins.
The Proper Bounds of Anger
Let’s start by distinguishing the boundaries:
Joseph Delaney, writing in the old Catholic Encyclopedia, defines anger as “The desire of vengeance,” following its use by St. Thomas Aquinas and other ancient authorities (Summa Theologiae II-II, Q. 158; see also I-II, Q. 49, A. 2). This is more specific than the manner in which we define anger today. The Oxford Dictionary, for example, defines it as “a strong feeling of annoyance, displeasure, or hostility.” The Cambridge Dictionary elaborates it further as “a strong feeling that makes you want to hurt someone or be unpleasant because of something unfair or unkind that has happened.”
Now, if we look at the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus would seem to rule out anger regardless of its provocation or degree:
You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,” you will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matthew 5:21-22 NRSVCE)
But as both St. Thomas and the New Revised Standard Version note, some ancient authorities add the gloss “without cause,” where cause is understood in the sense that the provocation merits the reaction, either legally or morally. Thus, as Delaney explains, anger “becomes sinful when it is sought to wreak vengeance upon one who has not deserved it, or to a greater extent than it has been deserved, or in conflict with the dispositions of law, or from an improper motive.”
The Daughters of Wrath
So let’s make these distinctions for our purposes: Anger is a just and proportionate response to a legitimate provocation, while Wrath stems from an illicit or unworthy cause, or is disproportionate to the cause’s gravity, or directed at an undeserving target. Furthermore, Wrath may only be a venial sin “because the punishment aimed at is but a trifling one or because of lack of full deliberation” (Delaney). Disproportionate anger is also venial “unless the excess be so great as to go counter seriously to the love of God or of one’s neighbour.”
There is the distinction which turns Wrath not only into a mortal sin but the mother of other sins. Where Sloth kills charity by freezing it to death, Wrath burns it to death. St. Thomas, following Pope St. Gregory the Great, lists six particular “daughters” of Wrath:
- indignation (that is, belittling or dehumanizing the object of one’s anger);
- swelling of the mind (obsessing over the cause and one’s plans for retaliation);
- clamor (disorderly and confused speech);
- contumely (insulting or injurious words against one’s neighbor);
- blasphemy (false, hateful words against God); and
- quarrels (verbal or physical confrontations, especially those resulting in injuries to the other). (STh II-II, Q. 158, A. 7, corp.)
Let me elaborate on clamor: Here, we’re not just talking about “being so mad you can’t think straight.” Charity, justice, and respect for the truth all require that we express ourselves as clearly and as honestly as we can to others; as well, it also demands we do our best to understand others’ intentions in their words. Wrath, however, can drive us to misrepresent ourselves to others, especially to the object of our anger, as well as deliberately misconstrue or distort others’ intentions. Wrath creates logical and factual errors, incoherence, inconsistency, prejudice, rash judgment, detraction, and lies.
Wrath in the Public Square
Clamor, understood in this sense, is a just and appropriate term for much of what passes for social-political discourse in the United States and Canada today. Recently, Rod Dreher coined the term “hermeneutic of suspicion” to describe critical literacy, a postmodern-leftist critical method which parses most Western literature for evidence that the author advances a “Western” or “regressive” (i.e., white racist, heteronormative, patriarchal, cisgender, whatever) agenda. But the “hermeneutic of suspicion” may also describe, for example, right-wing Christians’ hostile interpretations of Democrat politicians’ referrals to the victims of the Sri Lankan bombings as “Easter worshippers.”
An example: In 2012, a Portland, Oregon principal discussed her attempts to introduce “educational equity” in her school, including her hopes to raise teachers’ sensitivity to their own “white privilege”, with a reporter from the Portland Tribune. As an example of ethnic insensitivity, she brought up a teacher’s seemingly harmless use of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Since the reporter led off the example with a reference to “the subtle language of racism,” right-wing commentators quickly blew up the example as a claim that “PBJs are racist,” further leading to a hysterical report that the Portland public school system was set to ban this innocent staple of American student lunches.
What began as a protest against the left’s petty, hyper-vigilant policing of speech for offensive content became an equally absurd right-wing exaggeration of the facts and intentions of the matter.
Wrath, like the other deadly sins, has a component self-interest and is often found in the company of other deadly sins, most often Pride and Envy. Pride, of course, leads us to magnify the injury, as well as to rationalize injustice to others. They really did deserve it. I did nothing that nobody else would do in the same situation. And, anyway, I should be the one who decides what retribution suffices. Envy rationalizes the injustice as compensation for the unfairness of our neighbor’s good fortune. The provocation justifies the end, which in turn validates the means.
Human Justice is Imperfect
This self-interested component of Wrath means, of course, that in any legal dispute, at least one party will walk away unsatisfied, perhaps convinced that the outcome was rigged against them. Many people seek “street justice” through vigilantism because they’re convinced “the system” is biased against them. At the same time, though, frivolous lawsuits keep the courts running full-time and help lawyers pay their bills because people seek extravagant revenge for trivial injuries. Human justice will always be imperfect precisely because we are flawed, failing mortals. No doubt King Solomon’s judgments left some people scorning his reputed wisdom.
The most perfect example of this imperfection concerns rape and sexual assault. Victims suffer from a number of social biases: Women are accused of provoking the attack or of faking the allegation for self-serving reasons, while men are disbelieved because their consent is presumed automatic and because rape/sexual assault “only happens to women.” In so many cases, physical evidence is lacking, resulting in a “victim said/defendant said” standoff. In light of this, feminists now insist that women — so far, only women — who claim to be victims be given automatic, unquestioning credence.
But there’s a reason we insist that the state prove criminal allegations “beyond shadow of a reasonable doubt”: History, especially 20th-century history, is thickly littered with the bodies of men and women who were imprisoned and executed without any evidence other than the government’s say-so. Our own history is polluted by the bodies of black men who were lynched solely on the basis of a white woman’s allegation. As rare as false rape/sexual assault accusations may be, they still occur. Adopting such a rule would “flip the script” to read “It is better an innocent man be punished rather than a rapist go free.”
If that isn’t Wrath, what is?
Conclusion: Love Your Enemies
If Sloth builds a wall between our neighbors and us, Wrath reacts to their trespassing by bombing their house. At the extreme of Wrath, there isn’t much if anything to distinguish it from Hatred, the ultimate anti-charity vice. But even at its most venial, it’s a petty, vindictive salve for our bruised egos and wounded self-images. Wrath, when nourished and cherished like a sickly pet, eventually warps and corrupts the soul. Rage is an especially dangerous ground on which to base a cause or a movement; as I’ve said before, angry idealists are easier for demagogues and sociopaths to exploit.
This is why Jesus insisted that we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us: At the end of the day, they too are children of the Father (Matthew 5:44-45). They are in need of our mercy and forgiveness because we too are in need of it: “… if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions” (Matthew 6:15). Try to develop the virtue of mansuetudo, traditionally called meekness but better translated as gentleness or clemency.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)