Giving Up Outrage for Lent

Catherine M Wallace

 Like most of my friends, I've been fending off depression ever since the election. For my own mental health, I should avoid the news. But for decades now I've started each day with a mug of black coffee and a copy of the New York Times. That combination is how I get myself going in the morning. These days, that means I begin each day awash in my own outrage, frustration, and anxiety. Talk about crazy-making!

In church on Ash Wednesday, at one point we repented collectively for our willingness to ridicule others. Honest guilt welled up in me. The rant running in my head for months has ignored the teaching, "Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult."

And so I wondered: perhaps I should give up outrage for Lent. 

When we are consumed by our own anger, we are letting those we oppose hack into the source code of our souls. We are letting them deplete our energy, blur our focus, and cripple our capacity for shrewd initiatives and strategic resistance. It's as if, having lost an election, I have willingly succumbed to a second, more dangerous loss. I've lost my mind.

But we can't afford to let Trump drive us crazy. As I explain in The Confrontational Wit of Jesus, Jesus himself was a master of adept but nonviolent confrontations that expose what evil-doers are up to. If I'm incapacitated by my own helpless anger, I can't hope to imitate his strategic and quick-witted response to evil-doers.

Furthermore, there's terrific social-science evidence that toxic outrage is politically ineffective: a sane and witty resistance is far more likely to engage political bystanders. Here's why. As scholars Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephen argue in Why Civil Resistance Works, successful resistance requires engaging growing numbers of those who would otherwise remain on the sidelines. And yet, they note, bystanders are repelled by physical violence and threats of violence. I think many good people are also repelled by hate-mongering hysterics, no matter what their stand on the relevant issue. Whatever their religion, reasonable people are morally disinclined to return evil for evil, insult for insult.

 Above all, we are not going to undermine Trump by insulting his supporters. We might instead frame our resistance as advocating explicitly for what many of Trump supporters honestly desire—a set of desires widely shared by Bernie Sander's supporters, I might add. We do in fact need broad and well-funded anti-terrorism policies. We need to do something about the immigration mess. We need to reform economic systems that enable obscene disparities in income. How can Trump best achieve the goals his supporters desires That's the question here. 

We also need good jobs, which is to say minimum-wage policies that offer a living wage to anyone willing to work full time. We need to protect and extend the social safety-net, not the subsidies and tax breaks enjoyed by the billionaire class. What can Congress do under Trump's leadership to achieve these ends?

Furthermore, Trump has made an array of progressive promises, including health insurance for everybody and major infrastructure investment. He has promised to protect Social Security and Medicare, favorite targets of the radical Right within the GOP. What if we took him at his word, organizing our strategy around holding him to these and related promises?

 If we can keep our collective cool, we will be far more effective in convincing Trump's followers that major figures in the GOP and in Trump's administration are planning to betray them. But first, we have to calm down.

That's why I'm giving up outrage for Lent. I need a few weeks here of focused spiritual effort to gather my wits and reclaim my own gladness and singleness of heart. If I can in fact refrain from returning evil for evil, insult for insult, I will have much more to contribute to a sustained and effective political resistance.

Any of us will.