When is the last time you ran so fast that you were totally out of breath? Maybe you’re a runner. Maybe you workout and regularly push yourself to your physical limits. That would be a good thing, to keep yourself in shape. But when is the last time your ran so fast because you had to? Have you ever run so fast to save your life or save yourself from bodily harm?
I recall only one time in my youth when I pushed myself to my physical limits to escape violent attack. I was biking around the neighborhood with a friend, and we passed by the house of the neighborhood bully, in fact, twin bullies. They were three years older than us, so we didn’t have much interaction with them, but we still despised and feared them because of their reputation. They were football jocks and spent much time lifting weights. They were pumped. We were pipsqueaks. As we passed their house they were outside shooting baskets, and for some odd reason with no forethought I blurted out an insult to them. It was totally irrational and somehow automatic. I guess something in my soul snapped and I thought I could verbally attack them and get away with it because I was on my bike. They don’t even know who I am, I thought. Well, one of the twins immediately bolted for his bike that was laying on the ground not far from their driveway. I didn’t see that. Oops. In the split second that I saw his bike I knew what was going to happen next. I yelled at my friend to GO!
We were a few blocks from my house, and I thought there’s no way we’re going to make it. He’s going to catch us and beat the living daylights out of us. I have never peddled so hard and so fast in all of my life. If it’s possible for a human to know what a gazelle feels like when it’s being chased at high speeds by a cheetah, I and the gazelles are one and the same. He chased us all the way to my house. Somehow we miraculously made it that far. And just as we careened onto the front lawn on my house, we leapt off our bikes and realized there was no way to get into the house fast enough because the cheetah was upon us. All three of us, including the cheetah, were totally winded and sucking air … big time.
What happened next totally shocked me. To the best of my recollection, the bully kicked my friend once or twice, yelled a bunch of obscenities at us, and then got back on his bike and left us on my front lawn mesmerized that he didn’t tear us limb from limb.
That’s rage. There’s no cognition in rage, and true rage involves your whole body and pushes you to your limits. Rage is often equated with anger. That’s a misunderstanding. Rage and anger are yoked together, but rage is not simply anger. Anger involves emotions and gets its power from a story. “I’m angry because so-and-so did this to me or said that to me, blah, blah, blah …” Rage is a precognitive, automatic reaction to or rejection of outside stimulus. In this sense rage is value neutral because it is fundamentally rooted in our primal, animalistic survival instinct. Fight or flight.
There’s no cognition in rage.
The philosopher Plato taught that human nature is made up of three parts, the logos, thumos (thoo-mos’), and eros. The logos, the rational self, is like a charioteer driving two horses, thumos and eros, what we may call in English, spiritedness and desire. These two aspects of human nature are primal.
“When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.” The word “rage” here is one of Plato’s horses, thumos. This word in Greek in the Bible is often translated as “wrath” or “anger.” The NIV uses the word “furious.” “All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this.” That’s not a good translation because the original Greek creates a metaphor, they were “filled with” rage, anger, wrath, take your pick, not simply that they were “furious,” as an adjective. It’s one thing to say, “I’m furious,” and it’s something else entirely to say, “I’m filled with rage.” Rage pushes us to our limits, it’s all-consuming, it can be explosive, and then it dissipates. There’s no “glass half-full” with rage. With rage, the glass gets filled by a waterfall and knocked out of your hand! Rage hits us, and then we react.
The ancient Greek translation of what we call the Old Testament, the Septuagint, uses thumos to translate the Hebrew word aph, which refers to a literal thing and to an abstract concept, as do many Hebrew words. Depending on its context aph, can literally refer to “nostrils” or “nose” and abstractly to “wrath” or “anger.” The connection between the nostrils and anger implied in Hebrew aph is the connotation of rapid, heavy, and passionate breathing. The same is true for the Greek word thumos, which also connotes heavy breathing, passion, internal urge, spiritedness.
In Genesis 2:7, “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” God breathed the “breath of life,” a phrase that connotes an “angry” or even “violent wind,” into the nostrils, the aph, of the human, the Hebrew word more often translated in the Greek Septuagint as thumos, “wrath” or “anger.” At Pentecost the church received the Holy Spirit in Acts 2:2: “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” The implication is intentional. The writer of Acts, the same writer of Luke’s Gospel, is drawing a parallel between the creation story of humans in Genesis 2 and the birth of the church in Acts 2. Some were shocked by the church’s speaking in foreign languages, as empowered by the Holy Spirit. Others joked, “They’re drunk on cheap wine.” Isn’t that typical? Some people were astounded by God’s power. Others scoffed and rejected it.
The Greek word thumos only appears once in the Gospels, here in Luke 4:28, and only once in the book of Acts, in Acts 19:28: “When they heard this, they were enraged and shouted, ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’” In both situations rage leads to riot. In Luke 4:28 the people were enraged because Jesus rejected their messianic expectations. Christians scholars often say their rage was triggered by Jesus opening up the messiah’s purpose to also liberate non-Jews, whereas Jewish scholars say their rage came from Jesus’s refusal to perform miraculous healings upon command. The rage-fueled riot in Ephesus in Acts 19 was triggered because the Apostle Paul successfully preached to and convinced many people that idols made by hands were only that, idols, and not gods. The silversmiths didn’t like that because Paul hurt their business of idol-making. In both riots the protagonists, Jesus and Paul, slip away and the uproar fades. In both stories, Jesus and Paul reject the volatility of the crowd culture by escaping and living to engage another day.
There’s a theory of social and political unrest and change that goes something like this:
We talk too much to each other as rationalists, from the logos self, thinking that reason and compromise will solve all problems, all the while we ignore or don’t appreciate the unwieldy thumos and eros that are the ones actually pulling the collective cart of humanity. It isn’t until rational dialog breaks down, upheaval and all-too-often violent revolution ensues, and then once the chaos subsides, rational dialog once again orients the cart in a new direction. The point is, that we must learn to recognize in each other and in ourselves as individuals when we put the cart before the horses. We need to learn how to be horse whisperers to each other’s thumos and eros.
If you’re paying attention at all in this country during this presidential campaign, you’ve probably already applied this critique of human nature to our current political reality. No matter to which end of the political spectrum you gravitate, you probably realize that there is one candidate in each party who are doing well because they are tapping into “rage,” as I have explained it this morning. The funny thing is, as different as they may be, these candidates are emotional twins. We’ve had 30 years of presidential leadership from a rational chariot driver, but many of us are unhappy and we’re getting “filled with rage.” Whether we respond to this rage by hating the super wealthy or by hating Washington D.C., our rage is natural and an expression of deep-seated human nature. However, what do we do to keep ourselves from wanting to “hurl someone off the cliff?”
What I think we’re doing here this morning and in this community is critical to the healthy functioning of society. This church is made up of all sorts of different people of differing political views. We may not talk about it a lot, but we should be proud of ourselves that we, Plainfield United Methodist Church, continually create this Methodist congregation of all generations and different perspectives, this congregation that is one of the most historically significant congregations in Illinois and even in the country. This year we celebrate this sanctuary’s 150th birthday. Think about all of the thousands of people who have come and worshipped in this space over the last 150 years, praising God, confessing their sins, and hearing the word preached from the scriptures that are thousands of years old. We rightfully feel humble and thankful for the blessing we have to be a part of this faith, this practice, this promise to live together without giving in to rage to the point of losing self-control. In one sense, we are a people and this is a place of rejection, that we reject the self-gratification of following the volatile and politically-entrenched crowd, especially when the crowd leads to rioting or to idol-making.
If you feel enraged at times, that’s OK; that’s part of being human; it will dissipate. But if your rage doesn’t dissipate and it turns into prolonged anger and wrath, then you’re feeding it; you’ve jumped on your bike and are chasing a pipsqueak who called you a name. So what? What are you going to do? Beat up the pipsqueak? Recall how quickly the people went from being “amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth” to wanting to “hurl him off the cliff.” You and I are not exempt from thinking and possibly acting like that, which is why God calls forth prophets to remind us of who we are and what we’re capable of: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you. Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” That’s rhetorical flourish, by the way, not a call to arms and violent revolution.
If you feel called to speak prophetically, then remember, God knows you even before you were you. God will be with you to deliver you, so you need not fear others. God will give you words to speak, and those words will have power because they will speak to the full humanity of people in their reason, rage, and desire. Your words will disturb but they will also help sort things out. Don’t be fooled. Rejecting the energy of the crowd culture can be hard to do when its blood is boiling and it’s set on rejecting reason and going purely with rage and alighting it into full blown and drawn-out anger. Rage can feel so good when you become filled with righteous indignation. Speaking words of truth to power and nonviolent resistance, however, are enough and they have proven themselves to be the most effective tools of systematic change in world history.
After the riot in Ephesus, we read this in Acts 20:
After the uproar had ceased, Paul sent for the disciples; and after encouraging them and saying farewell, he left for Macedonia. When he had gone through those regions and had given the believers much encouragement, he came to Greece, where he stayed for three months. He was about to set sail for Syria when a plot was made against him by the Jews, and so he decided to return through Macedonia.
And in Luke after Jesus escapes the rioters, we read this:
He went down to Capernaum, a city in Galilee, and was teaching them on the sabbath. They were astounded at his teaching, because he spoke with authority. In the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, “Let us alone! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” When the demon had thrown him down before them, he came out of him without having done him any harm.
Paul gathered the disciples, encouraged them, and when another plot against him came up, he changed his course. Jesus went to a different city, spoke with authority … again … and healed someone without causing harm. May you go forth and do likewise. Amen.