Driving down a busy road last week, I saw a man with a sign standing in the median at an intersection. He faced the other way, but I could see that the back of his sign had writing on it. The light turned red; I slowed and read his sign. It said, “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore.”
As traffic piled up behind the red light, I found myself stopped just behind this man, who still faced the traffic coming the other way. I wanted to ask him a question, but I was a little afraid– after all, not only was he mad as hell, but his sign suggested that there were others too, and maybe they were in the bushes ready to pounce.
I rolled down the window. “Excuse me, sir. What are you mad about?” At that point, he turned his sign around, and written on the front were the names of two incumbent state and national politicians. “Gotcha. Thanks,” I said, and waved. He smiled and waved back; the light turned green and I was off.
It’s helpful to remember that anger is a defense– a defense against either fear or pain. Meaningful relief is possible only by getting behind the anger, to trace it back to its source in fear. Politicians might make handy scapegoats (someone needs to pay– the thinking is– for how miserable I feel), but politicians are as scared as you or I, or my friend by the side of the road. The nature of political life (its risk-aversion, its zero-sum thinking, its reduction of meaning to slogan, its fundamental commitment to coercive power) makes it singularly unsuited to address the fear in our society today.
We’re scared as hell. Authentic religious life tells the truth about our fear, and calls us to stay open even when everything in us says, pull in tight and clench.