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Anger and the Modern Prophetic Voice

Along with scientific and historical reasons for concern, the words of modern prophets have consistently warned about the destructive potential of unbridled anger.
This is the second in a series of articles on anger in America today.

“We shall succeed in avoiding anger, if from time to time we lay before our minds all the vices connected with anger, and estimate it at its real value: it must be prosecuted before us and convicted: its evils must be thoroughly investigated and exposed. That we may see what it is, let it be compared with the worst vices…”

-Seneca, Of Anger, Book 1

In 2009, the ancient wisdom of Seneca was put to the test in American politics as conservatives were consumed with anger over the development of what would become the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA). Emerging as it did following implementation of the reviled Troubled Asset Relief Program in 2008, the ACA appeared to conservatives to be not just a misguided legislative effort; concerns about the legislation quickly turned from cost and scope to language of “death panels,” eugenics, and of course, comparisons to Hitler. Some Latter-day Saints looked for prophetic pronouncements that might convey a level of outrage and indignation they deemed appropriate to the times, and they zeroed in on statements by the apostle Ezra Taft Benson. To situate their fears in a larger historical narrative, they promoted the writings of the late Cleon Skousen, whose book sales soared.

Surely one of the great ironies of history for American conservative Latter-day Saints is the occupant of the office of president of the Church during the angry rise of the Tea Party movement with its heated rhetoric. The president of the Church during this time was the mild-mannered and kindly Thomas S. Monson, and in the firestorm of political rage during the 2009 deliberations over the ACA, President Monson gave a talk in General Conference that might best be described as profoundly countercultural:

“Recently as I watched the news on television, I realized that many of the lead stories were similar in nature in that the tragedies reported all basically traced back to one emotion: anger.

The Apostle Paul asks . . . ‘Can ye be angry, and not sin? let not the sun go down upon your wrath.’ I ask, is it possible to feel the Spirit of our Heavenly Father when we are angry? I know of no instance where such would be the case. . . . 

To be angry is to yield to the influence of Satan. No one can make us angry. It is our choice. If we desire to have a proper spirit with us at all times, we must choose to refrain from becoming angry. I testify that such is possible.

Anger, Satan’s tool, is destructive in so many ways.”

Following President Monson’s conference address, the Church published a commentary titled “The Mormon Ethic of Civility,” which reminds readers of the implosions of Book of Mormon societies and explains that “[i]n almost every case, the seeds of decay begin with the violation of the simple rules of civility. Cooperation, humility and empathy gradually give way to contention, strife and malice.” The commentary goes further: “. . . the Church views with concern the politics of fear and rhetorical extremism that render civil discussion impossible.”

President Monson is not the only Latter-day Saint prophetic figure to address the problem of anger and its effects upon the soul. In October 2007, only two years before President Monson’s conference talk, President Gordon B. Hinckley spoke similarly in a conference talk entitled “Slow to Anger.” Previous to the ministry of President Hinckley, with the transition of prophetic leadership to Ezra Taft Benson, Latter-day Saints looking for an aggressive conservative political agenda emanating from the office of the First Presidency likely felt some combination of astonishment and even disappointment with President Benson’s opening statement in his inaugural press conference: “My heart has been filled with an overwhelming love and compassion for all members of the Church and our Heavenly Father’s children everywhere. I love all our Father’s children of every color, creed, and political persuasion. My only desire is to serve as the Lord would have me do.”

Elder Marvin J. Ashton similarly reminisced of President Spencer W. Kimball that “he generally includes this phrase in his prayers: ‘Bless our enemies. Help us to understand them, and them to understand us.’ He doesn’t ask for vengeance or retaliation, just for understanding so differences can be resolved. . . . He even shows love to his enemies and many become friends. He has no time for envy, hate, ridicule, or evil speaking. Do we?” 

In President Kimball’s ever-relevant talk “The False Gods We Worship,” he gave voice to the reasoning behind his insistence upon prayerful and positive engagement with others: “What are we to fear when the Lord is with us? Can we not take the Lord at His word and exercise a particle of faith in him? Our assignment is affirmative: to forsake the things of the world as ends in themselves; to leave off idolatry and press forward in faith; to carry the gospel to our enemies, that they might no longer be our enemies.”

All of these examples are not to argue for passivity or for a naive worldview that is free of concern or frustration. President Dallin H. Oaks explored healthy emotional responses to problems in his still-relevant article in the February 1987 Ensign:

“The counsel to avoid destructive personal criticism does not mean that Latter-day Saints need to be docile or indifferent to defective policies, deficient practices, or wrongful conduct in government or in private organizations in which we have an interest. Our religious philosophy poses no obstacle to constructive criticism of such conditions. The gospel message is a continuing constructive criticism of all that is wretched or sordid in society. But Christians who are commanded to be charitable and to “[speak] the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) should avoid personal attacks and shrill denunciations. Our public communications—even those protesting against deficiencies—should be reasoned in content and positive in spirit.”

President Oaks and other prophetic figures are emphatic in their insistence that a spirit of anger is chosen. Likewise, in situations where anger might be the most natural of reactions, it is possible to instead choose a spirit of deliberative concern, of charitable inquiry, of patience, or of resolute decisiveness and accountability.

Latter-day Saint Theology of Anger and Accusation

Like any group, Latter-day Saints have plenty of reasons to feel anger. The cruel and unjust policies of our governments, the unfairness in our societies, and the groups and individuals attacking our faith all seem to conspire to keep us in a constant state of anger and outrage. It is an ever-present temptation to yearn for angry prophetic responses to these injustices; however, the Latter-day Saint prophetic aversion to anger is informed by deep theological resources, some of which are unique to the Latter-day Saint tradition. In October 2018 General Conference, Elder Dale G. Renlund turned to the Book of Revelation and explained of Satan that in contrast to the healing and encouraging role of Christ:

“Lucifer is an accuser or prosecutor. John the Revelator described Lucifer’s ultimate defeat: ‘And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ.’ Why? Because ‘the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night. And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony.’

Lucifer is this accuser. He spoke against us in the premortal existence, and he continues to denounce us in this life.”

This view of Satan/Lucifer’s use of accusation to achieve his purposes is mainstream Christian theology. In commentary on Revelation 12 echoing Elder Renlund’s remarks, NT Wright says of the dragon accuser and his flood against the woman (commonly seen as a representation of the church):

“Don’t be surprised that the dragon is out to get you, with more of his foul but powerful accusations, spat out like a flood . . . his basic nature of ‘accuser’ is now driving him, more and more frantically, to the attack, to accuse where it’s justified and where it isn’t, to drag down, to slander, to vilify, to deny the truth of what the creator God and his son, the lamb, have accomplished and are accomplishing.”

The larger question of what NT Wright considers that “the creator God and his son, the lamb, have accomplished and are accomplishing” is where Latter-day Saint theology strongly diverges from that of mainstream Christianity, which offers no compelling theological alternative to God’s voice in restoration scripture: “. . . this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39).

The Pearl of Great Price provides extraordinary insight into the primary means of opposition to that “work,” and again this explanation comes in the form of a quotation from the mouth of God:

“[Satan] sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him, and also, that I should give unto him mine own power; by the power of mine Only Begotten, I caused that he should be cast down; and he became Satan, yea, even the devil, the father of all lies, to deceive and to blind men, and to lead them captive at his will, even as many as would not hearken unto my voice” (Moses 4:3-4).

Finally, some of the most unique and compelling Latter-day Saint theological imagery of the figure of Satan is found in Moses 7, where Enoch is brought to the Divine Council:

And he saw angels descending out of heaven; and he heard a loud voice saying: Wo, wo be unto the inhabitants of the earth. And he beheld Satan; and he had a great chain in his hand, and it veiled the whole face of the earth with darkness; and he looked up and laughed, and his angels rejoiced (Moses 7:25-26).

This assertion that Satan’s primary objective was to destroy agency (the ability to freely make an informed choice) has been the source of much speculative commentary among Latter-day Saints. For example, given that the ability to freely choose was already operative in spirits’ decisions to follow the plan of the Father, how would Satan expect to subvert that aspect of existence? The explanation offered here in restoration scripture includes language of lies, deception, blinding, and captivity. In light of this imagery and the multifaceted descriptions of strategy and tactics, are scriptural characterizations of Satan as the “accuser” oversimplifications, or do they carry a useful degree of explanatory power? World history and modern research in the social sciences are united in affirming that anger does, in fact, have the power, in symbiosis with accusation, to subvert the free exercise of agency.

Relevant Research on Anger and Accusation

One of the foremost modern researchers in the effects of anger on decision-making is Dr. Jennifer Lerner, who co-founded Harvard University’s Decision Science Laboratory. Dr. Lerner summarizes the findings of current research: “. . . even when the object of subsequent judgments bears no relation to the source of one’s anger, anger increases . . . 

  1. a desire to blame individuals, 
  2. tendencies to overlook mitigating details before attributing blame,
  3. tendencies to perceive ambiguous behavior as hostile, 
  4. tendencies to discount the role of uncontrollable factors when attributing causality, and 
  5. punitiveness in response to witnessing mistakes made by others.”

Lerner further explains that “[b]eing perceived as angry can increase one’s social status” (Lerner, p. 296), and that, “[r]elative to sadness and neutral emotion, anger activated heuristic processing (e.g., more stereotypic judgments, less attention to the quality of the arguments, and more attention to the superficial cues of the message)” (Lerner, p. 122). As the exercise of agency depends upon the ability to see one’s choices with clarity, these findings regarding anger carry important theological implications for Latter-day Saints.

In The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff discuss the problem of violent conflict on college campuses and correctly link anger with one’s perceived ability to exercise agency, or in psychological terms, “locus of control:”

“If someone wanted to create an environment of perpetual anger and intergroup conflict . . . Teaching students to use the least generous interpretations possible is likely to engender precisely the feelings of marginalization and oppression that almost everyone wants to eliminate. And, to add injury to insult, this sort of environment is likely to foster an external locus of control. The concept of ‘locus of control’ goes back to behaviorist days, when psychologists noted that animals (including people) could be trained to expect that they could get what they wanted through their own behavior (that is, some control over outcomes was ‘internal’ to themselves). Conversely, animals could be trained to expect that nothing they did mattered (that is, all control of outcomes was ‘external’ to themselves)” (p. 46).

In a study of blame pathologies in the context of adverse medical events, researchers Nick O’ Connor, Beth Kotze, and Murray Wright explain that:

“Blaming provides an early, simple and artificial solution to complex inter-personal or situational problems. It is the process of identifying the problem as being in another person. It generates fear, destroys trust, makes further data gathering and analysis difficult, and shifts the burden of seeking true or more complex explanations that may involve owning some of the responsibility oneself.

The language of blame tends toward primitive, black and white, all-or-none, linear cause-and-effect models and scapegoating. The blame mentality also resonates with a ‘victimization’ worldview: where someone has had harm done to them, someone else must have been responsible for that ‘wrong,’ and this someone must be called to account; they must ‘pay,’ be punished or suffer in return. Blame provides a cathartic focus for our anger and our murderous rage and hate” (O’Conner, Kotze, Wright p.115).

That “cathartic” effect of blaming and accusation has a significant physiological component; research has demonstrated anger’s linkage to dopamine levels in the brain, which may indicate why our efforts to express and validate our anger often appear so compulsive.

Key Historical Insights on Anger and Accusation

On the subjects of anger and accusation, prophetic insight and the work of social scientists have been vindicated in studies of the great conflicts of modern world history. In recent years, Pankaj Mijra has attempted to explain the roots of angry social movements in the modern world, concluding that group violence was largely a resentful reaction to unfulfilled Enlightenment promises to impose upon society a prosperous and peaceful new order that dispenses with backward and unscientific belief systems and notions of identity. “Europeans simply had erected new absolutes — progress, humanity, the republic — to replace those of traditional religion and the monarchy,” Mijra writes, offering the deflating explanation that, “[t]he world of mutual tolerance envisaged by cosmopolitan elites from the Enlightenment onwards exists within a few metropolises and university campuses; and even these rarefied spaces are shrinking. The world at large — from the United States to India — manifests a fierce politics of identity built on historical injuries and fear of internal and external enemies.”

Mijra’s conclusions are not new, and his attempt to identify a common thread of class and identity-based resentment as the common soil in which angry movements have grown since the French Revolution is ambitious and relies upon numerous historical false equivalencies: the violence of the French Revolution, for example, is of a very different nature than Israel’s military responses to the provocations of Hezbollah. Mijra’s argument reflects the liberal tendency to explain social phenomena as responses to structural factors, but the reality is that perhaps most societies in world history have had very pronounced social stratification and resentful underclasses, and yet they have not all become consumed in angry upheaval.

If hell can be characterized by the absence of healing and reconciliation, then history demonstrates that societies consumed with anger and accusation are very literally hell on earth . . .

“Unmet expectations from the Enlightenment” may be a useful lens for viewing some conflicts between progress and tradition, but it cannot explain either the amount or the forms of conflict that have engulfed societies in the modern era. The great wars and unrest of the twentieth century demonstrated that for simple resentments to spread and morph into rage and violence among large segments of otherwise peaceful populations, events and social dynamics need to converge in ways that transform bystanders and observers into participants in horror. The most effective social mechanism for involving the populace is accusation, formalized in numerous bloody revolutionary contexts as the practice of denunciation or delation. As Henry Charles Lea said of delation in the Spanish Inquisition, “No more ingenious device has been invented to subjugate a whole populace, to paralyze its intellect, and to reduce it to blind obedience . . . it filled the land with spies and it rendered every man an object of suspicion, not only to his neighbor but to the members of his own family and to the stranger whom he might chance to meet.”

In 1997, the Journal of Modern History held a symposium on denunciation as a practice employed in European societies as a means of imposing and maintaining social control. Papers from the symposium were compiled into the volume Accusatory Practices: Denunciation in Modern European History, and their studies fill a crucial gap in studies like Age of Anger, illustrating how accusation in its various forms has enabled people in otherwise peaceful societies to abandon the mental and spiritual safeguards that had once allowed them to peacefully coexist with their neighbors. The authors introduce the concept by asserting that “Police, revolutionary, and theocratic states and communities — as well as twentieth-century totalitarian states — have been particularly likely to encourage their citizens or members to write denunciations against each other for purposes of maintaining social control, ideological purity, virtue, and so on…” (15).

The studies in Accusatory Practices demonstrate that tyrants do not simply impose terror from their official positions atop society; they create chains of participation in terror that stretch to communities and even households. The authors chronicle the importance of accusation in control-oriented ideological movements of the right and left, both religious and irreligious; “We have become more aware than ever,” the authors write, “that the people governed by terroristic regimes were involved in the everyday terror in countless ways . . .” (p. 5-6).

Beyond Europe, Jung Chang’s remarkable multi-generational memoir Wild Swans depicts the power of accusation in Maoist China to create social contagion in the service of tyranny, bringing to mind the “chain” of Moses 7:26. Chang’s parents served as loyal Maoist communist revolutionaries, eventually landing in positions of leadership in communist party departments. In the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, China was consumed with a wave of accusation and violence against intellectuals and persons perceived to be in positions of privilege. In a chapter titled “Where there is a will to condemn, there is evidence,” Chang describes the “denunciation meetings” that served as venues to denounce and often torture an accused member of the community and recalls her mother returning from denunciation meetings to bandage her knees after repeatedly being forced to kneel on broken glass. Numerous historical accounts relate that, in what Latter-day Saints might regard as a perfect inverse of our work of redemption of the dead, participants in Mao’s Cultural Revolution went so far as to desecrate tombs and engage in denunciations of corpses of the deceased.

These examples from European and Chinese history are mirrored in our own Latter-day Saint history. This is seen in the series of ambiguous events, met with angry and accusatory responses, that culminated in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. By contrast, consider the reflective insight of repentant apostate Thomas B. Marsh in Salt Lake City on September 6, 1857: “. . . when the Devil began to lead me, it was easy for the carnal mind to rise up, which is anger, jealousy, and wrath. I could feel it within me; I felt angry and wrathful; and the Spirit of the Lord being gone, as the scriptures say, I was blinded . . . I got mad, and I wanted everybody else to be mad. . . . I wanted them to be mad like myself; and I saw they were not mad, and I got madder still because they were not.” It is one of the most wrenching ironies of Church history that this powerful personal repudiation of anger was spoken to the Church on Temple Square, and the Mountain Meadows Massacre commenced in the south of the Utah territory on the following day.

If the Latter-day Saint home is the place where we model to the next generation constructive and holy engagement with the world, then homes filled with angry, accusatory behavior in politics and other areas of life will pass along to the next generation the spiritually poisonous notion that cathartic blame and accusation are more likely to lead us to truth than are patient and charitable approaches to inquiry. And it should come as no surprise, then, that youth experiencing normal challenges in matters of faith will turn to individuals and communities that compulsively indulge in anger and accusation in what they consider to be pursuit of truth. In 2020, as American Latter-day Saints approach another presidential election, we would do well to reflect upon the prophetic counsel of Thomas S. Monson, whose 2009 general conference talk given near the outset of widespread social media adoption predated research demonstrating that anger is the most rapidly-spreading emotion on social media platforms.

Finally, we should consider the imagery of Enoch’s vision in Moses 7. The object employed by Satan to veil the earth in darkness is not a curtain of any kind, but rather a chain; he laughs not because he views his work as frivolous, but because his work is easy due to the willingness of so much of humanity to forfeit their own agency for the opportunity to serve as links in the great blinding chain of the accuser. If hell can be characterized by the absence of healing and reconciliation, then history demonstrates that societies consumed with anger and accusation are very literally hell on earth, and functional case studies of the process Satan envisioned for destroying agency.

Perhaps the most stark and poignant Latter-day Saint prophetic witness of the effects of anger on the soul was President Joseph F. Smith, whose life story included viewing, as a child, the dead bodies of his martyred father and uncle, contemplating murder in a discussion with a Missouri resident, beating a neighbor with a cane, and experiencing the agony of an explosive and contentious divorce. To his wife Julina he reflected, “I have had some little time for sober reflection on my past experience . . . I deeply regret many foolish, wrong, impetuous actions . . . but the question is could I do better to [pass through] the same ordeals again. I hope so but I do not know.” Echoing Seneca, President Smith was able to see anger clearly and to “estimate it at its real value.” With the wisdom of age, President Smith would counsel the Saints:
“It is extremely hurtful for any man holding the Priesthood, and enjoying the gift of the Holy Ghost, to harbor a spirit of envy, or malice, or retaliation, or intolerance toward or against his fellowmen.

We ought to say in our hearts, let God judge between me and thee, but as for me, I will forgive. I want to say to you that Latter-day Saints who harbor a feeling of unforgiveness in their souls are more guilty and more censurable than the one who has sinned against them. Go home and dismiss envy and hatred from your hearts; dismiss the feeling of unforgiveness; and cultivate in your souls that spirit of Christ which cried out upon the cross, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’ This is the spirit that Latter-day Saints ought to possess all the day long.”

About the author

Dan Ellsworth

Dan Ellsworth is a consultant in Charlottesville, VA, and host of the YouTube channel Latter-day Presentations.
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