Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore is Professor of Pastoral Theology and Counseling at Vanderbilt University Divinity School and the mother of three boys. Her publications address major cultural issues and include Death, Sin, and the Moral Life: Contemporary Cultural Interpretations of Death, Also a Mother: Work and Family as Theological Dilemma, and, most recently, a co-authored volume, From Culture Wars to Common Ground: Religion and the American Family Debate. She is currently working on a book, Let the Children Come: Care of Children as a Religious Practice, funded by a grant from The Henry Luce Foundation.


Where does human anger come from? Is it avoidable, or is it something we should try to avoid?

There has always been, as a part of human nature, an angry element. That's just how we are made. You could argue that both theologically and biblically. You could also argue it psychologically. Freud, for example, said that there are two basic instincts: sex and aggression. The same thing is true when we get to biblical tradition. In both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament, you can find images of acceptable, righteous anger on the part of God, Jesus, and the faithful. And in Ephesians there's that interesting distinction made between being angry but not sinning." In other words, there's good anger and there's sinful anger. There are some theologians, like Paul Tillich, who would say we are created with anger as a good part of human nature, not as an inherently sinful or bad part. Anger only goes awry under the conditions of sinful human existence.

Our culture seems very angry. We talk about road rage, and now sports rage -- parents attacking officials at their children's sporting events. What are we so angry about?

I can name a few things that seem very clear to me about anger. One is in the last 50 years, for the good of society, psychology has stressed that feelings aren't bad. In fact you need to be in touch with your feelings, and you need to express your feelings. Up to a certain extent that has been a very helpful shift. Our parents and grandparents kept a lot of things hidden; a lot of things, and it didn't solve problems. It led to abuse, alcoholism, and other ways of acting out anger. But there are, of course, limits and problems when the free expression of feelings, including anger, is taken too far.

Also, some psychologists say that many people today are more narcissistically fragile. By that, they mean that many people do not deal well with anything that threatens their rather weak sense of self. A narcissistic person is less able to cope with setbacks and disappointments, less secure and confident, maybe even more grandiose, and hence more easily set off. Rage then is a natural result of even a tiny injury to one's self-esteem.

Another thing that is clearly happening is that we live in post-modern society, a highly technological fast paced, high stress, high stimuli. Living in that kind of society, we are more volatile. There are so many things going on in our lives and our frenetic pace can spark more anger.

How does this make our families different from families 50 years ago, where expressing anger was generally not as acceptable?

I came from a family that had those philosophies. Not only was conflict suppressed, but there was also a sense that the parents ought to present a unified front. The unified front sometimes came at the sacrifice of one of the parents, often the woman who felt she had to be the peacekeeper. This model didn't demonstrate to children a healthy way to process conflict, because the conflict was hidden. My sense was that my parents didn't have any conflict, and I'm sure that they did.

There's a lot of interesting literature on marriage education and communication. That whole body of literature says that the highest cause of divorce is avoidance of conflict. That may or may not be proven, but most people think that it is the high conflict in a marriage that is a problem. But avoidance of conflict sometimes causes even greater problems. Some of these studies show that happily married couples will have as many as ten areas of irreconcilable differences, things that they can never wholly agree upon.

How do we recognize healthy conflict?

There is destructive anger and there is constructive conflict. Constructive conflict involves being more open about our frustrations and trying to work them through, rather than removing ourselves from the family. It means being willing to be influenced, giving-in, and compromising -- not easy things! The bottom line has to be respect for the other person in expressing anger so that one tries hard not to degrade or demean the other person -- something that is hard to practice when you're really angry but is absolutely essential. In addition to this covenant of deep respect, genuinely expressing anger requires establishing trust in the relationship -- that the relationship is stronger and can outlast any extremely heated conflict. Building this kind of trust also takes patience, time, and work and lots of memories of good times together. With children too it's clear that they need more than unconditional positive regard. What is truly empathetic for a child may sometimes be a clear demonstration of anger.

You write about the effort to balance of work and home and how imbalance can be destructive.

One of the primary areas of anger in marriage is the distribution of domestic family labor particularly as women are taking on more responsibilities in the wider public arena. Women are more likely to be angry about unfair distribution of labor. Men are more likely to be angry about being nagged. That's perhaps the difference. In my own experience, I find that there are times when both persons get angry even if they have tried to establish a just, fair balance of what needs to be done in the home. They both feel they are doing too much, and they both are right. At that point, instead of anger they just need care and support! The wider support structures for families trying to share the domestic work unfortunately are just not in place yet. I think we haven't truly reached a sense of bold gender equality when it comes to the household and that it will continue to spark anger. In my book, Also A Mother, I argue that it is better for everyone involved to share the household work. That sharing is better for children in terms of what they see and experience. Sometimes working toward sharing responsibilities is worth the necessary conflict and anger that go with it, except when it becomes destructive or harmful.

It does seem another change from 50 years ago is how much more fathers are involved, beginning with being present at their children's birth. Is this changing families?

I think so, although there are men at both extremes -- fathers that are a great deal more involved and more "deadbeat" fathers that are not involved at all. This gets to our core Christian values and Christian ethics and how we think about love and family. Since Also A Mother was published, four other authors and I worked on a book on family debate called From Culture Wars to Common Ground. One of the things we observed by doing a Gallup Poll is that most people today perceive their family as being less self-sacrificial than their parents thought necessary. Many parents would affirm that even though parenting calls for us to stretch ourselves tremendously and asks very hard things from us, being a parent also gives to us very richly, and we become ourselves more fully through this exchange with our children. People today would choose to emphasize an ethic of what might be called mutuality or equal regard or shared responsibility. Love is a mutuality. Sometimes in Roman Catholic circles it's discussed as caritas, which is a more two-way love. Protestants have traditionally conceptualized love as agape, unconditional self-sacrifice. In an earlier time, the highest ideal in a family was sacrificial love, giving of yourself unconditionally to your children. One of our major agendas in our book is to make a case that caritas or mutuality is the Christian ideal. Even when Jesus tried to create the household of God, his sacrifice was a means to that end. Not the end. Not the goal. Jesus' self-sacrifice was the consequence of his striving to create a genuine community of caring, giving people. Sacrifice can be an attempt to reestablish a genuine mutuality. It's so necessary and it becomes more acute the younger and more dependent your children are or the more dependent your aging parents or your disabled sibling or whomever you are caring for. The hope remains that even in those situations, there will be some way to balance that will either be a different kind of balance of return -- something is received back for the caregiver. Or, if not there are other people standing by to support you and give to you in order for you to keep going.

I can imagine some people hearing this with some suspicion-mutuality sounds great, but what about when the kids act out, when they speak to you with hostility. Most of us want to say, you can't talk to me that way!

One thing that people struggle with is what mutuality looks like when one of the parties is not yet fully equal in some respect, not in terms of human worth and dignity, but in terms of moral judgment or cognitive or physical ability. If children are not "equal" in certain respects, how do you have a mutual relationship and let children participate in a fuller way in family process, while still protecting their childhood? There is something healthy in the wider range that we have given our kids. Children deserve a greater voice in decisions that affect their lives. They need to participate as fully as possible in family discussions and planning. But there are boundaries and limits to this. There needs to be. For example, there is the question of when to call a child on treating someone with disrespect, whether another child or an adult. The home is an essential place to learn to show respect. There are times when I will say exactly not only can you not speak to me that way, but I will tell you be careful when you cross this threshold because you can't talk to a coach that way either. You certainly can't talk to a teacher that way or others to whom you owe a certain amount of respect.

How has your understanding of love and anger affected your work as a theologian?

One thing in terms of my thinking about anger is a major reconceptualization of what we think Christian love looks like. I'm not sure these ideas are making it to the pulpit. The theology of sacrifice is still so much a part of our worship, our hymns, the liturgy, how we understand communion. So we're talking core imagery here and that certainly has implications for this whole topic of anger. Things don't shift quickly in terms of how we worship or how we think about the cross and Jesus' death as sacrifice. We really touch on so much when we get into these questions -- funny how the issue of anger can get you into almost anything. There is no question that congregations cannot ignore powerful human emotions like anger, as much as they might want to! And we cannot ignore the question of the wider culture and its sometimes distorted messages about violence and anger. On these difficult issues --anger, just distribution of household labor, treating children with respect but also with clear limits and boundaries appropriate to their age --congregations must speak up and help people struggle along as we make up new lives of faith together.

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