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Gods of Instagram: Addicted to Outrage

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I have experienced growth in my faith, that is, except when I’m driving. If only I would leave on time. Recently, I became enraged by a car stopped in front of me for no reason. Despite no oncoming traffic and the light being green, they refused to turn left. Clearly, they were an idiot, and so I used my horn to express frustration and lack of respect for their dearth of driving skills. It felt good for me to be so miserable! My attitude quickly changed to shame when I finally noticed they were correctly waiting for an elderly lady to cross the street. Only then did I realize I was obnoxious, self-righteous, and quite un-Mennonite Brethren pastor-ish. Last time I checked the Bible, being a follower of Jesus is supposed to be a full-time gig.   

Outrage is the ultimate reality distorter. It’s also an attractive false gospel. What? 

In The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis noted the similarity of moral codes across different cultures and eras. In Mere Christianity, he also observed another common feature of humanity – our tendency to break the same moral standards. When we transgress a moral code, we rightfully experience the uncomfortable emotions of guilt, shame, or fear. While guilt, fear, and shame are distinct, they all stem from the same root cause: our conscience alerting us to the fact that we have missed the mark.

The good news of Jesus tells us that forgiveness to absolve guilt, honour to remove shame, and power to overcome fear are available as gracious gifts purchased through the finished work of Jesus Christ, his life, death, and resurrection. This gift of grace can be freely received by anyone who turns to Jesus in saving faith, offering eternal life and hope for the Kingdom of God both in this life and beyond the resurrection. 

There are enticing alternative gospels that cleverly attempt to bypass the gospel of Jesus. These approaches aim to deal with our guilt, fear, or shame to varying degrees of success. We can group them into three broad categories.

Compensation: This is the most common alternative gospel. It acknowledges transgressions and the associated emotions, seeking justification by balancing the scales with good deeds covering over bad ones. This alternative gospel is often seen in human-centred religions, including mutated versions of Christianity that promote the idea of earning forgiveness through good works. People who are naturally self-disciplined can achieve a sense of self-righteousness that cloak feelings of guilt, fear, and shame. Jesus’ parable recounted in Luke 18:9-14 powerfully challenges this approach.

Medication: Guilt, shame, and fear are powerful consuming emotions, leading to a desperate desire to alleviate these negative feelings by any means possible. Alcohol, drugs, sex, distraction, extreme sports, shopping, entertainment, hobbies, career obsession, and so on can temporarily relieve these negative emotions. Turning to our chosen “drug” gives us a sense of righteousness by numbing or distracting us from our guilt, shame, or fear. While we universally recognize the dangers of this approach, such as addiction, it remains popular even among seasoned followers of Jesus.  

Outrage: In the past decade or so, outrage has been gaining popularity as an alternative gospel, perhaps even surpassing the other approaches. Counter-intuitively, outrage is a pleasant emotion. It alleviates guilt, fear, and shame by giving us a strong sense of righteousness. It tricks us into believing that we are morally superior.

Dr. Jeremy E. Sherman, in his Psychology Today article titled “Maddiction: Addiction to Self-Righteous Outrage,” writes (using surprisingly theological words):

“You can’t believe they lied to you! How dare they? Your blood’s boiling, and you’re ready for battle. No one should get away with lying! Ever! You hate liars. You would never lie. Impossible, or at least impossible to remember in your current state. Outrage at other people’s failings evaporates all recollection of our similar failings. When outraged, we feel pure. Feel dirty? Bark at someone. You’ll feel cleansed….The more outraged we are at others, the more righteous we feel; the more righteous we feel, the more we feel duty-bound to be outraged at others. One can really rev out on that vicious cycle. It’s highly addictive. Call it ‘addiction,’ an addiction to getting mad for the self-purifying sensation. My addiction is the source of common undiagnosed madness, a mental illness because, though it makes one feel purged of sin, it’s an indulgence in the greatest violation of all: Ignoring reality.”

Dr. Sherman is not the first to write about anger creating faux righteousness in us. In the first century, James succinctly makes the same point in the Bible:

“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (James 1:19-20).

James is not warning us that in anger, we are more likely to transgress (although that is also true, see Eph 4:26). In and of itself, anger is not a sin. Rather, he’s reminding us that anger doesn’t “produce the righteousness God desires.” Why would he need to emphasize this? Because anger is a powerful emotion that deceives us—making us feel righteous even when we’re not.

Pete Williams, in his essay titled “Your Addiction to Outrage is Ruining Your Life,” writes:

“In 2020, outrage is the latest drug of society. It’s more acceptable than alcohol, and it’s more addictive than anything you can swallow, smoke, or inject because while heroin or methamphetamine are clearly harmful, anger feels so…righteous. After all, that other political party is ruining the world. Their supporters hate America (or whatever country you’re in). People are too selfish. We’re not doing enough for the poor. Women don’t have enough rights. Men don’t have enough rights. Those people are racists. That group doesn’t recognize their privilege. The president is a rapist. Capitalism is exploiting everyone who isn’t the 1%… We love being angry because it makes us feel smart. It makes us feel like we care more than the next person (who we assure ourselves doesn’t care enough) because we’re more across the facts than they are. That we have the necessary ideas to fix everything. That we’re the ones that need to be in charge. When we call someone a Nazi or a sexist, or a bigot, it’s not our opinion; it’s a fact. That when we call someone out or, worse, try to ruin their career, they deserve it. That’s an astounding level of arrogance.”

Social media and the changing landscape of legacy media economics have embraced the business model of increasing engagement by inciting our rage, not without disturbing effects. Many of us have sensed that our country is more polarized now than ever. Disagreement with someone quickly leads to becoming their enemy. Legacy and social media deliberately fuel the fire, as their business models depend on stoking the flames to keep us scrolling. They generate outrage by directing us into personalized, algorithmically curated echo chambers. Civil society is fracturing with an intensity that terrifies many sociologists. 

Even within church families, we have sometimes joined the digitally fueled bonfire of division. Political, technological, and economic ‘issue’ flags are sometimes raised above the flag of Jesus. We used to understand that godly Christians who cared about the same underlying ethical commands might sincerely disagree about specific economic, sociological, technological, or scientific policies and approaches that best accomplish those common goals.

For example, I carry a stash of loonies to give to panhandlers to express Jesus’ ethic of caring for the poor. Godly people in my church also seek to help the poor but sincerely believe that giving cash to panhandlers worsens their situation in the long run. I believe I’m right; they believe they are right. We’ve studied the issue but have come to sincerely different policy conclusions about how this plays out. Can Christians agree on Christ’s commands while still holding differing perspectives on which real-world policy best achieves that end in a complicated multivariant world? Even among Christians, increasingly disagreeing about the best policy to accomplish the same goal is equated with making them into an enemy.

Yet, for the sake of argument, let’s suppose for a moment we live in a simple black-and-white world—where there’s only one political or social policy that is 100% correct (which, coincidently, is the policy we hold to) and another policy approach is 100% wrong. Let’s also suppose that outrage is God’s way—and that any Canadian who disagrees with us is our ‘enemy.’  How should we think and act toward our “enemies”? Even then, Jesus and Paul had much to say about this situation (see Matthew 5:21-24, 5:43-48, Romans 12:9-21). Hint: It looks radically different from our outrage-addicted society.

The danger of rage addiction threatens unity among Canadians and fellow brothers and sisters. Also, it fools us into a false sense of righteousness. As James reminds us, “Human anger doesn’t produce the righteousness that God desires.” It gives us a feeling of righteousness that can trick us into thinking we are walking closer to God than we really are.

The “righteousness God desires” is simultaneously a gift of grace bestowed to us through faith (see Romans 5:1-11) and a progressive work of the Holy Spirit in us that requires our constant faith & grace-fueled participation (see Galatians 5). I’m amazed at the tension between how righteous I have been declared in Christ through faith and how much I still need to grow in the righteousness the Holy Spirit is striving to produce in me (see Hebrews 10:14). When I have drifted far from God the path back requires repentance, confession, and a return to walking in step with the Spirit. In short, first, I need to be convicted of my lack of righteousness. Then I need to humble myself before God and, via confession and dependence on the Holy Spirit, renew my inner and outer being. The flesh rebels against this, and even under the best circumstances, none comes naturally to me. So, bypassing this pathway for spiritual growth can be appealing.  

And, as though on cue, outrage appears with convenient notifications on our smartphones as the constant opportunity and seductive alternative. Outrage can bypass the effort of sanctification and give me a similar feeling of righteousness that is mostly a figment of my imagination. 

I have sometimes noticed in myself a distance from God that pushes me away from quietness, prayer, confession, and the beauty of the Scriptures. It’s easier and less humbling to browse social media feeds, read a clickbait article about the evils of the ‘other side’ or anything else that generate a quick hit of outrage within me. My outrage creates a false sense of spiritual progress because I’m angry about the same things God is also angry about!

Recently, while preparing a sermon, I made the mistake of checking the headlines on my laptop. A few minutes earlier, the Supreme Court of the USA ruled on affirmative action in college admissions. True to modern form, the headlines were written in a way that would likely trigger anger regardless of one’s agreement or disagreement regarding the ruling. I thought about my friendship network, knowing people would be on both sides of this complicated policy issue. They all abhor racism but disagree on which policies better achieve that shared outcome.  

For the first time in a long while, I was stressed and agitated. I went for a walk in our church parking lot to cool down, during which time it occurred to me – I’m not an American!   Even if I were American, there would be nothing I could do about the ruling one way or another. My ‘issue’ anger was almost entirely theoretical and accomplished precisely nothing. What useful purpose did my anger serve? It certainly wasn’t producing any real righteousness in me! Then, as I contemplated all this, I saw two men of two different races crossing my path, engaged in deep conversation. It occurred to me that what mattered more was not how I felt about something I could do nothing about but how I treated these men right before me.

How much energy have we wasted by our devotion to social media, current events, and the outrage issues of the day? Beyond feeling that familiar rush of ‘righteous’ vindication from our rage and rants about recent issues like covid, climate change, the last election, environmental policies, or any other social policy, did our anger or Facebook post about it make any difference on those issues whatsoever?

To be sure, the corrective to outrage addiction is not apathy. In a fallen world, anger is a God-given emotion that alerts us to what we perceive as injustice done to us or others. Yet, we need humility to accept that we are notoriously unreliable at distinguishing between perceived and real injustices. Anger, while not itself a sin, becomes harmful to us and others when we continually feed it and dwell on it. Even when we are justified in our anger, the scriptures call us to set aside our anger before the sun sets. For many of us, it’s long past time to cut the cords on our social media accounts and break the power of our smartphones.  

How can we recognize when we have embraced continual outrage as a false sense of spiritual vitality? Here are a few questions we can ask ourselves:

Do we spend considerably more time being agitated on social media & news headlines than we do reading the Scriptures, praying, and confession?

Does our outrage regularly lead us to harbour sentiments toward people on the other side of an issue that conflict with Jesus and Paul’s commands in Matthew 5 and Romans 12?

Have we become obsessed and continually outraged about specific political, economic, sociological, or technological issues? (If unsure, ask a friend to tell you.)

Does our entire friendship network agree with us on what outrages us? Have we intentionally selected our network to exclude those who disagree with us?

How long do we simmer in anger about global issues we have no real power to affect? Is it going on for too long? (see Ephesians 4:26)

Do we generally feel righteous and close to God most often when angry about ‘issues?’ 

Victor Neufeld is the lead pastor at North Kildonan MB Church in Winnipeg.

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