Moving Past Moral Outrage
Why we need to trade our righteous indignation for the real tools of change.
Sadie is an 11-year-old transgender girl who is currently making news for an essay she wrote to the president in response to his inauguration speech. She took issue with the President’s exclusion of any mention of transgendered people during his sweeping panorama of American citizens, and wrote a remarkable, polite, concise, forceful letter to tell him about it. Take that in for a minute. Sadie is biologically a boy, but self-identifies as a girl. She’s 11—and she got the nation to listen.
This article is not about transgendered people. There are a lot of opinions about that topic, and there are other articles on this very site that deal with them. This article is about Sadie’s response to something that offended her. It’s about how she channeled her anger and disappointment into action.
Christians have long been known for their boycotts, petitions and generally taking up the banner of the “counter-cultural” fight. Yet in all this I observe a disturbing trend. The morality driving these actions is a good thing, but there’s usually outrage that accompanies it. You know what this looks like. You’ve seen it on the news and you’ve seen it in your news feed. It’s not the indignant outrage that chases Kony from around the globe, but the impotent outrage that has no clear target.
Far too often, we don’t know what else to do. When we see something we don’t like, we become outraged. We’ve forgotten how to disagree without it. We’ve decided that anything but harsh condemnation equals wholehearted support. We create litmus tests for orthodoxy—and then judge people based on whether they’re “in” or “out.” We choose allies, not friends.
But life is about more than what you’re for and who you’re against. Sometimes it’s about 11-year-olds trying to figure out who they really are. And it’s always about loving others and choosing to see God’s image reflected in each of them—whether we agree with their choices or not.
But the downside to outrage is that it alienates. We give up our seat at the adult table when our position on an issue descends into an attitude of simple outrage. No one wants to listen to what we have to say except our fiercest allies. We get shipped off to the kid’s table, with all the other outraged people, and the world continues to turn without us.
Then something tragic happens: We get caught in a cycle, where our outrage alienates us from others, and we withdraw further and further as a “fringe” group of our own.
And we’ve got to break the cycle. We can’t keep descending into two camps on everything, or else we are inevitably divided against ourselves. We can’t keep talking about grace if every disagreement is a war.
Think about your agenda for a minute. Has outrage, particularly outrage directed at people in “other camps”—liberals, conservatives, gays, Christians, Muslims, gun owners, government officials—gotten you anywhere? Has it made your God any bigger, or your cause any stronger? When we get on the high horse of righteous indignation, our moral stand actually weakens—because our outrage often discredits us before others who disagree, and meanwhile, the only thing we really accomplish is filling up anew a little box labeled, “Stuff That Outrages Me.”
You know you’re more than that. Your beliefs and priorities and passions are more than that. It’s important for us to have those strong beliefs; there has never been a time in our history when everyone agreed. Our world has been shaped—for better or worse—by the slow struggle between ideas and values. But it’s also been shaped by the courageous choice to find common ground and build from there.
As our world continues to change, finding that common ground may prove difficult, but it’s always there. It becomes our task to find it. Regardless of faith background, many people share the desire to serve the poor and oppressed. Regardless of color, many parents share the same hopes about their families and the future of their kids. Regardless of political affiliation, many citizens will choose freedom together when freedom is a choice to be had.
Allowing our passions to be usurped by outrage destroys common ground by giving the disagreements center stage. The cycle of outage breaks the cycle of humanity. The future of our kids and justice and freedom take a backseat to anger and resentment and pride. Common ground takes a back seat to alienation and isolation.
So choose differently. Ask yourself: “Is my outrage alienating me from people who disagree?” If so, then it’s time to break the cycle. Maybe it’s time to apologize to the people you’ve been alienating. Maybe it’s time to expose yourself to those you disagree with, and finally gain an understanding of their perspective. Or maybe it’s simply time for you to remember that we’re all created in the same image, which makes dehumanizing—or even demonizing—each other a truly perverse act.
For things to truly change, we have to be the change. Grace is contagious, and you’d be surprised how quickly the atmosphere around you can change when you choose grace over outrage. And make no mistake; there are still debates to be had and problems to work out. But you have to join the conversation to ever really make a difference. Remember, it’s never too late to get up from the kid’s table. In doing so, maybe you’ll bring a few more people back into the conversation as well. After all, if an 11-year-old child can sit at the adult’s table, so can you.
This article is adapted with permission from www.potsc.com.