Rage is probably the most terrifying emotion for a Christian to negotiate given the bad rap it’s been given. While there are sermons and verses warning us against the dangers of unrestrained anger, there are few, if any, that argue how righteous rage can be the most revolutionary emotion.
Remember that Jesus used his rage to purge sin from the temple (John 2:13-16). He didn’t politely ask the merchants and moneychangers to leave or bring his complaint to the elders. Instead, he overturned tables and used a whip to drive out those who turned the temple into a business. It was spirit-filled rage that enabled Samson to kill one thousand Philistines using only the jawbone of a donkey (Judges 15:14-17). When outnumbered or outmatched, directed rage can be a great equalizer for the marginalized.
Perhaps now, more than ever, Christians need to redefine their relationship to rage — particularly women’s rage. The nation watched Dr. Christine Ford testify about her alleged assault while maintaining a gracious demeanor whereas Brett Kavanaugh was allowed to rant about his supposed mistreatment. This double standard stems from centuries of social conditioning, as well as a rather sexist interpretation of the Bible that argues women are to be silent and submissive.
For instance, Proverbs gives us three separate verses warning us about the dangers of living with a “contentious woman” (Proverbs 21:9; 25:17, 24). Men were not supposed to see women as their allies or leaders; women most certainly were not to make songs about their rage. And yet, such a thing happened in the Bible too.
Take the story of Barak and Deborah in Judges 4. Israel was being oppressed by King Jabin and specifically terrorized by his captain Sisera. The prophetess Deborah judged Israel at that time and told Barak that God commanded him to gather forces against Sisera. Barak wasn’t a coward, but he wouldn’t go into battle unless Deborah went with him. Deborah agreed, but added that the honor of winning the war would go to a woman. You might think Barak would have had a problem with that. He didn’t.
The memorable part of the story is how Sisera ended up dying. As Deborah predicted, Barak bested the armies of Sisera, causing the captain to flee on foot and take refuge with one of his allies, Heber the Kenite. But Heber wasn’t home. Instead his wife Jael greeted him and offered him sanctuary. I like to think that she was plotting his death the moment he stepped foot into her tent. After all, she gave Sisera milk instead of water, a natural sleep aid. Sisera, not understanding his peril, then mansplained to Jael how she should answer any inquiries regarding his whereabouts.
Perhaps it’s only fitting that the next verse has her nailing his head to the ground. One could argue, I suppose, that this act was more desperation than rage. But the murder was personal. She had to get close to Sisera, close enough to see the rise and fall of his breath. Perhaps she brushed a lock of hair out of the way first. I wonder what she was thinking as she heard the crunch of his skull under the weight her hammer. I wonder how much anger she had to gather to make sure the first blow did its job. I wonder if she was tired of war, with the men fighting and women left as collateral — to be raped and enslaved. I wonder if she was tired of hearing soldiers laugh about their sexual conquests.
Perhaps she was tired of yet another man asking her to sacrifice her body and honor for his, without offering any real protection in return. After all, the verse specifically tells us that Heber had withdrawn his family from the other Kenites. If Deborah represents a woman with privilege — she was, after all, a ruler in Israel — I would argue that Jael represents women on the margins — women of color — whose resistance has often been ignored or erased. Jael, too, was supposed to be invisible and subservient, and instead allowed her rage to enact justice.
Barak eventually found Sisera’s trail leading to Jael’s tent. Ever the good hostess, Jael came out to greet him and showed Barak her handiwork. Barak’s reaction was wholly celebratory — something I can’t imagine any man — evangelical or otherwise — doing. He and Deborah made a song about their victory, with seven verses praising Jael and the way she killed Sisera. She is called “blessed among women” right before repeating how she had “pierced” and “stricken” his temple (Judges 5:24-27). They even mocked Sisera’s mother, who was waiting for a son that would never return. Brutal.
Rage is personal; it forges a connection between the oppressor and oppressed. Why else did Tamar seduce Judah, when she could have just as easily pretended to be a prostitute with Shelah, the son who was promised to her? She wanted Judah to feel the sting of his injustice and its effect on her. Like Jael, Tamar was marginalized as a widow who was sent back to her father’s house. Her rage not only saved her, but corrected Judah’s sin as well, since he became a man who would sacrifice himself rather than others.
Tamar’s actions were not erased. In fact, they were made into a blessing when Ruth and Boaz (the grandparents of King David) get married: “And let thy house be like the house of Pharez, whom Tamar bare unto Judah, of the seed which the Lord shall give thee of this young woman” (Ruth 4:12). Rage can rescue a nation from those bent on its destruction. It can produce an heir that saves the world.
While there are new books and articles being written about the power of women’s anger, I have yet to see the concept embraced by pastors and congregations. I have yet to see mainstream Christianity give honor to the women of color within its community, and outside of it, who from the beginning of America’s history called its leaders on their hypocrisy. Perhaps it’s time we begin to listen.