The Right Judge: Why Anger Never Satisfies

Spoiler Alert: Serious spoilers for Parasite follow.

I’ve got a confession to make. I’ve got an anger problem. It’s not that I think of myself as an angry person. Anger rarely raises my voice anymore, and has never really raised a fist. It’s a more insidious problem than that, and it’s a problem I think is pretty common if my anecdotal evidence is worth anything at all. The problem is simple, and I wonder if you can sympathize: I like getting angry. 

I’ve shared this from time to time with those I’m close with, and I’ve often gotten a sympathetic response. Every now and then, someone seems surprised, but it’s not uncommon that I hear the problem mirrored back at me. It feels good, they might say, like getting in control. If that’s not evidence enough, I think the Bible makes the rest of the argument for me. Proverbs warns us about the consequences of anger, Colossians demands us rid ourselves of it, and James explains that the root of anger is the desire for the things of this world and wicked jealousy for what we do not have. But what exactly am I trying to control? The answer lies in the most common and dangerous form of anger that I face – righteous anger. When I’m trying to control justice, it’s easy to entertain and excuse anger. But no matter how righteous I tell myself my anger is, I find myself deeply, deeply, unsatisfied when I give into it. I am an incompetent judge – often incorrect in my judgements, and almost always unrighteous in my response. 

One of my favorite movies of all time is the 2010 Coen Brothers remake of True Grit. In it, a young girl Mattie Ross chooses to pay a bounty hunter to track down a dangerous fugitive, rather than allowing a Texas Ranger already on the case to do so. Why? Because she wants Tom Chaney hung in Arkansas for the murder of her father, not in Texas for the assassination of a State Senator. The Texan judge is incompetent – though his trial might be fair and his punishment just, he cannot address the wrong that Mattie so desperately needs to be addressed. 

This year’s Parasite gave us another glimpse into justice that fails. In the final moments of the movie, Kim Ki-taek murders the man he conned into a job, escapes into a bunker in the patriarch’s basement, and essentially imprisons himself with virtually no chance of escape or return to a normal life. As I was listening to Ki-taek’s final monologue and watching him begin to succumb to life in a self-made prison, I found myself deeply unsatisfied. There’s a way you could walk away thinking that he got what he deserved. He conned a family, killed his employer, and he’s now, functionally, in prison. Justice has been, in some sense, satisfied. But in Parasite, Ki-taek eludes genuine justice and makes himself his own judge. He is an incompetent judge – his punishment will never bring any closure to the family affected by his anger, and his debt to society never repaid. 

In all three cases, attempts to bring justice ring hollow and false. I fail to impose justice on my surroundings; the Texan judge will fail to achieve justice for Mattie, and Ki-taek fails to even bring justice to himself. In all three cases, justice rings hollow for the same reason: justice enacted without the proper judge can never truly satisfy. 

In an era where trust for institutions is declining, we find ourselves more tempted than ever to look for justice in all the wrong places. Senators chosen by the Constitution to bring justice to a rogue executive fail. Those guilty of gross sexual crimes too often find themselves hidden by their churches, robbing their victims of the chance to face their accusers in court and win even a modicum of justice there. And when those we should be best able to look to for justice harm those in their care, courts often fail to fairly consider their cases, leading to acquittal after acquittal in cases of blatant abuse of police power. 

At the end of 2019, just before the Newseum (a journalistic museum in Washington, DC) closed its doors for the final time, my wife and I stopped by to take a final look. Tucked into a corner behind an archive of old cover stories was a small exhibit dedicated to the Civil Rights movement. There was a lunch counter there, one of the original places of protest from the infamous Birmingham sit-ins. Next to the counter, in a small glass frame, sits the following memo:

RULES OF ACTION

PROPOSED BY SIT-IN PARTICIPANTS

DO NOT:

1.       Strike back nor curse if abused.

2.       Laugh out.

3.       Hold conversation with floor walker.

4.       Leave your seat until your leader has given you permission to do so.

5.       Block entrance to stores outside nor the aisles inside.

DO:

1.       Show yourself friendly and courteous at all times.

2.       Sit straight; always face the counter.

3.       Report all serious incidents to your leader.

4.       Refer information seekers to your leader in a polite manner.

5.       Remember the teachings of Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Love and nonviolence is the way.

MAY GOD BLESS EACH ONE OF YOU

These rules, if proposed for a social action today, might be dismissed out of hand as naive and toothless. But this action, and thousands like it, achieved what is perhaps the most significant step forward in social justice in modern American history. They aren’t the tactics commonly looked to today. To be honest, they’re not the tactics I would most naturally look to were I trying to design an effective social movement. If reviled, I want to revile. But that sin never satisfies, and it’s not designed to. Pursuing justice on my own terms leads me deeper into sin, not closer to genuine shalom. 

It’s hope, and only hope, that can provide that. Righteous anger is all too often self-delusion. Patient waiting on the Lord can feel like self-delusion, but it’s the ballast our hearts need to persist in the earthly struggle for the justice God will ultimately secure. Seeking quick fixes to hard problem might feel like a way to achieve satisfaction, but it never does. Rooting ourselves in the teaching of Christ allows us to see our anger with clear eyes – to use it prophetically and effectively, while allowing us to patiently endure the worst kinds of suffering and persecution. Recognizing the jurisdiction, timing, and authority of God the Judge enabled the men and women at a Woolsworth lunch counter to endure physical and verbal abuse and assault and even the threat of martyrdom. It didn’t keep them from anger, but it kept them from sin, and more importantly, it opened the door for genuine, satisfying justice. 

The Lord is still at work in preparing the final justice that will fully satisfy the hearts of those who have been sinned against. It feels distant, and sometimes utterly intangible. But for those who choose to act in light of it, the justice of the Lord can bring respite and relief in this life, and a guarantee of full satisfaction in the life to come. 

Travis Roberts

Travis McKay Roberts is a Métis social worker, public health researcher, and writer, currently completing advanced degrees from Johns Hopkins University and University of Maryland, Baltimore. Travis has published for RELEVANT, Christ and Pop Culture, Uneven Earth, and the Intersection Project. His writing has also appeared in the Indigenous created, designed, and written video game When Rivers Were Trails. More of his work can be found at traviswmroberts.wordpress.com. He is a member of Restoration Church in Washington, DC, where he lives with his wife, Megan.

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