Leave Your Righteous Indignation on the Field

Aristotle taught that outrage can be a natural response, but Christ reminds us that it should be rare.
Leave Your Righteous Indignation on the Field
Image: Doug Pensinger / Getty Images

This weekend, Super Bowl LIII pits the New England Patriots, a team with the most successful coach of this generation and one of the best quarterbacks of all time, against the Los Angeles Rams, featuring the hottest young coach in football and a lineup that executes his cutting-edge offense.

The strength of both teams in this year’s Super Bowl matchup almost makes it easy to forget how so many of us felt during the NFC and AFC championships.

The Patriots beat the Kansas City Chiefs in overtime, capitalizing on a set of extra-session rules that have always sparked controversy. The Rams won against the New Orleans Saints thanks in no small part to a missed pass interference penalty, stalling out a drive late in the game that could have led to a Saints touchdown or, at the very least, bled the clock in their favor.

That feeling that swelled during the playoffs—and still lingers among some as we await Sunday’s Pats-Rams showdown—is one those of us who watch sports know quite well: righteous indignation.

One of the principles emphasized in sports, from peewee leagues to the pros, is playing fair. All the skill and strength on display during a game doesn’t mean a thing without a sense of justice around the competition; we want teams to play by the rules and refs to make the right calls.

So when that doesn’t happen, especially in the tense final playoff games, we experience what Aristotle described as pain felt at the undeserved fortune of another. Aristotle, known as the father of virtue ethics, also addressed the reverse of righteous indignation, which comes when we feel pain at our own underserved misfortune, or pity. That was supposed to be us.

Righteous indignation keeps the Saints from being excited to see the Rams take the field in Atlanta this Sunday. The Chiefs also feel a degree of the same.

Football is an intricately rule-bound game bursting with statistical analysis, replays, and media scrutiny. There are ample measures to determine who deserves to win and plenty of time to weigh the evidence. Further, big-time football fuels a mob mentality where fans are surrounded by the momentum of others who agree with their side and are eager to defend it. It seems difficult to find a better setting for righteous indignation to flourish.

The emotions that we experience so starkly, so collectively in the dramatic wins and losses of sports fandom echo, in their own ways, the grasping for justice we see throughout Scripture itself. Again and again, biblical figures feel hurt, disappointed, and mistreated when they don’t get what’s due to them.

Righteous indignation—and pity, for that matter—is what Esau felt when he realized his brother, Jacob, had tricked him into giving away his birthright. It is what Hannah felt as her husband’s other wife bore him children and incessantly needled her because she was barren. (It’s also what the Buffalo Bills feel regarding their four straight Super Bowl losses in the early 1990s.)

Aristotle considers righteous indignation to be an appropriate and logical feeling—stemming from our right desire for justice. Unfortunately, it may easily slide into either of two moral vices.

Righteous indignation can shift to envy, or feeling pain anytime another fares well. Envy is hard to avoid in the world of sports, where the disappointment of a major defeat, missed playoff spot, or lost shot at the Super Bowl can lead us to resent the victors. Players and fans of NFL playoff teams that lost early may envy the Rams and Patriots. Those who support the teams the Saints vanquished earlier in the playoffs may have taken joy in the egregious no-call that dashed New Orleans’ Super Bowl dreams.

While harboring feelings of envy or schadenfreude going into the Super Bowl seems mostly petty, experiencing righteous indignation seems more defensible—but it’s still not our best emotional response.

Aristotle—whose teachings on the virtues can be a helpful starting point for discussing our own sense of Christian morality—considers righteous indignation a partial virtue, a signal that one is on the road to virtuous behavior.

Translator Joseph Sachs explains that experiencing righteous indignation is like when a child complains, “That’s not fair.” It’s often an appropriate reaction, and the feeling may be justified, but it is not a mature response to injustice.

Jesus himself experienced a bout of righteous anger that could be characterized as indignation. Each Gospel recounts his feelings upon approaching the temple in Jerusalem and finding merchants and money-changers turning “his father’s house” into “a den of robbers,” aghast at their willingness to leverage a sacred place for their own profits.

This popular Bible story is a favorite of sports fans who appreciate evidence of Jesus’ willingness to fight and show competitiveness. As one NFL chaplain stated, “In a society that celebrates and pushes soft spoken, avoid conflict at all costs ways of thinking; it’s refreshing to have someone show us God’s plan for what it means to be a man. Yes Jesus told us to turn the other cheek, but he also turned over the tables in the temple!”

But we have to be careful about this example. Throughout the rest of Jesus’ ministry, we see very few other instances of him harboring or acting out of righteous indignation. Jesus is much more often the teacher, the peacemaker, or the healer than the table-flipper. People knew John the Baptist as the fiery preacher calling out sins; the stories of Jesus depict more lamb than lion—righteous, but rarely indignant.

Meanwhile, Aristotle used the term nemesis to refer to righteous indignation—a word we now use to mean a rival or enemy and the name of the ancient Greek goddess of retribution. She doled out wrath to those with hubris, thereby ensuring justice by appropriately dispensing fortune and misfortune.

We cannot count on such a force to bring justice on our behalf, as ancient Greeks believed, so we are left with feelings of righteous indignation that we must deal with ourselves.

Though we may not characterize as we do our rivals on the field, we will inevitably have nemeses in life. Even Jesus couldn’t avoid that. Nemesis—righteous indignation—is not the problem. The problem comes when we don’t handle it well.

Those observing Jesus’ earthly ministry also felt a sense of righteous indignation, afraid that this prophet was violating how they understood rules of their faith. In Mark 3, the Pharisees questioned his willingness to heal on the Sabbath. “He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored” (3:5).

In the very next verse, the Pharisees—stewing in a false sense of righteous indignation—begin their plot to have Jesus killed. When he was sentenced to death, they celebrated his crucifixion.

The Super Bowl and other sporting events give us a chance to watch, cheer, and react—but also to interrogate the emotions we experience along the way. Are we capable of handling our righteous indignation appropriately? Are we able to acknowledge personal feelings of injustice while fending off hubris or envy?

God’s formula for justice often seems to move slowly by our standards, and that’s a good caution for us. Christians are rightly frustrated by injustice large and small, yet our reactions require seeking God’s will in each new situation, searching our own hearts, and responding with wisdom.

In sports, like ordinary life, we find ourselves in scenarios where people don’t get what they deserve. Some moments of righteous indignation call for table-flipping, but many times, in both sport and life, our indignation reveals more about how our own desires affect our view of the world.

Chad Carlson is an associate professor of kinesiology and the director of general education at Hope College. Brian Bolt is professor of kinesiology and men’s golf coach at Calvin College. Together, they are co-directing the Second Global Congress on Sport and Christianity in October.

Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the magazine.

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