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The Economy of Anger

Looking for a real miracle.

Exactly one month before Christmas, a riot broke out at "the real-life Santa's workshop." That's what people call the Chinese city of Dongguan, because of the number of toys manufactured there. The violence erupted at the Kai Da toy factory.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the company had announced layoffs, and a group of workers and managers were negotiating termination pay. The police had been called in to keep calm outside, but instead began beating some workers with sticks. When the workers inside saw this, they rushed outside and joined other workers. They surrounded the police and began smashing police cars. They then began smashing company doors, windows, and computers.

At the time, the global economic downturn was hitting hardest in places like Dongguan, where factories were used to churning out toys, shoes, and clothing to satisfy the demand of American consumers. When demand plunged, companies began laying off workers. And workers, naturally, were not pleased.

Workers struck back because they felt they had no control over a situation they felt was unfair. On top of that, they live in an authoritarian state, where public protest is forbidden. The minute they march or raise picket signs, the police crack down.

It shouldn't surprise us that there is also a lot of anger in America's workplaces right now. But this is not something new — it's only accentuated by our current financial fears.

In one recent workplace survey, U.S. workers were asked what made them angry:

  • Some were regularly told to do things they felt were wrong or incorrect.
  • Some felt the company continuously changed expectations.
  • Some were upset because other employees doing the same job made more money.
  • Some were promised a raise, promotion, or important project, and it did not happen.
  • Computer systems were slow and inefficient.

An undercurrent of anger pulses through many workplaces because employees have little or no say in matters that affect their work or morale. Not that they want a say in all decisions, but most employees want to be heard, do not want to cut ethical corners, do want promises kept, and want tools that help them do the job they are supposed to do. When simple expectations such as these fail to materialize, and when they sense there is nothing they can do about that, they get frustrated. They often feel helpless. And yet a great deal is at stake. They may believe that if they don't fall in line with what corporate wants, their livelihood will be threatened.

This frustration extends to the national economy. Two significant reasons the American economy collapsed in fall 2008 were the greed and bungling of financial experts on Wall Street.

In a column in The New York Times last month, Princeton economist Uwe Reinhardt put it this way:

… our entire 21st-century banking sector, managed as it is by graduates of the nation's top business schools, supported by highly trained financial engineers, and monitored around the clock by thousands of allegedly bright financial analysts, immolated itself with highly toxic assets, purchased with borrowed money, and in the process infected the entire world economy.

Frankly, I'm surprised we didn't see riots in America like we saw in China. Nearly everyone in America is suffering because of the greed and bungling of others. It makes you want to scream in anger or cry in frustration or strike back in revenge. Anything but submit to the incompetence, poor judgment, and/or dishonesty of employers, financial experts, and government officials.

And yet submitting to injustice and incompetence seems to be the way of the gospel much of the time. Not always, because there are clear instances when righteous anger can and must be practiced. But often we're called to do the very thing we find hardest to do.

If I were Jesus — and the world can be thankful I am not — I can hardly imagine the rage I would have felt at Golgotha. I get ticked off when I'm overcharged by a handyman or my dog fails to listen to my command to sit. Jesus' trial and crucifixion was a perfect storm of injustice, incompetence, and cowardice. If anyone at any time had the right to righteous anger, this was the one and this was the time. I don't know which is the greater miracle: the Resurrection, or Jesus' steadfast refusal to order an angelic army to destroy his unjust accusers and corrupt executioners.

This is not a call for passivity. Everyone from unjust employers to incompetent government officials needs to be held accountable for their bungling. Speaking up in the face of incompetence can and should be done directly and with conviction.

But there is an unhealthy anger churning within a lot of us right now. It may be grounded in righteous anger — for there is a lot of blame to share in this sad economy — but it is not leading to anything righteous. Instead, it's an acid eating away at the soul, a quiet rage that is morphing for some into depression and for others into the sweet promise of addiction — to food, to porn, to alcohol.

Like most Americans, I've taken a few serious financial hits in the last few months. As a supervisor, I've had to participate in some hits on others. I'm hardly suggesting that I'm on the other side of anger, living in perfect submission and peace to the providence of God. I look to Jesus in Golgotha and honestly wonder how he could just take it. Take it and say nothing about the incompetence. Take it and do nothing about the raw injustice. Just let it go. That's the big miracle to me. Some days, resurrection from the dead seems like child's play compared to that.

But months into the recession, I find myself weary from bitterness. It's like I'm on a wilderness trek carrying a heavy backpack; at the end of another long day, I look inside for something to feed my exhausted soul, and I find that I've been lugging around chunks of broken concrete.

So I keep praying, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," hoping against hope that a new miracle will take place — that someday soon I'll mean it.

Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. This column is cross-posted on his blog,where he interacts with readers.

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Previous SoulWork columns are available on our site.

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