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Jules van Schaijik

Stevenson’s wrath

Aug. 13, 2009, at 4:24pm

I just read an open letter, wonderfully written by Robert Lewis Stevenson (the author of books like Kidnapped and Treasure Island), in defense of Blessed Damien of Molokai against the pharisaical slander of a certain Reverend Hyde. The letter strikes me as a great example of just the sort of holy wrath so sorely missing in today’s (Church) culture (see Katie’s previous post).

Stevenson apparently knew Reverend Hyde personally, and even had some cause to be grateful to him. But he considered that no reason to remain silent:

…there are duties which come before gratitude, and offences which justly divide friends… Your letter [in which Hyde calls Fr. Damien “a coarse, dirty man, head-strong and bigoted” and accuses him of not being “a pure man in his relations with women”] is a document which, in my sight, if you had filled me with bread while I was starving, if you had sat up to nurse my father when he lay a-dying, would yet absolve me from the bonds of gratitude.

Stevenson’s defense of Fr. Damien is noble and convincing, but also vehement. It is clearly a fruit of his outrage, wrath and indignation. It simply could not have come about without these. Mere sadness would probably have kept silent. For, as Aquinas explains, “sorrow by its very nature gives way to the thing that hurts” while anger “strikes at the cause of sorrow” and “cooperates with fortitude in attacking.” (I-II 123,10 ad. 3)

Stevenson’s letter is itself a concrete illustration of the place for “holy wrath” in society. It also contains a good example of it. Towards the end, Stevenson writes that he had heard rumors of Fr. Damien’s alleged impurity before, and he relates how this rumor was received by one of the bystanders:

A man sprang to his feet…‘You miserable little -’ (here is a word I dare not print, it would so shock your ears). ‘You miserable little -,’ he cried, ‘if the story were a thousand times true, can’t you see you are a million times a lower - for daring to repeat it?’

Would that the Reverend Hyde had reacted similarly:

I wish it could be told of you that when the report reached you in your house, perhaps after family worship, you had found in your soul enough holy anger to receive it with the same expressions; ay, even with that one which I dare not print; it would not need to have been blotted away, like uncle Toby’s oath, by the tears of the recording angel; it would have been counted to you for your brightest righteousness.


Katie van Schaijik • Aug 13, 2009 - 3:49 pm

Reading this splendid letter, I note these lines, which stress the social value of a public dressing down, and Stevenson’s sense of rendering an important service by expressing wrath in order (among other things) to arouse wrath.

“For it is in the interest of all mankind, and the cause of public decency in every quarter of the world, not only that Damien should be righted, but that you and your letter should be displayed at length, in their true colours, to the public eye.”

And this: “It is not the hangman, but the criminal, that brings dishonor on the house.”

Teresa Manidis • Aug 18, 2009 - 10:49 am

I want to stand up and cheer for Stevenson.  How apt, how justly apt are not only his words, but the power and even vehemence with which he delivers them.  And consider for a moment the subject of the Reverend Hyde’s commentary (remarks penned, incidentally, 120 years ago this month) – Jozef (later Damien) de Veuster, one of the most selfless, donative, Christ-like figures of modern history; one need only view the photo of him, taken after he himself had contracted leprosy (en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Father_Damien) to see one of the most (simultaneously) disturbing and inspiring images in all of Christendom.

Stevenson’s fury reminds us all that Zeal (a good synonym, I think, for the ‘holy wrath’ we have been discussing) is a virtue – not a vice – and a virtue that Christ Himself possessed.

‘And he found in the temple them that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting.  And when he had made, as it were, a scourge of little cords, he drove them all out of the temple, the sheep also and the oxen, and the money of the changers he poured out, and the tables he overthrew.  And to them that sold doves he said: Take these things hence, and make not the house of my Father a house of traffic.  And his disciples remembered, that it was written: The zeal of thy house hath eaten me up’ (John 2: 14-17)

This incident occurred very early in Christ’s public ministry (coming in only the second book of John, immediately following the Wedding Feast at Cana).  To use those buzz words Katie took especial exception to (in regard to the priest sex scandal), in this Gospel account, Christ isn’t ‘saddened’ or ‘sorrowful’ or ‘deeply troubled’ by the evil surrounding Him – He’s furious.  Christ does show some leniency here towards the ‘little guys’ (those who only sell doves to the poor, who can afford to better offering), letting them off this first time with only a stern warning.  But fast-forward to nearly the end of Mark (just after Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and before the account of His passion) and we see a different story (hat-tip to my Dad for pointing out these were two separate occasions; I had sloppily merged the two together, in my recollection of them).

The second time Jesus sees the same serious offenses being committed, His wrath is directed towards everyone, even towards the ‘little guy’ – he had already had his warning.

‘And when he was entered into the temple, he began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the chairs of them that sold doves.  And he suffered not that any man should carry a vessel through the temple’ (Mark 11: 15-16)

I don’t think any of us can find fault with Jesus; and, in both of these passages, He is clearly, justly, unabashedly angry – not sad, angry.  Jesus is marvelously, inexplicably complex; and, although we might prefer Him to be ‘nicer,’ to be ‘tamer’; although, if we were to fashion our own god, he might well be (as C.S. Lewis wrote) more a ‘benevolent grandfather’ than a ‘Father whose prime interest is our character’; despite the fact that we struggle to authentically express our own anger, Christ has no such problem, and remains clearly unapologetic about it.

‘Do not think that I came to send peace upon earth: I came not to send peace, but the sword.’ (Matthew 10:34)

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