8 min read

Anger: the dragon’s wrath

James Mumford is an author and journalist writing on a range of subjects – ethical, political and literary.

In the fifth of a series on the Seven Deadly Sins, James Mumford encounters Anger, and reflects that its object is no mere object.
Illustration of a burning wick

I think you’d like me if you met me. I’m not quite as charming as my father. I’m fairly genial, though, and not unduly narcissistic. (I’d ask you questions about yourself). But come not between the dragon and his wrath.

Usually strangers. Always men. Playing football. Driving. Public transport. A minor infraction, that’s all it takes. Some guy pushes past me onto the tube from which I’m trying to alight. He’s ignoring the custom (and nauseatingly repeated instruction) to let the passengers off the train first. Certainly, this chap has been naughty. It’s not nothing, what he’s done. In the cold light of day, can’t we evaluate his behaviour as careless and a touch selfish? But the thing is, I never see it in the cold light of day. To me, in the heat of the moment, it’s as grave a violation as if he’d bullied my little brother.

I scowl back at the stranger. He sees my indignation. What does he do? He smirks, of course. And what do I do? Turn away and get on with my day, recognizing that, in the grand scheme of things, it couldn’t matter less? Nope. I lock eyes with the guy. It’s a duel now. Through the tube’s translucent closing Perspex doors, I stare into the exultant face of my enemy. Furious. 

Often as not my anger seemingly erupts from nowhere. That is, I don’t only get into these kinds of fracas when I’ve skipped breakfast. Or when I’m already having a bad day, already enraged (in which case a stranger’s infraction would be merely the last straw). No, no. Usually, I’m feeling just fine before incidents like this. I can thus say of my anger what Juliet says of Romeo’s love:

It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden,

Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be

[Before] one can say, ‘It lightens.’

Even if my knowledge that this rage is rooted deep in childhood experiences doesn’t make its resurgence seem any less abrupt.


Famously, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus doesn’t discount The Law; he radicalizes it:

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times: ‘You shall not commit murder; and whoever commits murder shall be liable to judgment.’ Whereas I say to you that everyone who becomes angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment…

I used to think this was an instance of rabbinic exaggeration. The phenomenological truth of what Jesus is saying, its fidelity to lived experience, eluded me. But reflecting more unflinchingly on my own anger, I now understand Jesus’s warning to be dreadfully accurate. I used naively to assume murderers are all monsters, sadistic sociopaths straight of Silence of the Lambs or Primal Fear. Today I realize that the difference between me and most murderers – those poor bastards eking out their life sentences out of sight and out of mind in our maximum-security prisons – comes down to one thing. Not character. Luck. I've been lucky enough to lose most of my fights. 

Yet hidden away in Jesus’s warning is a profound revelation. τῶ ἀδελφῶ αὐτοῦ. It’s there in the Greek. ‘Everyone who becomes angry with his brother’. Not ‘becomes angry with another’. Nor ‘becomes angry with his neighbour’. Nor even ‘becomes angry with his enemy’. No, right at this moment Christ decides to insist upon, to remember, the fundamental fraternity of human beings. Which suggests that what is most deadly about the sin of anger – when it’s acted upon, that is, when anger becomes a sin (Eph. 4:26) – is the forgetfulness, the blindness, the obstruction of vision, which goes with it. What is forgotten in fits of rage? Anger forgets that its object is no mere object, no mere thing, no mere item. I forget that the intended target of my wrath is in fact my brother. In anger you lose sight of the face. You become blind to the stranger’s reality, to what remains true about him, to his persistent identity whatever he has done. You forget that he is still related to you in the most intimate way. That this guy on the tube, or this person who has hurt you, or this person who bears ill-will towards you, remains a someone, not a something. Remains a person. Remains a creature of the God who loves in freedom. Flesh and blood like I am. But spirit too… destined, like I am, to be united to Christ.


[1] David Bentley Hart, The New Testament: A Translation (New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press)

In anger you lose sight of the face. You become blind to the stranger's reality, to what remains true about him, to his persistent identity whatever he has done. You forget that he is still related to you in the most intimate way. 

Perhaps this still all seems too abstract. Someone who makes it real is the novelist, J.M. Coetzee, whose brilliant, harrowing novel, Disgrace (1999), tells the story of a professor of literature, David Lurie. In the aftermath of an affair with a student, David resigns from his position at a University in Cape Town and retreats to his adult daughter Lucy’s remote small-holding in the uplands of the Eastern cape. David’s rural exile, however, is not fated to be a peaceful one.

One afternoon soon after David arrives on the farm, three strangers arrive – two men and a teenager – and enter the premises under the pretences of wanting to use the phone. Without further ado, the strangers knock David to the floor. When he comes to moments later, he finds himself locked in the lavatory. ‘His child is in the hands of strangers’. Eventually he’s released. They want his car keys. Whereupon he’s doused in methylated spirits. ‘The scrape of a match, and at once he is bathed in cool blue flame’. David manages to get to the toilet bowl in time – to extinguish the flames – and survive. But when he rouses, he finds the car stolen, the dogs shot and his daughter gang-raped.

This appalling incident, so difficult to read, happens in Chapter 11, roughly half-way through the novel. Which means that Coetzee leaves the reader completely wedded to the father’s quest for justice for nearly the rest of the story. Because Coetzee refuses to satisfy the quest. The regional police won’t act. And Lucy, impregnated, won’t press charges. It’s only in Chapter 23 that one of assailants reappears. By which time the reader is baying for blood. It’s the teenager, whom David discovers peeping at Lucy through the bathroom window. The whole passage warrants quotation:

The flat of his hand catches the boy in the face. ‘You swine!’ he shouts, and strikes him a second time, so that he staggers. ‘You filthy swine!’

More startled than hurt, the boy tries to run, but trips over his own feet. At once the dog is upon him. Her teeth close over his elbow; she braces her forelegs and tugs, growling. With a shout of pain he tries to pull free…

The word still rings in the air: Swine! Never has he felt such elemental rage. He would like to give the boy what he deserves: a sound thrashing. Phrases that all his life he has avoided seem suddenly just and right. Teach him a lesson, Show him his place. So this is what it is like, he thinks! This is what it is like to be a savage!

He gives the boy a good, solid kick, so that he sprawls sideways.

An extraordinary moment. Coetzee has his readers in the palm of his hand. Because (at least at the beginning of the passage) we too feel David’s ‘elemental rage’. We want what David wants: to pulverize the kid who raped his daughter. But suddenly, during the course of the passage, Coetzee starts to humanize the kid. (‘More startled than hurt, the boy tries to run, but trips over’). Both the kid’s clumsiness and then ‘shout of pain’ remind us that, whatever he’s done, the kid remains a human being. So, the reader is made to feel conflicted, vengeful still, but now protective too. Starting to fear rather than desire that the kid will be ravaged by the dog and beaten witless by the father. In other words, the reader is beginning to remember. The boy remains David Lurie’s brother.




In his rousing war-time sermon, ‘The Weight of Glory’ (1942), C.S. Lewis writes that ‘the load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back’. What does he mean by this? Lewis is exhorting me to remember, continually to bring to mind, something I have forgotten about the stranger on the tube I will never meet again. Lewis is exhorting David Lurie to remember something he has (more understandably) forgotten about the boy sprawled in front of him at his mercy. Lewis writes:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship… There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.

For me, then, anger management does not just involve, as Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy manuals have it, becoming more self-aware. No, efficacious anger management means becoming more other-aware. In the moment, right there on the tube, what I need most desperately is to think more not just about myself – who I am. I need to think more about who he is.


My prayer is that I learn to apprehend more vividly the identity and destiny of the person with whom I am here and now entangled, enmeshed, at odds. 

My prayer, therefore, is not just that I become increasingly sensitive to my own internal state or what it is in in my own present or past that predisposes me to anger. My prayer is that I learn to apprehend more vividly the identity and destiny of the person with whom I am here and now entangled, enmeshed, at odds. That I can perceive him as my brother, however momentarily estranged from me he is, one who belongs to the same family. Who, as he smirks and scowls and menaces me – also bears the weight of glory. Dealing with anger requires what Simone Weil, and after her Iris Murdoch, call ‘attention’. As Murdoch puts it in The Sovereignty of Good (1970): ‘It is in the capacity to love, that is to see, that the liberation of the soul from fantasy consists’. Anger management is about being liberated from fantasy – the fantasy that my adversary is a mere mortal. Christ’s call to peace – to see the object of my anger as my brother – is ultimately a call for a reality check.

7 min read

Red radical: the tales behind the Santa we see today

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A determined, fiery, culture warrior lies behind the iconic image of Santa. Graham Tomlin unwraps a tale or two and find some serious theology.
A Lego Stanta figure strolls across a table holding a wrench
Artem Maltsev on Unsplash.

There is one figure in our cultural memory who pops up at this time of year without fail. It is the unmistakable figure of Santa. 

Santa Claus, AKA Father Christmas, Sinterklaas in Holland or Kris Kringle in the USA conjures up a definite image in the mind’s eye. The Santa of popular imagination with elves, red suit, bushy white beard flying in a sleigh towed by reindeer was shaped more by the famous Coca Cola adverts of the 1930s than anything else, and may seem to have very little connection with the birth of Christ. There are, however, strong connections between Santa and the Christian celebration of Christmas.  

Santa Claus is a linguistic development of St Nicholas, who was a real, fiery, determined Christian bishop of the early 4th century. Many of the stories about him date from later centuries, and some, no doubt, are legends developed to enhance his reputation. Yet he clearly made a deep impact on those who encountered him. On the principle that there's no smoke without fire, while some of it may be fiction, these stories may also contain a grain of truth.  

A group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home. 

Nicholas was born around 260 AD. His parents, or so the story goes, died of the plague while he was young, leaving him a reasonable fortune. The other thing we know about his youth was his profound and strong Christian faith. This shaped his mind from early years, and led him, like many young Christians at the time, to enter the demanding spiritual boot camp of the monastic life, and then in time to becoming the Bishop of Myra, a city in southern Turkey known today as Demre.  

Christianity at the time was deemed a dangerous religion, subversive of the unity of the Roman Empire and in 303 AD he was one of many Christian leaders imprisoned under the wave of persecution initiated by the emperor Diocletian. Not only did he survive the rigours of a brutal Roman jail, but he encouraged other Christian prisoners to stand firm, who, like him, emerged more determined than ever. He died around 335 AD and within a few hundred years had become one of the most celebrated saints of the mediaeval era, with numerous accounts of his life spreading around Europe.   

In the 10th century the Russian emperor Vladimir visited Turkey and was so impressed with the stories of St. Nicholas that he pronounced him the patron saint of Russia and he remains a hugely venerated figure in Russian Orthodoxy to this day. In 1087, when Myra had come under Islamic rule, a group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home, where with great fanfare, a large basilica was erected around the resting place of the bones of St Nicholas – an attraction which enhanced the status of the city no end. It became a pilgrimage destination for numerous medieval Christians (which was what the sailors had in mind) and the edifice still stands on the very spot to this day.

He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. 

There are two stories of St Nicholas that get us closer to understanding why he became such a key figure in our Christmas celebrations.  

While he was still a young man, so we are told, he heard of a local family who were falling into poverty. A father who was badly in debt desperately needed money to pay off loan sharks, otherwise his only option (as happened in many families at the time) was sell his three daughters into slavery, or in some versions of the story, into prostitution. St Nicholas, aware of the teaching of Jesus that good deeds should be done in secret, resolved to do what he could to help. He wrapped up a bag of gold coins and secretly dropped them into the window of the house to the relief and delight of the poverty-stricken family. Nicholas performed this act of generosity three times for each of the three daughters, and on the third occasion threw the bag of gold coins so far into the room that it fell into a sock hanging over the fire to dry - hence stockings on Christmas Eve. On that occasion the father caught Nicholas as he tried to slip away, and thanked him profusely. Nicholas insisted he tell no one, which the man assured him he would not. Obviously, he didn't keep his promise. 

It is this kind of story that gives rise to the idea that Nicholas was a picture of radical generosity. Ever since then, depictions of St Nicholas are recognisable by his carrying three gold balls, representing the three bags of gold coins – and the same symbol found its way to hang outside many a pawnbrokers’ shop, after St Nicholas was adopted as their patron saint.  

The other story relates to the famous Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Although historians debate the question, there is some evidence Nicholas might have been present at this Council at which the Nicene Creed was written, the Creed that describes the heart of Christian faith for most Christian churches to this day. The Council centred around the controversial teaching of Arius, a priest from Alexandria who had taught that Jesus, although the best person who ever lived, the pinnacle of creation, was not in any significant sense divine, as the Council eventually discerned he was. The story goes that Nicholas was so incensed by the teaching of Arius that at one point he strode across the room in which the Council was taking place and struck him on the face. He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. A heretic being punched by Santa Claus is an image to conjure with.  

The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous. 

So why did St Nicholas become a person of such radical generosity? Were these two stories, however apocryphal some of the details may be, strangely linked? 

At stake in the debates at Nicaea was the question of whether Jesus Christ was just an illustration, a good example of what human life can achieve, or whether his radical love and self-sacrifice was in fact an expression of the heart of God, the very heart of reality itself. That is the core insight at the heart of the Nicene Creed – that when we see Jesus, we see God. The compassion, courage, grace, generosity, the anger at evil of the world, the deep compassion for those who struggle with life that flows out of him at every moment – all this is not a brief moment of light in an essentially dark world, but is the very nature of reality itself. In other words, Jesus Christ represents God giving to the world, not just a gift, but giving Himself.  

That kind of belief seems to have animated the soul and the mind of Nicholas, and if you believe that generosity is what lies at the very heart of things, its not surprising if it starts to seep out into a life full of generosity. Alongside the gifts to the struggling family, Nicholas is said to have argued the emperor into a tax cut for the people of Myra, and secured extra shipping of grain for his people during famine. The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous – it’s the difference between the lucky tennis player who plays a good shot every now and again, and the pro who plays that shot nine times out of ten. That is virtue – where a person is generous almost without thinking about it, because it has become second nature.  

There are, of course, differences between the Santa of popular memory and St Nicholas. It’s hard to imagine Santa punching anyone, whereas St Nicholas had the fierce, determined faith of the early church, a faith so compelling that it took over the entire Roman empire. Then again, Santa gives gifts to children who are good but not to those who have been bad. He is a moral arbiter who rewards those whose good deeds outweigh their bad ones. That is about as far removed from a Christian understanding of grace, as depicted in the stories of St Nicholas as possible. In Christianity, divine generosity is not a reward for goodness, but is the wellspring of it. The God that Nicholas learnt about from his earliest days gives first and asks questions later. Generosity inspires gratitude and generosity as a response. 

St Nicholas became associated with Christmas partly because his feast day, December 6th, was near to the annual feast, but also because of this theme of radical generosity. Christmas is the time when Christians recall God’s greatest gift – the gift of Christ given to people of dubious moral standing like us. Not because we deserved it but despite the fact that we didn’t. It’s why we give gifts at Christmas, not to win favours from others, but for the sheer joy of it. We give as an act of gratitude for we have been given, before we even asked for it – just like three helpless young women, and their desperate father, in need of help.  

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