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Navigating Outrage Culture

January 12, 2024

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From its inception, the Catholic Church has regularly found itself in a countercultural position to the world. It follows then that we, as members of this Church, also frequently find ourselves in this same position. Think no further than our positions on issues such as homosexuality, abortion, or contraception for just a taste of how at odds the Church and its members are with many of society’s modern-day norms. Since “countercultural” implies that our beliefs and views do not make up those of the general public, it is no surprise that the Church and its members are frequently met with contempt when they express their beliefs and views. This is because our positions go much deeper than the surface. If these were surface-level differences—such as which football team was better or which artist deserved a Grammy—maybe we could enjoy a good-hearted debate. Rather, the stakes are much higher for which position is in the right. The positions in question often surround one’s identity and understanding of reality itself. Due to the nature of these positions, more than just alliances and facts come into play. Instead of a respectful exchange of ideas, the conversation often descends into an outrage-driven quarrel. 

As the minority in many of these heated exchanges, Catholics often find themselves victims of the toxicity of this outrage culture. To many, not only are we wrong in our positions toward sexuality, gender, women’s health, and any other “progressive” topic that comes to mind, but we are also considered hateful, bigoted, and misogynistic. In the eyes of some, we should not hold those positions or even question what they have deemed acceptable. Thankfully, with God and his Church on our side, we can feel confident that what we are clinging to is the truth. This does not mean, however, that these accusations, insults, and presumptions about who we are and what we think do not hurt. 

Many who are not religious experience religion purely through the people they interact with—us.

Outrage culture leaves little room for dialogue, understanding, or even charity for that matter. This dehumanizing culture focuses more on shaming and shutting down the opposition for having disagreed with them than on trying to understand why they disagree in the first place. It can be easy to condemn this behavior since, as frequent victims of it, we understand the pain and hurt caused by exchanges like this. However, we must consider the times in which we are tempted to celebrate or even participate in this culture when our side is on the attack. Scrolling through X (formerly Twitter) and Facebook comments, it’s easy to see examples of well-meaning Christians resorting to outrage and condemnation when exposed to positions contrary to theirs. If we act as condemners of outrage culture, we must also contemplate the moments in which we have willingly participated in it ourselves—condemning, gossiping, slandering, and even canceling friends and strangers alike for the sake of their position on a particular topic.

This is not to say that outrage is always wrong; think of the world’s response to the horrors committed by Nazi Germany, the legalization of abortion, or even Jesus reacting to the merchants selling goods in the temple. From history, we find that there are moments in which outrage is justified and even necessary. However, the line between virtuous and vicious outrage isn’t black and white. 

As is always the case, examining the life of Jesus can provide us with a starting place for trying to determine that line. Matthew’s Gospel recounts a moment in which Jesus enters the temple only to find merchants buying and selling within it. Upon his discovery, “He overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves.” He then goes on to say, “It is written: ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a den of thieves.” By his words and actions, Jesus not only puts an end to the atrocity at hand but charitably points them in the right direction—this house is to be one of prayer and nothing else. Charity does not mean simply being kind and not hurting someone’s feelings. Rather, true charity is full of love for the other. Jesus is moved to action out of love for God and those within the temple. Instead of just flipping the tables and leaving the crowd baffled and confused, Jesus stops to provide charitable insight into how they may correct their lives and live in accordance with God’s will. He then goes even further to heal the lame and blind present, further showing not only mercy and love but also authority. We see here that Jesus wasn’t some pushover who valued current feelings over what was right or wrong. Rather, he was bold in his actions and statements; what they were doing was objectively wrong and needed to be addressed. We may even feel akin to Jesus in this moment, especially when he flipped the tables; however, we must keep in mind that the story didn’t end in anger like ours so often does.

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Continuing to a further point in the life of Jesus will help us fully understand how to properly orient ourselves when we experience things that cause us to be outraged. No more outrageous event has happened in human history than the Crucifixion. There is also no better example of how we are called to respond to outrage than this cataclysmic event. As Jesus is betrayed, abandoned, and ultimately tortured and killed, we see a moment in which he had every right to be outraged and condemn all of mankind. Yet his response is quite the opposite, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Where he could have justly been bitter, angry, and outraged, Jesus’ first thought is not to condemn and judge but to forgive and offer prayers for those putting him to death. 

As with all things, when searching for how we are to respond to contention, we find the fullest answer in Christ. We can be outraged, and we even ought to be outraged sometimes by things deserving of it. Yet we must not stop at the level of anger. We must round off any anger or frustration we are feeling with true love and prayer for the person in front of us—prayers that they may come to know and love the Lord the way he intends them to, not the way we intend them to. If we fail to do this, we will inevitably turn inward and stew in our anger and disgust. Eventually, this anger and disgust will go beyond the differing position and turn towards the person. In this, we become exactly what we despise and complain about: people who judge, condemn, presume, and cancel. When we do this, we are not only harming our relationship with the person in front of us, but we are hurting their relationship with God. Many who are not religious experience religion purely through the people they interact with—us. If we participate in the toxicity of outrage culture, we may affirm their negative presumptions about Christianity and the people who believe in it. 

As Christians, we will always find ourselves in positions counter to popular culture; however, we must still be a part of the culture for the sake of evangelization. This means we will surely experience frustration and outrage. Let our countercultural love and mercy lead us to charitable dialogue with and prayer for those who oppose us.