David M. Bailey on Righteous Anger in the Psalms
In this episode, David M. Bailey, executive director of Arrabon, an organization dedicated to equipping and empowering organizations for reconciliation, talks with John Witvliet about righteous anger that directs people on a path of formation and Christian discipleship.
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Welcome to Public Worship and the Christian Life, a podcast by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. In this series of conversations, hosted by Calvin Institute of Christian Worship staff members, we invite you to explore connections between the public worship practices of congregations and the dynamics of Christian life and witness in a variety of cultural contexts, including places of work, education, community development, artistic and media engagement, and more. Our conversation partners represent many areas of expertise and a range of Christian traditions offering insights to challenge us as we discern the shape of faithful worship and witness in our own communities. We pray this podcast will nurture curiosity and provide indispensable countercultural wisdom for our life together in Christ.
In this episode, join John Witvliet, director of the Worship Institute, in conversation with David M. Bailey, director of Arrabon, an organization based in Richmond, Virginia, and dedicated to equipping and empowering organizations for reconciliation.John Witvliet: (1:28)
I am very grateful today to be in conversation with David Bailey of Richmond, Virginia, an affiliate in our work at the Worship Institute. David, it’s an honor, as always, to be talking with you today.
Likewise, I’m so glad to be a part. I always enjoy conversations we have.John Witvliet: (01:48)
One of the last times we talked, David, was after the pandemic was underway but before the death of George Floyd. And I think back on that conversation not that many weeks ago and how much the world has changed since then and how much I’m sure your work has changed since then. What has it been like for you?David M. Bailey: (2:11)
My birthday was March the 12th; by the 15th every engagement was canceled or postponed, so I didn’t know what things were going to look like in September, and I remember I was having a little bit of conversation along those lines. And then I get a call from a community down in Brunswick, Georgia, where Ahmaud Arbery was. And then they said, “Hey, we’ve been dealing with something down here locally; it’s probably going to hit national news. Can you help us?” And then, it’s been nonstop since then. So we basically have been doing the things that we normally do. It’s just been a lot of it. A lot of people are trying to figure out--all right, what do we do? How do we engage? And that’s a lot of the conversation that we’ve been having.John Witvliet: (3:01)
I keep thinking that—while it is right to worry about how many people a year from now will not have the same resolve and sense of vocation around anti-racism as they do now, I think that’s a proper worry—it does strike me as a remarkable opportunity vocationally in this moment to lean deeply. And I’m profoundly grateful for you and the work that Arrabon’s done. So thank you.David M. Bailey: (03:32)
Thanks. The thing that we’re trying to do is try so that it becomes a thing that we just aren’t responding to in a moment, but we’re actually preparing for a marathon.John Witvliet: (03:49)
Anti-racism, it’s not a workshop to check off and feel like we’re done with it. It’s a way of life for the rest of our lives. I was deeply moved by the piece that you did with David Taylor around a righteous anger. The class this summer that I’m involved with will be engaging the psalms of anger. And I think what a key aspect of your ministry has been related to that. And I think, especially in this new setting of Psalm 10, could you reflect a on Psalm 10 and what it’s been like to have righteous anger be a part of the mix, not just lament, but this sense of a righteous anger.David M. Bailey: (04:36)
You know, it’s been one of those things—it’s been a journey for us. I’m rooted in a community called East End Fellowship in Church Hill. Probably around 2013 . . . so 2012, 2013, we were engaging in—we realized we needed a lament because we were in a community that sometimes would experience gun violence—drug-related gun violence. Maybe a kid we’re mentoring went to jail or a young lady gets pregnant. And, these were tragedies of the heart, you know? And the reality of it is there’s a lot of times when you’re middle class or college educated and above, you don’t have to engage in the challenges, the systemic issues of people who are experiencing material poverty. And when you get into that, I mean, we’re worshiping with folks, we’re in relationship, we’re in and out of each other’s houses, and this becomes not a statistic or a theory, but things that are really heartbreaking.
And so we started to do prayer vigils and realize, okay, lament is a thing that we need. Then Trayvon Martin happened. And then we got into deep—lament was a thing because it was a diverse congregation and some people were NRA folks. And some people are like, we need gun control. So it wasn’t like everybody thought the same way. But lament was the thing that brought us together. But then over the years, as we kind of grew into this, I think about the Philando Castile, the Charleston nine, and when we started to allow more anger to be expressed, and not to filter that as we have these lament services to pray, to . . . let people share whatever they share.
Around 2017, I believe, one of the interns wrote the song “God, Not Guns,” rooted in Psalm 10. So we thought it was a good time to release it and Ahmaud Arbery . . . I felt like we resolved . . . we felt like it could explain the Ahmaud Arbery scenario. And so I preached a sermon for Church of the City out of Psalm 10, and we released a song and the CT (Christianity Today) article.John Witvliet: (07:10)
One of the things that has struck me if I think about my own life and those I know is the overcoming that we have to do against the view that all anger is wrong. It’s like you get that verse about “Do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Eph. 4:26), taken probably out of context. And this struck me in reading Psalm 119 this summer, and I’m rolling along here and reading about, “This is my comfort, . . . that your promise gives me life” (Ps. 119:50), this sort of thing, and then you get down to about verse 53 and the psalmist cries out, “Hot indignation seizes me because of the wicked . . . who forsake your law.” And it’s not just anger; it’s hot indignation. And then I recall a compelling piece that Jeremy Begbie did about Jesus as the one who expressed emotion in pure and holy ways. And so his act of throwing the moneychangers out of the temple, . . . well, this challenges, frankly, me, in a very deep way. Have you found resistance? I’m thinking of the mix of folks in your congregation or in the audiences that you engage with. Have you found a kind of reluctance or resistance?David M. Bailey: (08:47)
I think it’s in the same way where if you do anything like premarital counseling, marriage counseling, you might come across this concept called “family of origins.” . . . Humans have conflict. Some families say, “Hey, let’s not deal with conflict directly.” Some say let’s do it directly. Some folks when they have conflict they escalate, and they might get violent. They might even attack one another physically, you know? And when you grow up in this, your family is . . . “normal,” you know? And so that is a thing that is . . . we all come from families and cultures of origin. And so if you’re Southern, or you might be in a Dutch culture, it might not be OK to . . . deal with things directly. It might not even be okay to express anger. And that’s the case—or it could be culturally OK for some people to express anger but other people not to express anger. So one of the things this looks like a lot of times—I hate people talking about like, if I look at Fox News or something like that, they say liberals are emotional. And I’m like, well, folks on Fox News are emotional too. This is anger and fear. Like the most allowed to do. To be human is to be emotional. That’s not a bad thing. And so, if a woman’s angry, then they got words for her. If a person of color is angry, they’re the angry Asian or angry Black man. And so, I’ve heard all of the above, and I think one of the things I think as a pastor, as a minister, as somebody that’s really trying to help folks is, God gave us the book of Psalms to be “anger school.” Like the stuff that is written in Psalms, . . . the psalmist is expressing anger before the Lord. You’re like, what? This is in a sacred text? . . . I don’t know any sane person that would say some of these things. . . . And it’s fascinating that God allowed these—gave us these words to pray. . . . These are prayer words, and it’s really fascinating. And I think we need to lean into that.Host: (11:08)
You are listening to Public Worship and the Christian Life: Conversations for the Journey, a podcast produced by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Check out our website at worship.calvin.edu for resources related to this topic and many other aspects of public worship.John Witvliet: (11:35)
As I listen to “God Not Guns," one of the things that really struck me is that it was very direct. It was very much informed by Psalm 10, but it also conveyed a sense of hope. It did something with anger. It wasn’t just the expression of anger for its own sake, almost. It had a telos in there. I ran across this quotation attributed to Augustine, which is that Augustine apparently once said that hope has two beautiful daughters: anger and courage. Anger at the way things are, and the courage to work to make things other than they are. And I thought, you know, that attaches hope to something bigger, to a telos, to an end. That’s what I hear in that setting. What do you think, does that feel right to you?David M. Bailey: (12:45)
I think that resonates. I think because of my disposition sometimes folks might say something like, David, . . . I like how you talk about race. You’re not angry. And I hear what people are saying in that. I think a more accurate statement is that you’re not bitter. But I actually am angry. . . . And I should be angry about stuff, right? I’m angry the zip code can determine the quality of education in the United States of America. Even in the same county or the same city, the wealthiest zip code gets—the kids get better education. I’m angry about that. You know, I’m angry at the fact that how I have to . . . manage my life in certain ways, or the fact that black women, even college-educated, middle-class black women have worse birthing rates and risks, higher birth risk, pregnancy risks than a poor white woman. And a lot of this has to do with the stress of what black women have to carry. I’m angry about that. Those are things that we should be angry, but the question is, what do you do with it? Right? Where does that anger go? I was angry about the fact that there were like automatic, . . . established leadership pipelines for white men and white women who knew how to navigate in white spaces, but not . . . when I was trying to figure out how to be a leader, how to fulfill vision—I didn’t have it growing up.
So I was like, hey, let me do something about that. Let me develop a leadership pipeline for leaders of color. So I started Urban Doxology, the songwriting internship. You can direct these things. And a lot of my prayer life with God is talking about this disappointment, this anger. Lord, what is it that we do? But I think I love it. Paul says, those who grieve, we don’t grieve like the world does; we grieve of hope. We have to be resurrection people. And that’s not just a Sunday holiday for me to get dressed up. It is a thing that I have to believe in order to do this type of work—that God is not okay with it, that God is angry about it, that God is just willing, he wants some servants to want to partner with God, to help make wholeness and healing and reconciliation and restoration. That’s my general disposition. So it’s like, I’m angry, but it’s a directed anger, you know? And I do spiritual practices not to be bitter. And I think this type of stuff, if you don’t allow this to get through your system, that’s what’s going to happen to you.John Witvliet: (15:35)
So it makes me think that—I like that distinction a lot, angry but not bitter. The other thing I’m thinking about is that so many of our images of anger are associated with a kind of fickleness. So, the image of an abusive parent who is kind one minute and then suddenly turns and becomes violent, obviously that’s just heinous and achingly sorrowful. But rather it seems to me something like righteous anger would be this idea that, without succumbing to bitterness, that there’s a constancy in it. You know, I even think, wow, what would it be like if we thought our vocation between now and when we die is to remain constant in a kind of righteous anger about matters that are against God’s intent. And I have to admit that that’s a new question I find myself asking here in July of 2020.David M. Bailey: (16:49)
That’s really good. I think you could see that with a Mother Teresa or Harriet Tubman or Dr. King, right? Like that was kind of a constant, they weren’t up and down with it. They were like a long obedience in the same direction. That’s such a great—I never thought about it that way. You got my wheels turning.John Witvliet: (17:11)
Frederick Douglass, every year, all those hundreds of speeches and he sustains that for . . . decades.David M. Bailey: (17:21)
And I was on another podcast and I was thinking, I think in our world, when you grow up with a microwave . . . I’m one of those microwave generations and things have gotten . . .John Witvliet: (17:37)
Mostly. I mostly grew up with a microwave.David M. Bailey: (17:43)
[laughter] But the things got faster, so your kids expect things to even go faster than what we kind of grew up with, and I think that’s formed us to believe that change is faster than what it really is. God’s been doing things for thousands of years, you know, and some things take hundreds of years to happen. The NAACP got started in 1909, but Brown v. Board of Education, one of the first significant legislative moves at the Supreme Court was 1954. It was 45 years of a long obedience in the same direction. And so I think that’s how we have to think about it. Not in a sense of like, hey, we’ll get to it, and procrastinate, but with diligently doing this thing and being in the constancy, but knowing that salvation will come in God’s time. Restoration will come in God’s time. But we need to be faithful.John Witvliet: (18:40)
David, tremendous. Thank you to you for all you do. And I look forward to picking up our conversation again very soon. Thank you.David M. Bailey: (18:50)
You’re welcome. Thank you. Thank you for the invitation. Blessings.Host: (18:55)
Thanks for listening. We invite you to visit our website at worship.calvin.edu to learn more about the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, an interdisciplinary study and ministry center dedicated to the scholarly study of the theology, history, and practice of Christian worship and the renewal of worship in worshiping communities across North America and beyond.