During my runs, I’ve come to expect remarks from men I don’t know:
“You must be on the track team.”
“Bet you want some of this sandwich.”
Compared with more suggestive catcalls and comments, these three from last week seem merely annoying. But anytime a guy decides to yell at me, I can’t help feeling a familiar, gnawing shame.
In those moments, when my cheeks burn and my stomach twists, I do not wonder what Jesus would do. Instead I imagine some kind of expletive-filled sentence I wish I could yell back.
Last year, nearly two-thirds of women nationwide said they have encountered “unwanted comments, gestures, or actions” from a stranger in public, according to the organization Stop Street Harassment. I can ask almost every young woman I know—my roommates, sister, female classmates, and coworkers—and hear similar stories of inappropriate remarks. It’s so common that we have come to expect, and almost accept, that men will shout at us.
Especially in recent years, activist groups and campaigns have launched a movement against street harassment as a form of gender-based violence—urging communities to raise awareness and take action against it. But when it’s someone hollering at me on as I jog along the sidewalk, this issue gets intensely personal. It feels like I have to do something to respond, and my instinctual response is anger.
I know I shouldn’t let that anger overwhelm me. After all, Jesus preached a gospel of peace and reconciliation. Matthew records his harsh words for those who looked on others with contempt; in terms of those who would be “subject to judgment,” Jesus expanded the category from “murderers” to “anyone who is angry with a brother or sister” (Matt. 5:21-22). He also provided this counterintuitive thought: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44).
But amid these beautiful thoughts and teachings about acceptance and reconciliation, Jesus and his followers still knew that anger happens. They didn’t have to hear a man say, “Smile, baby” or ask where they were going to know the kind of impulsive anger that clenches our teeth and twists our stomachs. What I’m feeling is not new.
Paul, writing to the Ephesians, references a rendering of Psalm 4:4: “In your anger do not sin.” He then tells them, “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.” Paul recognized that anger is inevitable, no matter how hard we may try to take deep breaths, count to 10, think happy thoughts. It’s a natural response to wrongs and injustices. But Paul also saw anger—no matter how righteous it may feel, no matter how justified we think it may be—as a destructive force and calls for restrictions on it.
F. F. Bruce writes in his commentary on Ephesians that, in 4:26, “It is suggested that anger can be prevented from degenerating into sin if a strict time limit is placed on it.” However, “if [reconciliation] is not possible…then at least the heart should be unburdened of its animosity by the committal of the matter to God.” Anger against those who harass and taunt us can become a heavy, burning load—but it’s a load we don’t have to carry. We may not be able to go back and confront the man on the street or in the passing car, but we can instead approach our God in order to “unburden” our hearts.
John Chrysostom, the fourth-century Archbishop of Constantinople, also spoke to this whole matter of anger and sin. “It is better not to grow angry at all,” he wrote. “But if one ever does fall into anger he should at least not be carried away by it toward something worse.” We may try to avoid anger, but it can still find us—especially when we are hurt and mistreated. But when that happens, we have a choice: to be carried away toward something better, or toward something even more damaging.
As a follower of Christ, I want my response to anger to look, feel, and sound different. I want to keep myself from being carried away by anger. I worry that the kind of aggressive, confrontational approach I’d like to attempt would not reflect the gospel I believe at my core. There are times when I will choose to say nothing—not out of submission or fear, but a strength that speaks in its silence.
I don’t have to remain silent forever, of course—I won’t have to restrain my rants and confessions. I can give them instead to some of the women around me, and remind them (and myself) that we’re not alone. I can give them to the men I share life with, as well—share my perspective, my experience.
But first, I need to give them to the One who made the guy on the sidewalk, and the One who made me. After all, God is no stranger to raw honesty and brutal questions. I’ll tell him my thoughts. Give him my anger. And then I’ll keep running.
Emily Lund is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon, who will soon be joining the Christianity Today team as the editorial resident for Leadership Journal. She enjoys coffee, traveling, and the written word. She blogs at Boats Against the Current.