Prayer, anger and Grenfell Tower

Following the appalling disaster of the fire at Grenfell Tower, local people planned a ‘Day of Rage‘ to protest at the injustices and cost-cutting that appears to have led to the catastrophic failure of fire regulations in the tower—and almost all others like it clad in a similar way. The immediate response from many Christians was to plan a ‘Day of Prayer’, for many based on the maxim that ‘Human anger does not achieve God’s righteous purposes’ (James 1.20), and perhaps out of anxiety that the planned protest would result in violence—fears that were not, in the end, realised. But in response to this alternative, Mike Higton (Professor of Theology and Ministry at the University of Durham) makes a striking observation:

I must admit, I’m disturbed by the ‘we need a day of prayer, not a day of rage’ line. We should be angry; we need to be angry. As a Christian, I’m a reader of angry scriptures, and serve an angry God – a God who rages against the machine. Discovering how to be angry well, how to harness anger constructively, how not to let anger spill over into violence – yes; absolutely. Discovering how not to be angry? No! I don’t think I’m yet anywhere near angry enough.

And in our society, prayer often equates to directing pious platitudes heavenwards, and is often thought to have nothing to do with justice, still less with the structures of our society. So there’s no easy route to conveying in our society what righteous anger means: and saying we need prayer rather than anger will make that worse. (I also think, by the way, that anger against injustice has to include anger against the people who promote injustice. There are all sorts of questions proper about how that anger should be expressed, directed, and kept within bounds – but I’m angry at a whole range of people, including myself.)

Mike is asking some important questions about the relationship between prayer and rage, and many will point to the range of emotions in the psalms to highlight the place of anger in prayer—though some of these are extremely uncomfortable as well as theologically problematic. When was the last time you prayer that someone’s baby would be dashed against the rocks (Ps 137.9)? Julie Gittoes points us in a interesting direction when she reflects on the rage and prayer in Jeremiah:

When Jeremiah laments, he is angry with God – he’s become a laughing stock; he’s derided and mocked for the cries of his rage against those who exploit the poor and needy. It’s not popular. Even his close friends seem to be waiting for him to stumble. Yet he perseveres knowing that those who are against will not prevail; that the unrighteous will face shame not success. He hands over judgement to God – who knows our hearts and minds. His rage becomes a prayer of praise to the Lord: ‘For he has delivered the life of the needed from the hands of the evildoers.’

But it is perhaps the apocalyptic material in both testaments that draws together most closely the relationship between prayer and anger. As I have been working closely with Revelation, three key things have struck me and challenged me deeply in my understanding of prayer.

The first is that apocalypses, particularly Daniel and Revelation, use violent language in order to encourage non-violent resistance. For Daniel, the primary expression of this is simply found in its place in the (Protestant) canon rather than the books of Maccabees. Both text give an account of the crisis precipitated by Antiochus Epiphanes IV, who desecrated the temple sacrifice, but they offer starkly different responses. Maccabees (named after Judas ‘Maccabeus’, ‘The Hammer’) recount the successful violent revolt that established the Jewish Hasmonean dynasty, whilst Daniel recounts the experiences of the man in exile 400 years earlier, and his apocalyptic visions of the coming kingdom of God given to the ‘one like a son of man’, to offer an alternative solution. Maccabees says that human violence can bring about God’s purposes and rule; Daniel says that the kingdom of God ‘is not made by human hands’ (Dan 2.34). Daniel is encouraging a radical (and quietist) response to the crisis, and it is notable that in the face of impending persecution by the Roman authorities of Christians, Revelation draws extensively on Daniel’s language and imagery to say something similar.

The second issue is the meaning of the language of ‘adultery’ in Revelation. It is mentioned first in the messages to the seven assemblies in chapters 2 and 3, and particularly associated with someone to whom John gives the Old Testament name ‘Jezebel’.

Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. (Rev 2.20).

Although sexual immorality was associated with pagan religions by Jews and Christians, the parallelism of ‘sexual immorality’ and ‘food sacrificed to idols’ suggests that John is using the first as a metaphor for the second, following a long tradition in the Old Testament, most notably in Hosea, where the prophet marrying a prostitute who is unfaithful to him becomes a (highly problematic for feminist criticism) enacted metaphor for Israel’s unfaithfulness in their worship of God. This focus on faithfulness and compromise in worship is rather confirmed in the chapters that immediately follow; chapters 4 and 5 describe the worship of God and the lamb in terms that draw both on Old Testament imagery but also extensively on the practice of the imperial cult. John is making a polemical statement: you cannot give to the emperor the loyalty and adulation that belongs to God alone.

The language of ‘adultery’ becomes fuller developed in chapters 17 and 18, in the vision of the ‘whore of Babylon’ riding the scarlet beast in the wilderness as a kind of political cartoon image of Roman power and wealth. Here, the language of adultery takes a different and striking turn. The woman John sees is ‘dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls’ (17.4), which in the narrative offers a counter-point to the vision of the New Jerusalem, described in similar terms. But in relation to its social context, the woman’s sexual immorality appears to be expressed by means of her extravagant wealth. This becomes not only clear, but repeated, in the triple lament at her fall by the kings of the earth, the merchants of the earth, and the sea-farers, who lament their own loss of wealth and power, standing each at a distance and lamenting less her own destruction as their own loss of importance. One of the most striking parallelisms comes in 18.3:

The kings of the earth committed adultery with her,
and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries.

In other words, it is the economic self-interest which expresses the nature of the ‘adultery’. The centre-piece of the wailing and weeping comes in the section relating to the merchants, including the list of 28 (= 4 x 7) cargoes that they can no longer trade in 18.11–13, including ‘bodies, that is, human lives’. ‘Bodies’ (somaton) is the common term for those being bought and sold in the slave market, but John adds to that (as an explanation) ‘human lives’ (psychas anthropon) taken from Ezek 27.13. In doing so John is offering a critique of the slave trade; these are not mere commodities to be bought and sold, but human lives made in the image of God.

The list has similarities to the list of cargoes traded with Tyre in Ezek 27, and there is a similar lament by merchants at God’s judgement of the city, and it demonstrates his sophisticated understanding of the workings of imperial trade. Where Ezekiel’s list is comprised of 40 cargoes, John’s includes 28, which is 4 x 7, and so signifying Rome’s total dominance (7 being the number of completion) of world trade (4 being a natural number). The list is striking in that it mostly focuses on the indulgent consumption of the wealthy elite, and in that respect agrees with many Roman critics of their society’s opulence and ostentatious show, many of whom wanted to return to the earlier days of simplicity of life. But by including slaves at the end of the list, John is emphasising both ends of the chain of consumption: luxury and prosperity for the few has created poverty and oppression for the many. The slaves who worked in gold and silver mines, for example, had an extremely short life expectancy, and provinces could be impoverished by the export of goods and materials since the resources were often requisitioned by the emperor.

If this section of Revelation is condemning the ‘adultery’ of the empire expressed in their love of wealth which leads both the oppression of the poor and the trampling of God’s people, it is hard not to see connections with the contemporary worship of free-market choice, which both leads to the growing inequality between rich and poor, and (in the ideology of constructing the self through free choice) is squeezing out the voice of Christian faith in our culture. If the lives were lost at Grenfell Tower because of deregulation of fire safety to allow companies to more easily make a profit, the connection between the worship of mammon and oppression of the poor is difficult to miss.

But the third aspect of Revelation that is particularly challenging is its theology of prayer. It begins with the vision of the saints under the altar in 6.10 crying ‘How long, O Lord, before you avenge our blood?’. Rather than this being an exception in Revelation’s understanding of the prayers of the saints, it sets the tone. At the beginning of the second series of seven judgements, brought by seven angels blowing trumpets in chapters 8 and 9, comes a curious episode:

Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people, on the golden altar before the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand. Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake. (8.3–5)

John appears to be saying, in unequivocal symbolic language, that the prayers of the saints, as they are offered to God, form part of God’s action in bringing justice and judgement to the world. This again becomes more explicit as the book progresses, with the acclamation of God’s justice in his judgements in 15.3, sung by the people of God pictured as 144,000 on Mount Zion with the lamb, and reiterated in an interjection into the third series of judgements (the bowls) in 16.5–7. God’s justice is seen in visiting on the system of Roman imperial power, and those who benefited from it, the same treatment that they meted out to others (note that ‘double portion’ in 18.6 actually means ‘duplicate portion’, i.e. that which matches your own treatment of others).

The inescapable conclusion is that, when we pray ‘Your name be hallowed, your kingdom come, your will be done’ we are at the same time praying for God’s justice and accountability of all oppressors, and the end of oppressive regimes, both political and economic. Prayer and the rage that longs for justice are also more closely linked than we suspect.

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6 thoughts on “Prayer, anger and Grenfell Tower”

  1. For Christians, isn’t wrath and vengeance supposed to be left (as far as possible) to God and to his ‘servant’, those in authority?

    I was angry about Grenfell, but mainly at the sheer incompetence of the thing. How have we managed, in 2017, to have covered tower blocks in flammable materials? It’s not as though it was due to wholesale neglect – it was installed as part of expensive refurbishments. It all just feels so stupid in its tragedy; so easily avoidable. How did people not know better?

  2. I’m not so sure that there is a particular Christian response here, other than to act with compassion, temperance and a diligence for discovering facts, as opposed to intemperate speculation. It is to be hoped that we Christians might have a fairly well developed insight into the faults and frailties which characterise our human condition.

    Whatever the economic or political system, whatever the personal or public motivation, we human beings regularly get things wrong. And we in the developed West are naively complacent if we think the age of disasters is behind us. It hardly takes much insight to realise that technological advance can reduce risk while at the same time increasing the magnitude of disasters when they do happen (aeroplane crashes, the Fukushima disaster for example), as does increasing density of population in our finite land space. Humanity’s dependence on ever more sophisticated technology (not least the internet and global interdependence) makes it ever more vulnerable to calamitous breakdown of the systems which sustain us.

    And our instant reportage and widespread recording of photographic and video images intensify our emotional response long before our reasoning is engaged. At the same time as being rightly horrified by what happened at Grenfell we scarcely give a thought to 20 times the estimated deathtoll on our roads every year (with huge numbers more of life changing injuries). Thankfully we are not machines but the corollary is that our human psychology can mislead us in how we weigh up probability, risk, cause and effect.

    So while it is right that, because we care about each other, we are angry at what has happened, we need to channel the energy thus produced into rational investigation of the causes and what needs to be done to reduce (we’ll never eliminate) risk for the future. Clearly in the present case that has to start with a swift, open and wide-ranging enquiry. I’m not convinced that political heat at this point serves us well, not least because whatever is discovered will almost certainly have a history which spans several governments. I’m equally sure that boring old incompetence, financial priorities, and complacency are likely to be implicated in various ways, and they won’t fall into a neat narrative where we can incarcerate a few individuals, invent new systems (new politics even) and rest assured that something similar could never happen again.

    Perhaps the most obvious and simplest protection for all of us would be a ‘whistle blowing’ culture where the absence of doing so carries the same sort of stigma as drink-driving or paedophilia. It sounds obvious but in reality most whistle blowers get appalling treatment and are accused of disloyalty because such action inevitably puts a spotlight on those who have failed to act with integrity; there’s no shortage of disasters which remind us of that – the residents of Grenfell who survived have already attested to their unheeded warnings.

    As ever, it’s the goodness or lack of it in individuals which combines either to enhance or undermine the best intentions of whatever systems are in place. It’s certainly true that money is often a big factor, but so too is incompetence, notably by politicians and administrators who make decisions from a position of technical or scientific ignorance. Those in politics who believe a good degree in humanities, gained years ago, equips them to make decisions which have technical implications of which they have no knowledge are seriously deluded; their self assurance could turn out to be lethal for other innocent people. Blame here may well prove to be far more widely spread than is comfortable for all of us.

  3. “Prayer and the rage that longs for justice are also more closely linked than we suspect.”

    Though doesn’t rage often turn to blood lust? The ‘anger of man’ isn’t always well directed or easily controlled.

    I’m not disagreeing in general …maybe just making the observation that sin seeps in so easily and perverts so destructively.


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