Some of the shouting has died down in Madison since Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to limit the bargaining power of public-sector unions. The drama that fueled a week's worth of nightly news reports has largely subsided, though on any given day you'll find somebody shouting through a bullhorn in front of the Capitol.
But a residue of anger remains. Earlier this month, Republican lawmakers were passing around an email sent to state Sen. Alberta Darling, which claimed, "There are not enough words to describe how much I hate you"-and then goes on to make a stab at it with some very livid words. The same correspondent had earlier sent a message to Department of Administration Secretary Mick Huelsh, inviting him to burn in hell: "Yes, I hate you that much." Needless to say, the writer had never met either Huelsh or Darling.
Anger is one of the most powerful of human emotions, and the easiest to unleash. Few of us have the energy to stay boiling mad for long, but given the number of angry people involved in politics (as activists, not office-holders), you have to wonder if they're taking some kind of Viagra for the bile duct. Madison rage is only one example: Multi-issue rage flares on talk shows, on bulletin boards, and on opinion websites. If I had to choose the distinguishing public vice of our age, it would be not lust but unrestrained anger-which is often seen as a measure of virtue. The more you spew, the more you care.
Righteous indignation has its place and time, but anger per se is the first sin specifically identified as sin. "Why are you angry, and why is your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it" (Genesis 4:6-7).
God seems to be offering a choice to Cain, in striking terms: "Sin is crouching at the door." Not knocking like an honest man. Not picking the lock, not peeking through the keyhole. The image is that of a wild beast ready to spring. "It wants to eat you alive, Cain; swallow you whole. You're on the brink of something that you can't even imagine. You don't yet know what you're capable of, but unless you throttle that beast, you will."
Cain didn't listen. When the beast had its desire, and his brother's mangled body lay ominously still in its own blood, he learned what he was capable of. It's a lesson that has clamored down through time. Given the circumstances and the removal of restraint, we're all capable: "Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer" (1 John 3:15). But where is the beast? Outside or inside?
Outside, we usually think; sin is trying to get in, to devour us. But knowing what we do about ourselves and human history since the fall, the metaphor works better the other way: Sin is trying to get out, panting for the chance to wreak havoc. It doesn't whisper in our ear, like a cartoon devil; it hammers in our heart, coils in our stomach, churns in our gut-let me out!
I know brothers and sisters who are so devoted to the doctrine of total depravity that they deny any personal power over sin whatsoever. Others are far too confident of their ability to resist. The image of the beast gives us a more accurate picture than either.
Adam chose to let it in. Since then, the only choice his children have is when and how to let it out. God condescends to explain, to believers and unbelievers alike: Will you allow this inner beast to overpower you, or will you exercise some control over your words and actions? There's no going back to the garden and no earthly remedy for our affliction. Sin resides in our hearts, and won't be eradicated in this life. But will we be its master, or its meat?
Email Janie B. Cheaney