Riots in America and a Reminder from Purgatory

“Jesus came preaching the good news of God saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel.’” Mark 1:14-15

I’m going to take you on a brief excursion to Dante’s Purgatory this week. Don’t be afraid. You don’t have to stay. In Purgatorio, the second of Dante’s three-part comedy, sinners don’t have to stay in Purgatory. Of course, you can’t move higher to Paradise until you learn the lessons and get rid of the sin, so let’s see if we can learn the lesson.

Some background first. Dante, a poet writing in the 14th century, awakens in a wood at the beginning of the story. He realizes he’s in trouble and that his sins are weighing heavily upon him. To guide him out of the dark wood into the light of God, Virgil appears. He represents human reason, and reason can lead you to the recognition of sin (the journey through Hell) and through Purgatory (the renunciation of sin). So, the journey begins downward through Hell and then upward through Purgatory to Paradise. As in all spiritual growth, you have to go down before you can go up.

Let’s skip ahead to the third level of the seven-story mountain of Purgatory. This is where we find the sinners who were beset by anger in life. This level is shrouded in thick smoke, and Dante remarks that no gloom of Hell or the darkest night compares with the “smoke that wrapped us in that place.”

Why smoke? What’s the meaning? The angry cannot see clearly. They must pay their penance by abiding for a time in literal darkness that they failed to recognize in their angry lives. Before Dante and Virgil enter this third level Virgil, always walking ahead because reason should lead us, warns, “Take care and do not let go of me. Take care and do not let go.”

It’s true isn’t it? I don’t think well when I’m angry. I let go of reason. Perhaps I fail to see other people as deserving of love and mercy. Sometimes I fail to see the person at all because I’m so committed to the cause that has aroused my anger in the first place. Of course, I believe my anger is righteous indignation, not realizing that everyone thinks their indignation is righteous. I forsake the reason that should enable me to navigate differences with grace, understanding, and love. Now back to Purgatory…

When the pair encounter the struggling souls on this level, they discover they are singing the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us, grant us peace). In fact, they are bound together and singing “in perfect unison.” Their penance is to experience the opposite of the discord they created in their living days of wrath. In Purgatory they must learn to be harmonious, perhaps with the very people who were the objects of their rage and who responded in kind.

Why the Agnus Dei? We use our anger to try to change people and circumstances, even if we must bludgeon them into agreement and submission. We mistake wrath for the godly creative energy that can truly build up the Kingdom of Heaven. But only Jesus, the Lamb of God, can truly take away sins and make all things right. It’s eternally significant that in contrast to our scowling efforts to control, Jesus chose the way of sacrifice. In fact, “He will not cry or lift up His voice, or make it heard in the streets” (Isa 42:2). Love is patient and kind. It does not insist on its own way (1 Cor. 13).

How does one leave this level of Purgatory? An angel awaits at the end of that long dark trudge. He brushes his wing against Dante’s forehead, removing the stain of wrath, and says these words “Blessed are the peacemakers who feel no evil wrath toward any man.” Only then is Dante ready to draw closer to God.

In the last couple of years or so we’ve seen a great deal of wrath on display in the streets of some of our greatest cities. The anger has been from all over the political spectrum, and I’m not about to compare one group’s wrath with another. The violence, vulgarity, discord, and destruction all come from the same source, and it’s not God.

I have no answers to solve the political and social ills that various groups glom onto to fuel their hatred and fury. But when I can’t figure out how to fix something, I can usually figure how to not make it worse. So, as far as it depends on me, I’m not going to let anger ruin a holiday or family visit or phone call. I’m not going to simmer or boil over when I witness scenes of unreasoning ire. I’d simply rather be transformed than stirred up. I’m a citizen of two Kingdoms, and proudly so, but only one is eternal and claims my ultimate allegiance. I cannot allow raw emotions in one kingdom to make me less fit for the other.

And if Dante is right, and I spend some time bound for a spell in Purgatory with members of Black Lives Matter on one side and Proud Boys on the other, then I’ll trust God to burn out any anger and replace it with love and mercy. If I want to grow closer to God in this life, then I can let Him start that process now.


Dr. Terry Ellis

January 10, 2021