Back Door to Belief: Moral Outrage

Unbelievable. Believable. Certainty. Doubt. Trust. Betrayal. Outrage too?

The theme I’ve been researching for this blog has been caught in bad weather. I’ve been researching responses to the question, “What is spirituality?” and was about to post the first article in a new series, comparing and contrasting various spiritualities. Spirituality is popular today. The purpose of this blog is to nourish a specific spirituality, the spirituality of following Christ. Thus, the Pedestrian Theologian motto and underlying theme.

However, the raging forces of what is called “moral outrage” has “tsunamied” many in our country, and I can’t help but catch some of the blast. Raging media waves. Raging thought waves. Raging rage. Fire and water. FEMA or not, in time, Lord willing, I’ll rebuild on my little lot (this blog).

Strikingly, along these detoured highways of moral outrage, I observe “spirituality” billboards. There it is!  A connection between outrage and spirituality. Hmm. Unbelievable. Believable. Now, I can add moral outrage to my list of back doors to belief – in God.

I thought I knew what moral outrage was. I’ve written and re-written this post three times over the past week. Sigh. I’ve come at the issue from different directions.

From my observation of how the expression is used, I assumed that moral outrage is some overt response, energized by a stewing, churning angst, crystalized by some action deemed blatantly offensive and morally reprehensible, committed by a third party (individually or collectively), witnessed as one or a series of events,  motivating a person or group to react publicly and usually brazenly in protest. (Take a breath.)

And I thought that I too feel moral outrage at times, but it must not be the real thing, or maybe mine is just a psychological version, because I’m not openly, brazenly protesting — outraging.

Then, returning to my favorite dictionaries (Oxford and the original, 1828 Noah Webster’s), I studied the words separately and together. Outrage. Moral. I also compared them to definitions online.

I see a change in how the words are used. Of course. There is also the factor that when the words are used together, as an expression, the meaning/usage modifies. The expression is used in contexts. The line of dots do lead somewhere.

Let’s look.


To go beyond the bounds, to act without restraint, to treat with gross indignity or insult; an excess of boldness, disorderly action, violence affecting others, to burst out into a rage, a burst of rage. (Gleaned from the long list of definitions from The Oxford Universal Dictionary, a single volume version of the 20 volume set which I bought years ago at a library book sale. A prized possession.)


Oxford states that moral pertains “to character or disposition; … the distinction between right and wrong, good and evil, in relation to actions, volitions, or character; ethical.” Oxford describes moral sense as “the power of apprehending the difference between right and wrong, esp. when viewed as an innate faculty of the human mind.” How interesting.( Innate faculty?)

Noah Webster’s original dictionary, which took him twenty years to produce, is rich in biblical references as well as many classical and historical references and quotations. Oxford is rich in word etymology and classic quotations demonstrating usage, so the two bring a deep orientation to vocabulary development and word usage.

Noah makes an interesting distinction between moral law and moral sense. Moral law is “the law of God, which prescribes the moral or social duties, and prohibits the transgression of them.” (Woe. Prescribes. Prohibits. Wrong millennium. Or am I moralizing?)

Moral sense, states Noah, is “an innate or natural sense of right and wrong; an instinctive perception. . . which approves some actions and disapproves others, independent of education or the knowledge of any positive rule or law.”

Noah concludes, “But the existence of any such moral sense is very much doubted.”  I smile, and Oxford dons may disagree. Doubted then, when the Bible held a weight of authority and human nature was seen to need to be held in check, as our founding documents and our branches of government demonstrate.

We sense Noah’s contextual nearness to the foundations of our country with the opening of his seventh definition: “In general, moral denotes something which respects the conduct of men and their relations as social beings whose actions have a bearing on each other’s rights and happiness, and are therefore right or wrong, virtuous or vicious; as moral character, moral views, moral knowledge, moral sentiments, moral maxims. . . .”

Noah also mentions “moral evidence, moral arguments and moral persuasion” (italics in the original text), but he never offers the expression, moral outrage. I don’t think it was in usage in the early 1800’s.

If you have time, here is an article illustrating the modern usage in the context of our social fabric and technologically connected culture:

Whether or not you checked out that article (or any other just by googling “moral outrage”), I have a few perplexities to consider:

  1. Is the outrage the action of the offender(s) or the reaction of the offended(s)?
  2. Where does the “moral” energy come from?
  3. What does “moral outrage” show/tell me?

First, “Is the outrage the action of the offender(s) or the reaction of the offended(s)?”

When I examine the definitions of outrage, I get a bit dizzy. They take me in multiple directions.

If to express outrage is “to go beyond the bounds, to act without restraint, to treat with gross indignity or insult”;

if outrage is “excess of boldness, disorderly action, violence affecting others, a burst of rage,”

then sometimes the committer of the outrage is the offended party, rather than the offending party.

Sometimes the offense committed by the offender(s) is the moral outrage, and sometimes the act of outrage committed by the morally outraged, offended party is the moral outrage. Or both at the same time! One or the other or both. Are you dizzy with me?

We can’t look at all types, but here are two examples of the first: the moral outrage is committed by the offended party:

When a Jewish speaker such as Dennis Prager is scheduled to speak on a campus and a morally outraged group protests his visit by preventing others from attending his presentation, then the protesters have denied speaker and his audience the freedom of speech they possess and the protesters demonstrate disrespect, outrage: “to treat with gross indignity or insult”, “disorderly action”.

When protesters destroy university property to protest the presence of the Jewish speaker, Ben Shapiro, the offended ones, the protesters, are the ones acting outrageously: beyond the bounds, without restraint, (and the entire definitional descriptions). Oh, and I’m haven’t touched the moral outrage of anti-semitism.

My confusion is that in such cases (and the stream of the more current examples), what is called “moral outrage” is outrageously immoral. The immorality (lack of character and respect for others; lack of discernment between right and wrong), often is exhibited in the ones who are protesting and claiming to be morally outraged.

Is there such a thing as morally moral outrage? Is moral outrage an oxymoron?

When we say something is a moral outrage, we mean that X (the offending issue) is outside the bounds of what is acceptable. When we say we are outraged or morally outraged, we should not mean that because we are morally offended by X, that we are therefore justified in “moral outrage” behaviors such as ridiculing someone on social media, articulating a death wish, or making other cruel remarks. These are immoral responses.  “Moral outrage” expressions such as physical violence, outbursts of anger, property destruction, false reports, and terrorizing threats are all equally immoral (wrong) and outrageous (as Oxford defines outrage).

Second question: “Where does the “moral” energy come from?”

“Mad as hell” is the way some have described the energy behind moral outrage. What irony.

The Bible describes both righteous and unrighteous anger. Narcissism and altruism can motivate anger. A love of the true, good, and holy can motivate anger. Personally, I don’t trust myself with anger. Jesus, who had no double nature (image of God plus sin nature) can be trusted to express anger within the bounds of virtue. I don’t trust myself, which is good, but there is a place for holy, righteous anger expressed constructively. After all, as Edmund Burke explained, “All evil needs to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Justice is necessary, and it is moral, but it is not outrage.

Third Question: What does “moral outrage” tell me?

All expressions of outrage, moral and immoral, point to an invisible and stubbornly real measurement of value and worth. Human beings cannot stand to live in a universe that is strictly naturalistic and material in nature. We are bound to think in moral terms, whether nor not our morality is sound (healthy). Oxford calls moral sense an “innate faculty of the human mind”. No matter how humanly skewed, it is a divine design.  We cannot help but evaluate attitudes, beliefs, actions, and policies. Evaluation is a form of judgment, of discernment, and one of the highest forms of critical thinking. (Note Bloom’s taxonomy.)

All rage, all moralizing, all moral outrages find roots in human nature, a nature that cannot stand to exist in a universe that is not moral in nature. Morality is the recognition of the existence of good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, and seeks to sort out these threads that are deeply woven together in our souls, communities, nations, cultures, and histories. We are outraged (some in the mere psychological sense and some in the expressive, violent sense) that we cannot discover ways to disengage our future from our past.

We do not want to perpetuate racism, sexism, narcissism (unless we unknowingly are narcissists; we all have the seeds) and all the other ugly “is-isms” we’d wish were “was’ms”.*

The Bible says that “All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned everyone to our own way” (Isaiah 53:6). Moral outrage illustrates that we are sinners. Sinners pointing index fingers at others, while our grubby other fingers point back at ourselves.

Here’s Isaiah 53:6 (NIV) in its entirety:

We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
    each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

Here’s the verse preceding it:

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.

It seems to me that if anyone received the energy, the violence of our “moral outrage”, it was Jesus Christ, the one who fulfilled the prophecy of this ancient text.

Well, here are several better ways that we can work for justice in our society:

  1. To thank God for the gift of His Son who died a violent death to settle all human debts (Col. 2:13-15) and to accept releasing peace that heals us from the inside out. (Guilt does not need to motivate us toward “moral outrage”.)
  2. To choose to be proactive and active rather than reactive. How? By loving God in all the little ways we can: giving a cup of cold water in Jesus name (Mark 9:41); caring for the needs of the orphan, the widow, the imprisoned, and even the rich,  passing on our skills and blessings to others, being fair in our transactions, smiling at overwhelmed store clerks, by being attentive to the faces of our children and grandchildren. . . .
  3. Of course, we can practice all the basics of becoming informed on issues, of voting, of treating candidates, representatives, and people in any or no position with respect, of not jumping to conclusions, of volunteering as we can. Never forget the basics.

Moral outrage, ironically, gives me another reason to believe in a supernatural world. The naturalistic, materialistic answers demonstratively don’t satisfy any and all of us. Your heart tells you. Social media tells you. The news tells you.

The tsunami of moral outrage can recede into the calm waves of moral humility and service. Understanding moral outrage can open a back door to belief in Infinite Goodness, to gratitude for His good gifts, and to a resilient, restorative hope.


* “Isms” and “was’ms” was an expression used by some preacher, I think maybe E.V. Hill. A reference to all sorts of philosophies and worldviews. Can anyone give me the source material?

Categories: Perspectives on Culture | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Back Door to Belief: Moral Outrage

  1. “My confusion is that in such cases (and the stream of the more current examples), what is called “moral outrage” is outrageously immoral.”

    Well, someone hit the nail square on the head!

    What a fantastic article. Perhaps the best response (that is more of a pondering and less of a response) to the social justice movement I’ve read yet and a convicting admonishment to any believer who would attempt to argue the Christian’s place in the social justice movement.

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