THE FOURTH OF JULY AND TURNING TO THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE
“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
With war on the horizon, and states already leaving the Union, Lincoln spoke words that are as challenging today as they were in 1861. One hundred sixty years later, the bonds of national affection have been strained. We have witnessed a rise in white nationalism and hate crimes, attacks on democracy, propagation of election lies, as well as the homegrown terrorism of January 6. Vaccines and masks have been politicized and physicians and researchers have been singled out as objects of hatred.
The spirit of our nation – its national purpose – is troubled. Those who claim to be most patriotic espouse the least democratic values, demonizing everyone who differs from them as they hope to turn back the clock to the days of white supremacy. Even the study of history has become suspect. Many prefer following the most divisive and dangerous angels of their nature to the quest for common ground and affirmation of the equality of all persons. They would rather destroy the foundations of democracy and national wellbeing than give up the privileges of race and economics.
Even among progressives, whose basic principles involve affirmation of pluralism, there are many have turned their backs on creative conversation with those with whom they differ. The spirit of compromise necessary for healthy governance has been lost in the binary – in and out, us and them – approaches of both left and light. We would rather be right than restore our nation’s wellbeing.
We need to seek our better angels. The healing of our nation’s spirit depends on it. While Lincoln’s words are opaque in many ways, they are suggestive of the following:
• We are joined by mystic chords of memory. Beneath the surface, there is a deeper interdependence that goes beyond our conflictual attitudes and behaviors. Ubuntu, in national life, means that we are because of one another, and shape our national destiny by our values and actions.
• Individualism is balanced by community and connection. Separation is a danger both to the individual and the community. The wellbeing, equality, justice rendered to one raises the spiritual and communal status of all.
• In the chorus of national life, diversity and unity are joined and require one another. We need different voices to create national harmony. The national symphony emerges from the voices of the many, lured forward by the horizon of the more perfect union.
• The “better angels” are our highest values, taught by the prophets, apostles, and Jesus. Revealed in the experiences of mystics and spiritual leaders and felt in the love a parent feels for their child. In being “touched” by the better angels, we allow ourselves to be led by our highest values, and embrace a group spirit guided by the quest for healthy and just community.
Today, we must practice living by the better angels of our nature. I have described this practice as “prophetic healing” in my book on Howard Thurman. The better angels compel us to challenge injustice, incivility, isolationist individualism, and all types of alienating behaviors whether by individuals or institutions. Lincoln was well aware of structural injustice and would no doubt today recognize the value of critical race theory as a call to confession, self-awareness and mindfulness, transformation, and eventually partnership at the personal and community level. (For more on prophetic healing, see Bruce Epperly, “Prophetic Healing: Howard Thurman’s Vision of Contemplative Activism,” Friends United Press, 2020).
Institutions are guided by “angels” as the book of Revelation asserts and these angels must be aligned with the spiritual and moral arcs of history for our nation to achieve its destiny, a destiny that will not be achieved by historical denial of slavery, Jim Crow, voter suppression, injustice in the court room and bank, and First American genocide, but a higher path and vision that occurs by a type of national therapy that recognizes the demonic in our history as a catalyst for confession and transformation.
We are at a national crossroads that calls us to invoke the better angels, to go beyond self-interest and racial privilege to national interest and then planetary interest Our survival depends on an interdependent, sacrificial, and affirmative patriotism. A patriotism grounded in care for the whole as well as the part and the willingness to let go of privilege to join all people in the chorus of democracy, and liberty and justice for all.
Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, spiritual guide, and author of over sixty books including PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM; PROCESS THEOLOGY AND POLITICS; FRANCIS OF ASSISI: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; MYSTICS IN ACTION: TWELVE MYSTICS FOR TODAY; and BECOME FIRE: GUIDEPOSTS FOR INTERSPIRITUAL PILGRIMS.