Given the polarity of our times--insolence, hate, intolerance, seething anger, hostility and overt disdain for others and government--I am reminded of another season in the history of our country where we were so torn asunder: the Civil War. How did we come to the place where civility, respect, decency and concern for the broader common good of all Americans has faded and, instead, is overshadowed by the darkness of self-interest? It is time for us to draw from the annals of our American history and remember the senseless—and avoidable--destruction and death caused by that great divide. It is time to make a purposeful, exerted effort to abate the destructive forces at work within our country at present, remembering the powerful words of President Abraham Lincoln “...A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure half slave and half free...!”
We have become a culture dominated by “my way or the highway” thinking; self-interest versus deference to others, stubborn rigidity versus seeking understanding and compromise, and an obsession for “being right” regardless of the consequences. As history has taught us, this condition is absolutely detrimental to a pluralistic, democratic republic, leading to destructive division, anarchy and, eventually, to authoritarian rule.
Look at the circumstances propelling us into the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln was elected president as a strong, clear opponent to slavery. Immediately, the southern states refused to accept the legitimacy of his presidency on two issues: economics (summed up in one word – greed) and racism, the belief that African-Americans were inferior beings! This position was disgracefully wrong, and their stubbornness and unwillingness to change left hundreds of thousands dead, and created millions of dollars in destruction. These states were blinded by selfish interest and hatred, and lost view of the broader common good.
We should heed the words of Mr. Lincoln: “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to preserve, protect, and defend it.”
No good thing can come from selfish ambition and wanton disrespect for others with a contrary or different point of view. The dislike by Republicans of President Obama exemplifies the destructive forces of self-centered rigid thinking, rendering the responsibility to govern ineffective. Immediately after Mr. Obama was elected president, the opposing party strategized and committed itself to resist and block every effort he made. Consequently, the public good has suffered. Important legislation that had previously been bipartisan, such as: infrastructure funding, transportation, mental health, agricultural reform and immigration reform never materialized. Even legislation to improve adoptions and prevent children from going into the foster care system was blocked. This type of opposition is not effective democracy. More so, it should serve as a warning: “A house divided against itself cannot stand!”
Another bellwether of imminent social upheaval is the bitter division within the Faith Community. It seems that people have abandoned the core values of their faith and have taken up sides against one another. Whatever happened to “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is good and acceptable and perfect will of God... Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord... Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men...” How refreshing that would be!
With regard to faith, President Lincoln made an interesting observation during the Civil War, “The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, but one must be, wrong.” There is a lot to think about and learn from this statement!
The hatred, insolence, intolerance, seething anger, hostility and overt disdain for others so prevalent today, as well as during the Civil War period, is being fueled by several conditions. First, as I mentioned, a selfish, narrow, “me-first” mind set. Narcissism has become endemic. Second, what was once distasteful, shunned behavior is now tolerated and accepted. It has become normative instead of being aberrant. We have replaced civility with rudeness and arrogance, compassion with disdain, courtesy with indifference and disregard, charity with greed, and virtue with depravity. Third, we are immersed in negative media; bombarded on every side with hostile, critical, destructive messaging. How often have you heard “good news doesn’t sell”? What a sad commentary on our society. Not only have we allowed it, but we promote it! Fourth, “fear mongering” has become fully embedded within the negative media messaging, and has even penetrated the Faith Community. Hope, faith and encouragement have been replaced by twisted, baseless provocation, even paranoia, designed to create fear, distrust and social dissension.
I wish I had a profound solution to this systemic problem—a problem with such enormous potential for negative consequences. I don’t. But I can do something about it within my own life and relationships, and encourage others to do likewise. I can begin by following a simple precept, an axiom for living, which has guided me over the decades, though I often forget: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things.”
We are living in perilous times, at a crossroad which will either motivate us to initiate a much-needed cultural paradigm shift, or lead us in a downward spiral to our destruction. I think it is fitting to close with the words of President Lincoln from his first inaugural address in March, 1861.
“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.”