Abraham Lincoln, in his first inaugural address after being elected president, saw the looming inevitability of civil war. In that first talk to the nation, he emotionally appealed to his divided countrymen to not become enemies nor “break our bonds of affection.”
Then he concluded: “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.”
It surely seems we need the eloquence of another Lincoln now, for our bonds of affection are sorely tried.
Whether it is guns or school shootings, the violence directed at black men or the violence directed at police officers, the unforgiving hostility toward those brave enough to immigrate to our land or the snide references directed at those who believe in God and “traditional values,” the rifts between us are deep and broad.
A grieving teenager who lost his friends in the Florida school shooting is attacked by internet trolls as a fraud, while a gun owner who expresses his appreciation for his semi-automatic rifle is told by other trolls that they hope his daughter is shot in the face with that gun.
If this were not enough, our national enemies are shrewd enough and diligent enough to pour gasoline on our smoldering hatred with fake news and divisive social media meant to outrage us even more. But could even they have imagined that when the news of their seditious manipulations became public, the outrage would still not be directed at them, but at each other?
An organization called Better Angels, named after Lincoln’s eloquent closing phrase, is attempting to bring what columnist David Brooks calls our “Red and Blue Tribes” together to get past the mutual hostility. One exercise, he reported in a recent column, focuses on breaking down stereotypes that each tribe has of the other: The Red Tribe is “racist.” The Blue Tribe is “against religion and morality.”
One of the founders of Better Angels says that his organization is seeking to build new bonds between citizens so that they no longer engage in politics as battling tribes seeking moral superiority rather than the best policies for society.
Our divisions, in other words, are only superficially about the topics at hand. There seems to be something deeper and more dysfunctional at work that keeps us from reaching out to each other to seek solutions.
Unfortunately, our church at times — and particularly these times — seems to suffer from similar stresses. Catholics also wrestle with polarizing debates that, while not yet infiltrating down to the pews, are dividing Catholics who serve as leaders in parishes, dioceses and academia.
Many of us have become polarized over everything from definitions of marriage to the Holy Father himself. We marshal our doctrinal, scriptural and magisterial arguments, but it seems as if our divisions may ultimately be as tribal as those in our larger society. Unfortunately, our divisions are more of a scandal.
A few years ago, Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville, Texas, gave a stark analysis of the divisions in our church: “The wounds that divide us are rooted in the loss of confidence that the members of the household of the faith actually love one another.”
Perhaps we need an organization like Better Angels to bring the discordant and wounded factions of the church together. The body of Christ, the people of God, should be modeling for society how best to love one another. Apparently we again need to learn how to do this ourselves.
Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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