BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE: BEGINNING THE NEW YEAR by Michael Plekon

Orthodoxy in Dialogue offers Father Plekon’s timely reflection in observance of the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which falls on the third Monday of January (January 21 this year) in the United States.

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We are still early in the new year. It’s only the middle of January. Many have resolutions fresh in their minds, with determination to do good things in the year stretching out before us. For some, it is regular exercise, better diet, more mindfulness, care about our inner lives. For others, there is the hope of being more attentive to those around us, from family to friends near and far, and to our neighbors—on the block and throughout the community. People support families and children all over through United Way, through local groups that enable us to share our abundance with those in need. My friend, Father Justin Mathews, and his parish have continued the work of his predecessor, Father Paisos Altschul, at Reconciliation Services in Kansas City. St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco has been feeding people for years. Bethesda UMC Church in Haws Creek NC has numerous community service groups occupyings its building all week long. Despite so much rancor and division across the country, people are doing good. Consider the myriad of grassroots programs to assist government workers not being paid, with food, medications, childcare, and more.

Historian Jon Meacham recently published a timely book, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. The “better angels” in the subtitle comes from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address:

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 will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

In our era of divisions, fear, and anger, Meacham turns back to times of crisis in our country’s history, seeking there crucial moments when crisis evoked hope, often captured in the visions of leaders who looked beyond their own parties and interest for the common good of all Americans. It is no surprise that right facing the title page are photos of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and of Rosa Parks, signs of hope during the misery of the Great Depression,  WWII, and the Civil Rights movement.

Meacham goes further back, to the difficult days in the wake of the Civil War, when the Klan and Jim Crow laws and segregation kept the fear and hate between white and black Americans alive. Later on, the promise of a better life for millions of immigrants, even a national healthcare system and fair labor laws, were among the progressive reforms of an earlier Roosevelt—Teddy.

Much later, after WWII, the “red scare,” but also the desire for education, a home, and jobs led to the cooperation of parties in the Congress, to the vision of JFK’s “New Frontier” for service and LBJ’s “Great Society” of equality, freedom, and opportunity. This came with the Civil Rights Act, during the civil rights movement’s leadership under Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Wherever one looks in our history, there are real lights—women and men trying to heal divisions, quench hatred, find room for everyone. For all of them, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…” (1 Jn 4:18).

What does this sweeping view of American history say to you and me,  just weeks into a new year? It often seems that as individuals, the most we can do is keep ourselves educated and informed, trying to sort the facts from opinions. We find that demonstrations and marches, which we remember well from our youth, can be ways of expressing our beliefs.

There is also the decision to turn our beliefs into action. This month, we celebrate Dr. King, and on the holiday in his honor, many try to do things to give back to the community, especially to those in need.

When there is so much obsession in the media with our divisions, with anger and attack, perhaps a path toward recovering the “better angels of our nature”  would be found in Dr. King’s view, echoing that long procession of teachers whose wisdom heals and gives hope—Jesus, the Buddha, the Hebrew prophets, and many other thinkers. It is a saying to hold on to, not just through January, with other resolutions, but the whole year through. To opt for love, hope, trust, patience is to choose life, saying no to fear, hatred, resentment.

Dr. King said:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Among all the resolutions we could make in the new year, this is a most important one.

V. Rev. Dr. Michael Plekon is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) attached to St. Gregory the Theologian Church in Wappingers Falls NY. He holds a PhD in Sociology and Religion from Rutgers University in New Jersey, and is Professor Emeritus at Baruch College in New York City, where he taught for over 40 years. He is a prolific writer and editor whose two most recent solo-authored titles are The World as Sacrament: An Ecumenical Path toward a Worldly Spirituality (2017) and Uncommon Prayer: Prayer in Everyday Experience (2016). You may view his faculty profile and curriculum vitæ at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Weissman School of Arts & Sciences, Baruch College.

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