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The Better Angels of our Nature

The Better Angels of our Nature

This last Sunday the gospel we heard, leading us into Election Day, was Matthew 5:1-12, when Jesus sits down on a mountain to teach the crowds, and we receive one of the two versions of the Beatitudes in the gospels.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” 

I am grateful for this gospel being stretched over us like a canopy this week. Many of us are anxious for an extra reason in the next few days: the election on Tuesday. We have all heard people, even before voting began, anticipating their idea of the worst and vowing to resist violently and to turn on their political opponents.

This is NOT the American way, nor is it the way of people of faith. But it does have precedent in American history. 

In the election of 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected president in a fractious election that featured the vote split among four candidates. After the electoral college met in December of 1860, states began attempting to secede from the Union, even before Lincoln took office on March 4, 1861. Seven states had announced their decision to part by the time Lincoln addressed the nation in his first words as president. In his First Inaugural address, he appealed to calm, reason, and affection, to shared history and values. Lincoln closed with this plea:

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.

In the end, Union prevailed, albeit at great and terrible cost, but unity remains harder to come by, even now. Yet it is never too late to turn aside from the forces of division, and embrace hope.

Look back over that list of eight blessings from Matthew. Each of them refers to better angels of our nature. Each of these blessings begins in the present (Blessed ARE…) and points to the future (for they WILL BE…), except for the first and the eighth statements, which say that the poor in spirit—the downcast, the anxious, in other words– and those who are persecuted are blessed “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” 

Is. Present tense. And so too, our political lives are rooted in the present, but should look forward in hope to a better future for all. 

And yet, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, preached in a perfectly named sermon entitled “When Peace Becomes Obnoxious,” we are confronted with this powerful stone of truth: “true peace is not the absence of tension, but the presence of justice.” We cannot have peace if it is founded upon silence in the face of injustice and the suffering of others in the sake of profit. That the way of the world—that world that Jesus calls us to work together to overturn in the Beatitudes.

The Beatitudes remind us that those who are especially blessed of God are not the high and mighty ones, but those who are on the side of those the world esteems little: the poor, the weak, the suffering, the innocent, the peacemakers, and those who persevere in discipleship even when they stand at risk of unjustly losing all the things the world values. The Beatitudes are addressed to the Church, those who proclaim that they are disciples of Jesus. Those who are blessed are those who look beyond themselves.

No matter what the results from Tuesday are, however long it takes to resolve, I pray for us all to be bold witnesses and peacemakers who stand for justice, unity, and respecting the dignity and worth of every person. 

The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire is a writer, musician, and a priest in the Diocese of Missouri. She is rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO.  She posts daily prayers, meditations, and sermons at her blog Abiding In Hope, and collects spiritual writings and images at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers.

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