The United States of Grace

If life is a journey and not a destination, the road we traveled as a society this past week could be compared to an unexpected stop along the highway.  When we end up trading the Confederate flag for healthcare and marriage equality, the seismic quakes that have already resulted cannot be adequately measured on any Richter scale. Yesterday, President Barack Obama appealed to the most elusive of all human attributes, grace, as the seed that may bring us all together. When the President of the United States sang “Amazing Grace” to an ocean of mourners of all races and religions in a historic black church in the wellspring of the South – well, something is going on here.

Not surprisingly, Abraham Lincoln struck the right chord one-hundred-and-fifty-four years ago in his First Inaugural Address. At the cusp of a domestic war he never wanted, the newly elected Chief Executive from Illinois stated, “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.”

What both President Lincoln and President Obama alluded to in their disparate talks to two very dissimilar constituencies framed in exceedingly different time periods, was the notion of virtuousness. These days, we are living in a lashing out, “Gotcha” society, where the lowest common denominator is expected. Where everyone is raised to feel a sense of entitlement. Where cultural; ethnic; sexual preferences and racial divisions seem to define you. Both presidents reminded us that the perceived enemy might not be on the other side of the fence at all. You can’t change someone’s behavior if they somehow don’t wish to change. After all, change invariably comes from within.

As a longtime historian, I have come to believe that embracing “the old ways” is nothing less than a reaction to the fear of losing one’s identity. It is an extraordinarily human response to the unconscious reality that we will all die. What both Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama asked all Americans to do was to shuck any preconceptions and look beyond the constriction of one’s existence. The venerable Harper Lee once wrote in To Kill A Mockingbird,: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” As Lee’s immortal literary character, Atticus Finch came to understand, it’s not about me, it’s about us.

So yes, it’s time to recognize that the Fourteenth Amendment means just that: equal protection under the law. It’s time to stop pointing fingers at one another, put down our guns, open up our hearts, roll up our sleeves, and get to work on solving things that confront us all – from education and global warming to ignorance and violence to intolerance and the emerging division between the rich and the poor. If we listen to the better angels of our nature, we can achieve that elusive sense of grace that President Obama alluded to yesterday. We can all rediscover that when we work for causes larger than ourselves, we can finally find purpose and meaning in our lives.

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