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Seeing ourselves in a mirror

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Guest column by Bill Ellis

Among the things I have noticed in the news recently, both religious and political, is that a few folks are declaring that this is the most dangerous moment in our history, and therefore we must beseech God to send us a president who will steer us through this time faithfully and continue to maintain our place in the world.  Part of me wants to like that sort of prayer, but I can’t pull it off for two reasons.

First, we have our issues, but in spite of the present contentious climate domestically, and the dangerous climate internationally, we are not faced with greater problems than ever before. The Cold War was a much more dangerous time than this; the Depression a far worse economic moment than today; the Civil War nearly destroyed the union, and did lead to a social and economic upheaval that had never been matched before and has not been matched since.  I can think of many presidential election years–starting with the very first one—where the issues we faced were far more scary than what we face now.  Every era tends to imagine that its challenges are greater than those of other eras, but even a cursory glance, uninfluenced by the people whose job it is to sell news by ramping up the tension, reveals that we are in a very strong position, both at home and in the larger world.  This moment of our history is a great deal less fraught than many others.

Second, asking God to send us a president who will prevent us from having to live with the results of whatever mistakes we have made and misdeeds we have done, is not what God does most of the time, at least not at the national level.  On the contrary, sometimes the best and most faithful thing to do is to realize wherein we have gone wrong and to be willing to suffer the consequences of our own collective actions. Lincoln offered a variation of this in his Second Inaugural Address. Contrary to Lincoln, I don’t believe God actively punished the United States by sending the Civil War to us; I think we suffered the Civil War because we couldn’t resolve the sin of slavery any other way than by living out the results of that sin in blood and destruction. That war was our fault, not God’s, but in order to get over what we had done to a whole segment of our society we had to go through it.

Who knows?  Maybe we are in a similar moment now.  Maybe we are in for some hard times that we will have to go through in order to move into a better and more faithful way of living together.

So yes, we have problems, but they are not unique or uniquely difficult.  And yes, I truly want God to bless us with peace and tranquility, but sometimes collectively we make it impossible for God to do that. My prayer isn’t that God will save us from ourselves.  My prayer is that God will lead us to face ourselves squarely and honestly, so that we will see what we have done that we shouldn’t have, and what we haven’t done that we should have.  For it is there, in real repentance, experienced in the light of God’s love, that we discover how to live as we ought, and so find the kind of peace we desire.

Bill Ellis is the dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist.

Bill Ellis

About Bill Ellis

Rev. Bill Ellis is dean of St. John’s Cathedral. He has a bachelor’s degree in history, a Master of Divinity and holds an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from Church Divinity School of the Pacific.

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