One hundred and fifty years ago, in January, 1863, our nation was in the midst of a civil war that jeopardized the fragile union of the United States. That year began with the Emancipation Proclamation, a sign of hope for a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal. As our new year begins in 2013, we are looking for signs of hope that the divisions that currently tear us apart can be healed. Our hope as the year begins is that our country is weary of the excessive polarization in politics that is once again jeopardizing our union.
We take inspiration from our Christian faith and also from the words of President Lincoln. At his First Inaugural Address in 1861, Abraham Lincoln spoke to a people on the verge of war with a hope that the union would be touched “by the better angels of our nature.” We believe it is again time for our country collectively to tap those better angels. Last summer, we were part of a group of twenty leaders from a wide variety of Christian denominations that came together at the invitation of The Faith & Politics Institute to address the corrosive and at times hateful tone of political discourse. Those of us who participated in that gathering represented a range of opinions on important subjects of religion and politics, but affirmed together that these differences should not create irreconcilable divisions. The two of us disagree on many things, yet are committed to doing so in a spirit of mutual affection, showing honor to one another.
As this year begins, it is a good time to seek greater understanding of and respect for the differences among us, whether political, racial, geographic, or religious. It is a time to examine the ways in which we might join together as Lincoln called us to “bind up our nation’s wounds.” It is this ministry of reconciliation to which we are dedicated and to which we call our fellow Americans. The civil rights movement fifty years ago sought to complete the unfinished work begun by the Emancipation Proclamation. We acknowledge together that we have more work to do in healing our nation’s divisions so that we might become a more perfect union.
That work begins with modeling civility in our personal spheres of influence, by having patience and showing respect for one another, being quick to listen to others and slow to become angry. It requires all of us to refrain from inflammatory words or derogatory names, to avoid attacking the character of others or falsely impugning their motives, to reject behavior which demonizes political adversaries and those who are different from us. All religious traditions share the admonition to put aside ego, pride and bitterness, to show humility and acknowledge the limits of one’s own understanding. These are qualities we are hopeful will appear more frequently in the public realm this year. As for us, a black man and a white man, a northerner and a southerner, a liberal and a conservative, we have committed to praying for one another and for all political leaders in this spirit of reconciliation. We invite you to join a Call to Prayer in this same spirit. The Call to Prayer for the New Congress is a commitment to daily prayer that began on January 3 and last until President Obama’s Second Inauguration on January 21st. You can pledge your prayer on The Faith & Politics Institute Web site.
These steps alone are not sufficient to heal all the division in our multiracial and multiethnic democracy, but they are a necessary starting point. Honest dialogues and constructive problem-solving are simply not possible without respect, civility and an acknowledgment of the things we hold in common. It is these things we hope to see grow in the political realm during the coming year. We hope you will join us in helping to make that happen.
The Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes, Jr is Harry Emerson Fosdick Distinguished Professor and senior Minister Emeritus, The Riverside Church of New York.
Dr. Richard Land, president, The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.