Toorak Uniting Church

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The Better Angels of our Nature

Anzac Commemorative Service
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
Easter 4
26 April 2015

In my imagination I see humanity on a long and winding pathway. As I look back, I can see the path passing through the birth of civilisation and stretching back to the very beginning of time. I turn around and see the pathway ahead of me, tapering off toward a distant horizon, into the unknown and unexplored future.

But we find ourselves today in this present moment of time; in this time of remembering. We are on the pathway - on a journey and we are painfully aware that in the past we have travelled through some dark and difficult times and yet we are all able to see, mingled with the brooding clouds and violent storms of past conflicts, wars and confrontations, that there are shafts of sunlight that show us the power of human courage; the wonder of human friendship; and the commitment of those who are willing to give everything in the quest of love, hope and freedom.

For most of us, this is what gives us light and illumination for our journey. It is our reflection on what Abraham Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature". 1 It is what gives us hope and resilience for the way ahead. But we’re not naïve. We know that for some the sacrifice is great and that in our search for a better way forward we must at times pause and remember the cost our forebears paid to bring us here, to this place on our journey together.

Human evolution and our movement toward a new and better world is slow and painful. We catch glimpses on the journey of what this new world may look like. And this can sustain us and give us life. Whether it is by acts of compassion and kindness, our hope is always that the journey - the pathway - will lead toward peace and justice. But we can’t quite see it yet and so we look back at where we have been, "lest we forget" the cost that has brought us to this time and place. 2

Our pausing and remembering is so that we might find peace in our time, among the nations of the earth and perhaps most importantly, that we find it within our own hearts. To look back is to learn from our past and while we honour our fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers, our purpose is to fulfil their dream that we, their children, might live in peace and seek a better way for all humanity.

While we recognise that war and conflict cast a long and dark shadow over our past, "the better angels of our nature" seek to live out the truth in the words of Jesus from the gospel of John, "I have come that you may have life; life in all its fullness." So what names this path on which we walk is not death, but life, and the practice of living fully each day while nurturing peaceful ways of resolving our conflicts.

The Chinese philosopher Lao-Tse (李耳) who lived 500 years before Jesus and during a time of constant warfare between the Chinese states said:

If there is to be peace in the world, there must be peace in the nations.
If there is to be peace in the nations, there must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities, there must be peace between neighbours.
If there is to be peace between neighbours, there must be peace in the home.
If there is to be peace in the home, there must be peace in the heart.

We honour and respect the memory of those whose lives were ended in WW1 and the subsequent wars that have marked and marred the 20th and 21st centuries. We remember not only those whose lives were lost but also the devastation visited on those who were wounded both physically and mentally. The grief of families, women and men whose lives were irrevocably damaged. This we remember and will not forget, so that we may be courageous enough to believe in a better way.

I’ll finish this reflection with the words of St Francis of Assisi which we have used in this church several times:

May God bless us with discomfort
At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships
So that we may live from deep within our hearts.

May God bless us with anger
At injustice, oppression, and exploitation of God's creations
So that we may work for justice, freedom, and peace.

May God bless us with tears
To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger, and war,
So that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and
To turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless us with just enough foolishness
To believe that we can make a difference in the world,
So that we can do what others claim cannot be done:
To bring justice and kindness to all our children, our neighbours and the poor.

That is the better angels of our nature!


1   The phrase "the better angels of our nature" comes from the final words of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural 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, 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."
2 The phrase "lest we forget" forms the refrain of "Recessional" a poem by Rudyard Kipling, composed for the occasion of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897. It introduces the idea that God might spare England from oblivion or profanity "lest we forget" the sacrifice of Christ ("Thine ancient sacrifice"). The phrase later passed into common usage after World War I across the British Commonwealth especially, becoming linked with Remembrance Day observations; it came to be a plea not to forget past sacrifices, and was often found as the only wording on war memorials, or used as an epitaph.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2015

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