(This blog post is adapted from a sermon delivered at the First Congregational Church of Ripon on September 4, 2016. The title is taken from Hebrews 13:2 – “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”)
Today’s scripture reading recognizes that we are often skittish about strangers. Don’t they look a little different? Isn’t their complexion a little odd? Don’t they dress a little funny? And what’s with those hairdos? Can’t they pronounce words correctly? Maybe they speak a whole different language – so how are we supposed to know what they’re really saying behind our backs? Or even right in front of us? Lots of people say they practice weird religious rituals.
OK, settle down. The verse from Hebrews doesn’t suggest any of that. It urges us to look beyond the strangeness of strangers. “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
Angels? What angels? Do people really believe in angels any more? Well, a recent national poll found that 77 percent of American adults do believe that angels exist. I’m in the minority here. I don’t believe that actual angels are flying around without attracting any attention. I do, however, believe very strongly in what angels represent in the human imagination. As the Bible indicates, we humans have been created “a little lower than the angels,” suggesting that we can become more angelic ourselves if we can learn to be more courageous, more compassionate, and more wise.
Angels have been prominent in our cultural imagery for millennia. Medieval Christian angelology described nine distinct levels of angels, which apparently puts us ten levels below God. In cookbooks we find angel-food cake and angel-hair pasta. Entrepreneurs seek angel investors. Baseball fans can root for the California Angels. In music we find Teen Angel, Special Angel, and Paul Simon’s angels in the architecture. We have guardian angels, avenging angels, fallen angels, and even Hell’s Angels. One prominent Christian tradition claims that Lucifer, aka Satan, was once God’s favorite angel.
The angels I’m especially attracted to are the ones that Abraham Lincoln, in his first inaugural address, called “the better angels of our nature.” Lincoln thus put angels inside human nature, where I believe they belong, and summoned them in a vain attempt to forestall the hatred that spawned the American Civil War. For Lincoln, our better angels represented the human capacity for courage, compassion, and wisdom. The angels who play speaking roles in the Bible are mostly better angels sent to encourage certain people, and their opening lines tend toward “fear not” or “be not afraid.”
Paradoxically, Lincoln’s concept of our better angels gained widespread scholarly support shortly after World War II, which unleashed the full fury of hell’s angels on the whole world. In the aftermath, thousands of former Nazis officials and death-camp guards allowed social scientists to study the development of murderous sadistic behavior. One of their more startling findings was that people tend to justify profound cruelty by escalating it, as if to prove that it’s not really bad at all. Death camp guards frequently competed with each other to invent more hideous ways to torture inmates in order to justify their own cruelty.
Since then, the gist of social science has demonstrated the better angelness of human nature. Little toddlers will pick up items purposely dropped by researchers and hold them up to be returned. Responding to puppet shows featuring kind and gentle characters interacting with mean and nasty characters, little children consistently pick the kind and gentle characters to play with, rejecting the mean and nasty ones.
Developmental psychologists now tell us that average healthy people who live a whole human life span under favorable conditions will naturally mature toward empathy, altruism, and integrity. That’s why Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, and Larry Ellison challenged a bunch of other billionaires to give away all their money before they die. It’s also the reason that charities and nonprofit organizations have grown much faster than governments and business enterprises over the last 50 years.
The new scholarly area of disaster studies offers more better-angels insights. From the San Francisco earthquake in 1906 through Hurricane Katrina and beyond, the story has been the same. Though traditional thinking holds that people facing disaster collapse into barbarism, fighting each other savagely for survival, the reality is that most people rise to the occasion, offering others help, shelter, and solace. Under pressure, prosocial behavior beats antisocial behavior every time. Nowadays, thousands if not millions of people around the world respond to every natural disaster with offers of help, support, and prayers. A handful of terrorists who murder two dozen innocent bystanders trigger a wave of compassion among 500 million citizens of our global village.
Research also indicates that the most destructive episodes in the wake of natural disasters are perpetrated by authority figures with deputies and weapons who expect the local population to collapse into chaos, thus shooting first and asking questions later. Believing in our better angels becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy by drawing out our best behavior. Conversely, believing the worst about people almost always brings out the worst in people.
Psychologist Steven Pinker echoed Abraham Lincoln in the title of his monumental study, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. This is one of my all-time favorite books, and I made my students read it during my last six semesters on the Ripon College faculty. Pinker marshals an enormous array of evidence that human violence has declined drastically as a percentage of the total population over the last 30 millennia, debunking the superficial notion that people are getting more selfish, more corrupt, and more violent than ever before. True enough, our technology now gives us more power to do evil things; but the actual behavior of most people in most places under most circumstances is now way more civilized and way more gentle than at any time in the long history and prehistory of our species.
The popular but misguided belief that human nature is getting worse has been fed by an alarming stream of sound and fury in the 24-hour tv news cycle and in popular entertainment media, both of which exploit our instinctive tendency to focus on violence, danger, and dramatic action. The parade of violent news media mayhem showcases the spectacular exceptions to the norm (that’s why it’s called “news”), but repeated exposure to it makes it seem normal. In some cynical circles, faith in human virtue itself has come to be mocked as a fantasy of naïve idealists, bleeding hearts, do-gooders, and goodie two shoes. In my view, that kind of cynicism is way more naïve than the idealism it mocks.
Luckily for this sermon, Pinker notes that one of the more obvious factors in the decline of violence since prehistoric times has been the rise of large-scale religions – but not just the Christian religion. The Golden Rule based on empathy and reciprocal altruism shows up in all the world’s sacred texts and is the most reliable moral precept yet devised by the human imagination.
Science, medicine, and other technologies have allowed us to live two or three times longer than we used to, thus giving us much more time to outlive our crazy early years, learn new tricks, solve large-scale communal problems, and teach the young.
We’ve all benefitted from the growth of commerce, which requires safe travel routes, empathy for people in alien cultures, and regulation by governments.
Democratic forms of social organization based on widespread literacy and education has been really helpful.
The growing power of women in the post-industrial world has been revolutionary, though it’s still a matter for controversy. Women have always specialized in empathetic relationships, especially as mothers, which requires close personal attention and emotional attachment to helpless infants. But it’s been less than a century since women in the US received the right to vote or own property, and no woman has ever served as President of these United States. Stay tuned for an update in a few weeks.
Our lives are full of angel stories. My own personal angel story began when I weighed just over two pounds, having been born three months premature at Fort Monmouth Army Hospital in 1944. Talk about helpless infants. Hospitals then were pumping too much oxygen into the incubators of premature babies, often causing blindness or death. Luckily for me, the army rushed two specialists to my incubator and they knew just what to do. My life was saved by those doctors plus a bunch of nurses, orderlies, and average human beings, all on the payroll of the federal government and all guided by the better angels of our common nature. They were not heroes; they were just doing their jobs. They had no special reason to care for my puny little bundle of protoplasm, but they did, just because people are naturally attracted to such little helpless puny bundles of protoplasm.
Over the years, my parents told me the stories about my six weeks in that incubator and the caring people who saved my life. Eventually, I realized that those people were able to save me thanks to hundreds of previous generations driven and guided by our better angels to invent the incubators, discover the medicines, develop the skills, build the hospitals, and collaborate to solve so many problems bedeviling the human community.
So when I reached the biblical age of three score and ten, after one year of retirement, it dawned on me that I should try to pay back those better angels who kept me alive in 1944. So I created a nonprofit organization called Our Better Angels – OBA for short – to promote and celebrate the courage, compassion, and wisdom that Abraham Lincoln summoned in 1861. You are reading this from the OBA website right now.
Last year I gave another sermon here on Jesus’ Beatitudes, especially the part about the meek inheriting the earth. The earth the meek inherit, I think, will be the earth created by previous generations of the meek, all driven and guided by the better angels of our common human nature.