Healing a Nation Sick at Heart: Fighting a Spiritual Pandemic with “Our Better Angels”

By: Christopher R. Fee

Fee headshot
Dr. Christopher R. Fee, Professor of English at Gettysburg College

This summer has been a hot and uncomfortable one, literally, metaphorically, and spiritually: We seem to be at a cross-roads in history. A particularly notable flash-point occurred when armed right-wing paramilitaries occupied the Gettysburg Battlefield on the Fourth of July on the basis of a rumor of flag-burning already widely discredited at the time. Two weeks later the source of that rumor was outed, and it turned out to be a left-wing agitator.

During this summer of unrest, such out-of-all-proportion responses to threats—real, imaginary, and invented—seem all too common, and the fact that we are in the middle of the greatest pandemic in a century is not at all incidental.

Moreover, the time and place of this particular incident are themselves hardly inconsequential: July the Fourth is the most seminal of American holidays, while the Gettysburg Battlefield is the most iconic monument in the landscape of the American imagination, sanctified by none other than Abraham Lincoln, arguably the most revered martyr in our secular pantheon.

On the very eve of the Civil War, Lincoln uttered a sentiment which comes to my mind when I see Americans treating each other with disdain and even hatred over political differences:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.”

Lincoln Inauguration LOC
Inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln, March 4th 1861. (Library of Congress)

Lincoln has been much criticized for not taking a stronger stand against the evils of slavery at that moment, and I do not wish to be accused of not seeing the hateful legacy of that vile institution reverberating in the actions and inactions that required the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the first place. Slavery was evil, Jim Crow was evil, and the institutionalized 21st century racist oppression that engendered the BLM reaction is the unspeakably evil step-child of that legacy.

As a local Quaker and peace-maker, however, I must align my words and deeds with those of my spiritual forebears in this very community who steadfastly worked for justice and freedom and equality while at the same time refusing to hate and to vilify those they opposed: They loathed the sin of slavery and had to react strongly against it, but never violently, and they were at all times required to love the sinner with all their hearts.

I must do the same, and as Friends always have, I call on the broader community to do so, as well.

There has been a lot of fast and loose talk about “a second Civil War” this summer, and although that seems incendiary and unhelpfully volatile rhetoric to me, I’ll leave it to the many fine scholars of the Civil War who read this blog to debate the finer points of comparison on that score.

I’m a medievalist, and my expertise is more grounded in the cultural backlash caused by the pandemic that has catalyzed the current crisis, so I’ll confine myself to those aspects of this summer’s discontent that I can comment upon professionally:

When people are frightened and are faced with how little control they really have over their lives, they often respond inappropriately, and all too often violently.

This is nothing new: we have accounts dating back thousands of years that illustrate this point.

I’ve spent the past few months deeply immersed in the literature of pandemic, from the Bible to Boccaccio’s Decameron, from Greek historians to modern novelists. As a medievalist, I’ve always had a professional interest in the Plague, but of course this spring it became personal for all of us. Many of the greatest works of literature touching on the Plague describe deep and powerful connections between a physical disease that wracks the bodies of a populace and a spiritual malaise that corrupts the soul of a people.

Indeed, since ancient times Plague has been both a very real terror and an extremely powerful metaphor, from Homer’s Iliad and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex to Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague and Albert Camus’s La Peste. Given the pandemic and social unrest raging all around us, it would be worth our while to consider the realities of life in America in the summer of 2020 from the perspectives of these latter two books, which use the metaphor of pestilence to make diametrically opposed points:

Jack London described a world which descends into savagery and brutality because of a deadly pandemic. London’s core notion is that civilization is at best a thin veneer, and that descending chaos unlocks the bestial within us all, freeing us from all constraints and decency. His vision is dark and horrifying and ultimately offers little hope, because to London, even the shackles of morality and the semblance of polite society merely channel and control the innate human need to dominate and to subjugate.

Jack London LOC
Jack London (Library of Congress)

I would submit that both the internet troll who circulated that fake account of threatened flag-burning and the armed reactionaries who took his bait are illustrating the worst fears of Jack London.

Camus, on the other hand, describes in detail a terrible outbreak of Bubonic Plague that decimates the population of the city of Oran in Algeria, unleashing countless horrors. But while Camus fully acknowledges the worst of which we are capable, he focuses on the best, offering ultimately a vision of hope in the midst of despair, of light flickering defiantly against the impending shadows. Camus wrote his novel shortly after World War II, and the Plague in his book is often seen as an allegory for fascism, although it is also much, much more: Camus calls for us to stand firm in our humanity, to be our best even when faced with the utter worst. He does not promise us that everything will be OK, that we will have a Hollywood ending, and that everything will work out for the best. No, Camus implores us to be kind, to be thoughtful, to care for others, to alleviate suffering and ignorance, if only for a moment; Camus offers us the opportunity to be at our best by shining our light against the worst the darkness can offer, not for glory or accolades, but because it is right, and because that is what makes us human.

I am more inclined to look for the best than the worst in people, and those who stand their ground peacefully—Walls of Moms in Portland, Black Lives Matter protesters, and professors on the Battlefield of Gettysburg—give me hope in this regard:

On the Fourth of July, a couple of my bravest friends and colleagues, historians of international repute, gently tried to provide some context for the monuments on the Gettysburg Battlefield and the debates concerning them. They were harassed and threatened and insulted for their trouble. They did not attempt to agitate nor to incite those armed protestors who confronted them: They are public scholars, and it is their vocation and avocation to try to shine a light in the darkness.

It is perhaps especially notable that those who shouted them down refused to wear masks; there was a time when those who revered the icons of the fallen Confederacy hid behind masks and hoods, but now they take pride in appearing openly, and, moreover, they refuse to wear protection against spreading a disease they feel is a hoax.

Those brave, unarmed teachers, meanwhile, were attempting to maintain their own dignity, as well as their respect for those with whom they disagreed, simply by offering thoughtful responses to mindless hate.

Camus Wikimedia Commons
Albert Camus (Wikimedia Commons) 

Just as Albert Camus himself worked diligently throughout the war, undermining a cacophony of Nazi propaganda with solitary, tiny little messages of truth in an underground newspaper, my colleagues held their candles to the darkness, offering flickering glimmers—not because a spark will overwhelm the darkness—but because without those tiny sparks of light and love and hope and good, darkness and hate and despair and evil threaten to overwhelm us all.

They offer stirring examples and object lessons for the rest of us, issuing a call for us to embrace the light, however much fear and hate tempt us to turn to the dark. By doing so, we choose the path blazed by Camus, and reject the road mapped by London.

That’s what those history professors did on the Battlefield of Gettysburg on July the Fourth; they embodied the ideal encapsulated in the closing of Camus’s La Peste:

“What we learn in time of pestilence: That there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”

Lincoln came to a similar conclusion in his First Inaugural Address when he implored us to invoke “the better angels of our nature.”

I leave you with those words, which do not offer us a perfect solution, but rather offer just a glimmer of how we might begin to work towards such a solution; to evoke a favored Quaker phrase, “I love to feel where the words come from,” and I feel that Lincoln’s words come ultimately from love of his fellow Americans, a palpable desire for reconciliation courageously embodied by my dear friends and colleagues at the height of this summer’s madness.

About the Author: Christopher R. Fee is Professor of English at Gettysburg College and a scholar of the Middle Ages. Fee is the author of several books on Medieval topics, as well as the editor of American Myths, Legends, and Tall Tales: An Encyclopedia of American Folklore, and the award-winning Conspiracies and Conspiracy Theories in American History. Fee’s latest two works,  From Black Death to Zombie Apocalypse: Great Plagues in History and Literature  and The Truth About Tall Tales: American Folklore from Johnny Appleseed to Paul Bunyan, will be released this month. Fee is a practicing Quaker and the former Clerk of the Menallen Friends Meeting, an active waypoint on the Underground Railroad just ten miles north of Gettysburg.