by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace

Once again, we find ourselves subjected to that curious phenomenon in the United States, the nation’s seemingly endless political cycle. The 2022 mid-term elections and commentaries ended only yesterday it seems, and here we are with the media constantly referring to November 2024, and candidates declaring their candidacy or coyly holding out that possibility. One is tempted to avoid this never-ending indoor sport visited on us and consciously turn our attention to real and serious issues and problems facing the world and the nation.

However, in stating what we knew was inevitable, President Biden has announced that he will run for a second term because he is convinced that “the soul of America is at stake.” At first glance this can look like an attention-getter in this so early run-up to next year’s national elections. However, a recent column in the New York Times reflected on this issue; for Pax Christi USA, this perspective is instructive.

In the April 28 column, it is noted that nations as well as individuals have souls, defined as a “moral essence”: “[T]hat part of our consciousness where moral life takes place.” We witnessed an example of a positive moral essence in Michelle Obama’s comment on the insulting, racist language she and her husband endured in their White House years: “When they go low, we go higher.”

The column says the soul of every individual and nation is constantly confronted with two choices, decency and amorality, “placing human dignity at the center of political vision or moving in the direction of degradation.” In the Judeo-Christian tradition, such decisions of the soul are our national and personal answers to God’s challenge directed at His people early in salvation history: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life…” (Deuteronomy 20:19)

The list of these choices that face our country and therefore all of us fill the pages of our newspapers and television screens:

  • Truth or alternative reality – The very meaning of truth today is under threat: is it indisputable or simply what each one decides it to be?
  • Violence or nonviolence – Can personal and national disputes be resolved by the hard work of peacemaking, or by the gun, the bomb, the threat of nuclear attacks?
  • Selfishness or community – Will our national ethos continue to be radical individualism or has the pandemic taught us that we are a common humanity?
  • Isolation or globalization – Will we hide behind the fiction of “fortress America” or join international efforts to achieve security, justice, and care for Planet Earth?
  • Xenophobia or inclusivity – Will we see “others” as threats or as sisters and brothers?

Another way of presenting this dynamic comes from Paul’s letter to the early Christian community in the Greek (Gentile) city of Ephesus. Historians are certain that the letter was written by Paul from a Roman jail, which gives this passage even more authenticity: “[O]ur struggle is with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness…”. (Ephesians 6:12)*

The “struggle for the soul of America” is anything but a political slogan. These life or death choices before the national and individual soul confront us daily with increasing intensity.

The lessons and challenges here for Pax Christi are clear. We cannot be spectators in this struggle, which is always a temptation for spiritual people. As the choices become increasingly stark, we need to continue as actors in this drama, hopefully with greater clarity as we heal this “soul-language” being applied to our time in history.

Phrases from “A Sleep of Prisoners” written in a different context, but applicable to ours, conclude this reflection: “…[O]ur time is now when wrong comes up to face us everywhere… affairs are now soul size…”

*While Scriptural references to “powers and principalities” refer to spiritual warfare, they can well apply to our current realities.

Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.

2 thoughts on “What is our national moral essence?

  1. Knowing beforehand that I sound like a “Kommie-pinko” professor, I nevertheless proclaim loudly and clearly that we shall never acquire the moral essence that Fr. Nangle references in his thought-provoking article as long as we maintain our current economic system based on corporatism which is just an updated version of capitalism. Neither the Obamas, Bidens, Trumps or any other candidate on the horizon backed by Wall Street and their mainstream media will heal our sick soul. My neighbors had their food stamps cut from $200 monthly to $23.! ; weapons manufacturers to kill in Ukraine received 100 billion. I rest my case.
    David-Ross Gerling, PhD

  2. While the conflict in Ukraine is till unresolved, it is time for democratic nations to sue for peace. I know the Vatican is trying to mediate with China to influence Russia. What is the UN doing? I have no idea. There’s a good essay in The Nation for May 15-22, “Negotiation Now,” by Robert Borosage.

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