The better angels

Rev. Paul Escamilla, Senior Pastor

Over the weekend our country celebrated Juneteenth, a day Texas put on history’s calendar. On June 18th, 1865, two thousand Union troops sailed into Galveston, Texas on orders from the President of the United States under the command of Union General Gordon Granger. The General came to Texas to establish the rule of law—specifically, to make clear that slavery had been abolished. The Emancipation Proclamation was by then over two years old, but Texas, during the waning battles of the Civil War, was still practicing slavery. The following day, June 19th, 1865, General Granger stood on the wrought iron-trimmed balcony of the Ashton Villa on the Boulevard in Galveston, and read General Order Number Three for all to hear. The pronouncement contains some of the most dismaying and hopeful words ever combined in a proclamation:

The People of Texas are informed that, in accordance with the Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an
absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former
masters and slaves . . .

The proclamation is dismaying in that the very idea that humans have enslaved human beings, requiring us to rescue ourselves from such a heinous abomination, is one of the deepest and most enduring moral failures and societal traumas in the American story. The proclamation is hopeful in the unequivocal directness and unmistakable clarity of President Lincoln’s order: an absolute equality of personal rights . . .

Domination in human relationships is not tolerable in moral society. But how do we remove such deeply harmful structures from our social arena, and banish such demons and behaviors from our personal lives? Never alone. The Christian gospel is clear that we cannot improve ourselves by ourselves any more than we can sit in our own laps. The letter to the Romans is perhaps the clearest expression of that belief. Growth, whether in personal character or social equity, comes about by a meeting between our own determination to be transformed and sources from beyond us; some combination, we might say, of grit and grace.

The president who directed General Granger to travel to Galveston in order to rise to the height of the Ashton Villa balcony and deliver this pronouncement employed a phrase in his first inaugural speech years earlier that has become heart language for a whole country in the generations since. It expresses our fundamental aspiration to be larger than we are, kinder, more fair, more just. In that address, Lincoln speaks of “the better angels of our nature.” He seems to believe it entirely possible to transcend what we have been, not altogether by our own means, and to change/be changed when change is called for—whether in an attitude or a system—in order to live and live together more justly, more respectfully, more peaceably. May such angels attend us now; and may we be ready to receive their gifts.

Grace and peace.