Whenever I get discouraged by news headlines and problems of all kinds, I not only pray more earnestly, I also grab a good history book. For I am a firm believer that history can both encourage and guide us. (My minor in college was History and Government.)
Recently I saw an interview with historian Doris Kearns Goodwin about her book Leadership in Turbulent Times. I was so intrigued, I bought the book! Goodwin said three of our greatest U.S. presidents lived during extremely turbulent times: George Washington (Revolutionary War and Founding of the Nation), Abraham Lincoln (Civil War), and Franklin D. Roosevelt (The Great Depression and World War II.)
She stressed that people who lived during these turbulent times experienced “enormous anxiety,” because they didn’t know how things were going to turn out. It’s understandable for us, during this time of major upheaval (COVID-19, political divisiveness, extreme financial insecurity, ever-present racism, etc.) to be experiencing enormous anxiety too. But leaders and citizens in the past, faced their immense challenges together. Kearns focused on FDR, saying the personal qualities that helped make him such an effective leader were these: his empathy, his acknowledgement of his mistakes, his grasp of the situation, and his reputation for trustworthy communication.
FDR involved all citizens in making sacrifices for the common good. He called for rationing of food and other goods. For example, citizens were allowed one cup of coffee a day. When rubber became scarce, he asked women to donate their old girdles, and kids their rubber toys. Immediately, tons of rubber were collected for the war effort. He emphasized that every citizen had a part to play. In our current crisis, we too are being asked to make certain sacrifices. We suspect even more might be asked of us. How are we responding?
I read a another good article on the importance of a historical perspective. Frederick E. Hoxie, professor emeritus of history at the University of Illinois, writes, “There are other moments in our past that were similarly dark” to our own times. (He wrote this before COVID-19.) Here are two of his examples.
Concerning racism: March 1857. Chief Justice Roger Taney announced in the Dred Scott Decision that African-Americans could never be citizens. President James Buchanan and his fellow Democrats applauded the decision. The newly formed Republican Party despaired.
Concerning journalists: January 1890. Jacob Riis published How the Other Half Lives, “a searing portrayal of human poverty” using intimate photos of New York Tenement life. (Go to “mymodernmet Jacob Riis photographs” to see some of the actual photos. They’re incredible.) While the book shocked people, it would take many years before any meaningful reform would occur. Why? Because most politicians at that time were more interested in operating their political machines and winning partisan battles over tariffs and the gold standard. While millions languished in poverty, the rich enjoyed their “privileged lives” with no wage and labor laws, no public health standards, no environmental controls, and no federal income tax.
Hoxie writes, “Today we see echoes of these sad times–indifference to poverty and mounting environmental crises, combined with political paralysis.” (And now COVID-19.) We might think these examples suggest we wait for a great man or woman to come and save us. But, Hoxie argues, these periods of reform “were set in motion by thousands of people who demanded an end to apathy and despair, and called for specific changes and innovations to improve public life.” Such public action also relied heavily on free speech and a free press.
We Christians embrace a faith that is constantly challenging us to look beyond our own individual lives to the lives of our brothers and sisters around the corner as well as around the world. What’s more, we believe our God is active and alive in human history—and in us—to bring about a better world. The worst thing we can do is despair. The best thing we can do is pray and then do something specific–large or small–to help bring about that better world for which we long.
What other lessons can we learn from history that could help us now? Do you see God at work in today’s world? If so, where and how?
After the song, I am putting the link to a 4 minute video put out by the Jesuits. It is Fr. Arturo Sosa’s short reflection entitled “What Part of the Path to God Does COVID-19 Show Us?” Fr. Sosa, originally from Venezuela, is the Superior General of the world-wide Society of Jesus.
The song today is Phil Wickman’s “Living Hope.” He reminds us that for us Christians, hope is a person: Jesus Christ.
Here is the link to Fr. Sosa’s short reflection. Closed caption is available. It is also available in Spanish.
I welcome your responses below. The Spirit can speak through all of us.