In the aftershock of the mass shootings last weekend and the provocation of disgusting racist rants emanating from the Oval Office over the past two weeks, I have heard commentators remind us that great presidents have called us to our “better angels.” I love that quote from Abraham Lincoln, and I think it’s fitting at this dark moment in our history.
But it’s empty rhetoric without actually looking at who today’s “better angels” are in America and what they are actually doing every day to blunt the toxic effect of this divisive man.
I believe when Lincoln called on us to bring our “better angels” to government and politics, he wasn’t talking about cherubs with little harps. I think he was talking about the “archangel” types. The sort who understand the power of good and the need to use it with a great deal of force.
Those kinds of angels are at work every day making America great by doing good. They are dedicated to the kind of public service that improves our communities, brings people together, relieves suffering, and empowers our fellow citizens to join us in the idea and promise of America. Take a look at the 100,000 AmeriCorps volunteers serving in every state in the union and you’ll see this work in action. Anyone who ever admired Habitat for Humanity or City Year knows that without the backbone of AmeriCorps those organizations would not be effective.
I have witnessed this power for good over the last 30 years. Standing side by side with fierce men and women who saw a huge problem and dedicated themselves to fixing it—AIDS, cancer, LGBTQ rights, poverty, human trafficking, child welfare, and national service to name a few. They engaged in simple acts of citizenship that produced transformative—even historic change. Most of the angels I’ve known were not professional advocates. Instead, they were passionate citizens who used the great power of democracy to build coalitions that demanded change. Good does triumph over evil, but it takes a bit of work.
Take Jeanne White, the mother of Ryan White, a 14-year-old boy from Indiana diagnosed with AIDS in 1984 and tormented by a community ill-prepared to understand his disease. Twenty-nine years ago, Ryan lost his life to AIDS but just days after his death, his mother flew to Washington, D.C., and proceeded to ask the U.S. Senate to pass a bill named in memory of her son. Her efforts worked: the law was passed on August 18, 1990. To this day, the Ryan White CARE Act is the most important piece of domestic AIDS policy in our history. Jeanne White not only changed the course of the epidemic—she changed history.
My friends and colleagues are alternately paralyzed or enraged by the abhorrent behavior of President Donald Trump. I’m not sure either end of that spectrum has the power to defeat him. I believe what many of us are looking for are direct and meaningful actions by citizens who harness the power required to defeat Trump and his enablers. Specifically, countless acts (not ideas, not words, not thoughts, not prayers and certainly not tweets) of good happen every day. The power of good is actually happening and getting stronger by the day. I see it, I participate in it, and I use it to remind myself that the America I already know is great—is an America that is good.
If you understand these thoughts, you’ll know what action you can take. Register voters. Volunteer for an issue you are passionate about. Look at where hate flourishes and bring some love there. Remind your family and friends in conversation that racist, misogynistic division is not what keeps us together as a family, a community, or a nation. We cannot accept leadership that divides us with such shameful behavior, and we must act against it.
Tony Kushner ended the play Angels in America with the following words: “The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.” Indeed, it has.
Veteran lobbyist Tom Sheridan is the author of Helping the Good Do Better: How a White Hat Lobbyist Advocates for Social Change, an unvarnished view of the lessons learned by partnering with unusual political allies—from rock stars to Republicans—to enact meaningful reform. Like all social reform, changing the hearts and laws of this country as they relate to guns takes massive action. To find out more about how you can become active, check out the website here.