On July 15, 2017, Rev. Tony Ponticello gave a talk to those assembled at the Community Miracles Center Sunday Gathering in San Francisco, California. Below is a lightly edited transcription of that talk.
It's July 15th and I am here. The title of my talk is "The Better Angels of Our Nature." I love that little meme – the better angels of our nature. That comes from President Lincoln's first inaugural address. It's actually how he ended the address. As we all know, President Lincoln was a wonderful orator. He was a great speaker. He delivered great speeches and they survive still today. They are still seen as inspirational. I'm going to read the last paragraph of President Lincoln's first inaugural address. He gave this speech in March, 1861. He said:
"I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."
President Lincoln was making a big appeal for people to put on their best selves, to listen to the best voice that they had. He wanted them to let go of this idea that they could be enemies with these friends, with these brothers. He was trying. It was a big appeal to the North and to the South to put their animosity away and to connect to the better angels of their nature. Then a month later, the Civil War broke out (laughter). So, it wasn't particularly effective, or it didn't produce the effect that President Lincoln had wanted his speech to produce. However it survives today, and it's still inspirational today.
I first heard this meme, "the better angels of our nature," not from Lincoln's first inaugural speech, because I wasn't aware then that it was from Lincoln's first inaugural speech. It first came to me as the title of a really interesting book that I've quoted on and off here. The book is by a wonderful author and sociologist, Steven Pinker. The book it titled The Better Angels of Our Nature. It is subtitled "Why Violence Has Declined." Steven Pinker writes about a lot of research and facts that show that we are living in the most amazingly peaceful time in the history of our species.
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People don't see the peacefulness or know this, and the public conversation of our time does not reflect this. Yet if you look at the statistics, they are staggering. There is a staggering amount of peace and non-violence going on in our society, in our culture. There is a lot of data that shows this. Steven Pinker proceeds to show, with strong data, how much more human to human violence the average person was subjected to years ago, centuries ago, millennias ago. You can just plot it. It's not like one of those straight lines decreases. (Rev. Tony draws a diagonal straight line in the air.) It's where you can just go (Rev. Tony draws a steep curved, exponentially decreasing line and makes a whooshing sound.) There's just drastically fewer acts of violence on the planet today, per person, than there were in ancient times. I got that meme in my head from Pinker's book, and then afterwards I found out that it comes from President Lincoln's first inaugural.
I remembered the meme again when President Trump got elected in 2016. I said it to myself, and I think I said it publicly, "Let's hope now that Mr. Trump is President, that he will rise to the role, to the office, and that the better angels of his nature will come forward." I remember saying that. I put it forth. I put it out there having gotten it first from Steven Pinker, and then from, of course, from President Lincoln.
Let's talk a little bit first about angels. Earlier, Rev. Brad read those quotations about angels. There are nine I found in the Original Edition of A Course in Miracles about angels. You can't say angels is a major teaching of A Course in Miracles, but angels are in there nine times, and that's a fairly substantial amount of times. They are always talked about positively, and in the way everybody usually thinks of them. There are these Divine, angelic entities. What are they exactly? I don't know, but they come from God.
The word "angel" comes from "messenger." So they are messengers from God. Angels come to help us, to bless us. They come to give us life energy. They come to guard our treasures. Some people will want to relate to these angels metaphorically. Some people want to relate to them practically. It's whatever you like. I think you can do both. They are a beautiful idea.
Here's one quote from A Course in Miracles. "Around you angels hover lovingly, to keep away all darkened thoughts of sin and keep the light where it has entered in." (OrEd.Tx.26.83) It says there are angels hovering all around us, lovingly protecting our light, protecting our grace, protecting our blessing, and making sure we always have the light. Those are the better angels. (laughter) Those are the better angels, and they are all around.
Some people would argue that the idea of angels is a wonderful metaphor. They aren't really practical. These people don't think that angels are actual beings around us. I don't know if it really matters, but I'm always willing to go with the Course when the Course makes a statement. And I don't really care. I'll just take it in, on the level it's being made. Right now I'm going to think about angels hovering all around me lovingly, and they are going to protect my light.
Then there are other quotes where you couldn't even take them metaphorically if you wanted to. Those angel quotes are talking about actual entities, beings who are here. Quotes like this one, "The Atonement actually began long before the crucifixion. Many Souls offered their efforts on behalf of the separated ones, but they could not withstand the strength of the attack and had to be brought back. Angels came, too, but their protection did not suffice because the separated ones were not interested in peace." (OrEd.Tx.2.38)
So when we all fell into the separation, the souls that didn't fall into the separation tried to help us, but we fought them off. After we fought the souls off, the angels came and tried to help us, but we were so strong we didn't accept their help. It didn't work. It's really hard to call that quotation a metaphor. It's talking about events that actually happened. Souls came to try to help us. We fought them off. Angels came but the strength of our separation and attack were too strong to take in their help at that moment.
I'm going to think of that as an actual event. This actually happened, but I am also going to pose that angels are pretty determined. Just because their first volley into helping us didn't produce the results that they would have hoped, they are still around. The angels are still here. They didn't give up on us. They are still here helping us, helping us evolve, helping us heal, helping us grow. The angels are still loving us, loving all the good that we do, and helping us to create a different world. As A Course in Miracles says, eventually manifesting the real world.
The other thing about angels to remember is that lots of people believe in angels – lots of people. Probably more people would say they believe in angels than would say they believe in God. People are much more comfortable with angels, and angels figure into so many of the world's religions. Almost all of the world's religions believe in some sort of Divine, angelic presence. They believe in angels. Some of the angels even have the same names in different religions. Gabriel and Michael – those are common in multiple religions. The idea of angels translates cross-culturally. I'm not going to throw it out as not significant, because some people think it's a metaphor.
I think angels are a really good belief to use to connect with other people. I think we could embrace angels a little more in A Course of Miracles. There are nine references to angels. They are talked about as if they are real. If you are having trouble communicating with people about the God stuff, try the angel stuff. (laugher) Maybe that will work.
There are angels around! They've been helping us since the separation. We fought them off for awhile, but they are really dedicated and hard working. They are succeeding. They are evolving our society and they are making us tremendously less violent than we used to be millennia ago.
I am going to talk about some of Steven Pinker's research now. There is a myth that in our tribal days – think about American Indian culture, the hunter-gather cultures that didn't have governments and states but they were tribal – that humans had a wonderful culture, that they were close to the earth. We believe that they were basically peaceful. This is an absolute myth. It's not true. A lot of these cultures were tremendously violent.
You know ten thousand years ago we were all hunter-gatherers. Ten thousand years ago there was no government, cities, or states of any kind. We were all hunter-gatherers. By all the research and logic, we were actually, incredibly violent. And how do we know this is probably true? We know because we study the tribal societies that still exist on the planet today.
We don't think much about these other cultures. We're so hooked into our Western culture, but there are still a lot of hunter-gatherer cultures that exist, such as ones in the Amazon River basin, and in New Guinea. You can go there and conduct research on them which sociologists have done. I saw some research, some research that Steven Pinker quotes. Researchers picked eight, different, large, long-standing, hunter-gatherer cultures and the sociologists did research as to how many males met with violent death. How many had died violently at the hands of another human being, probably another male?
It was determined that the Jivaro culture in Peru are the most violent. They worship violence. Men are not allowed to marry and breed until they've killed. Usually that means animals on hunts, but it also includes other people. The Jivaro are the ones who shrink heads. They go out and raid other tribes, just so they can get more of those shrunken heads. They have those poisonous spear darts they shoot at other people. They are very, very violent. Sixty percent of every male in that culture will die violently at the hands of another person, usually another male – sixty percent! Think about that. That's huge.
Now the most peaceful of all the hunter-gatherer cultures that they could find were the Gebusi people of Papua, New Guinea. They still are quite violent. For the Gebusi is was fifteen percent of all the males of that culture will die violently at the hands of a another human being. Think about this. There was a good spread of these eight cultures and the most peaceful was still fifteen percent. The least peaceful was sixty percent. The average was about thirty-seven percent.
So in the hunter-gatherer cultures on the planet today, more than one of every three males will die violently at the hand of another human being. Get over this myth that these are idyllic cultures that live close to the earth and live peacefully. All the evidence shows that the rise of states, governments, and cities has been tremendously beneficial for beings to be more peaceful, understanding, and loving with one another.
How many people in our culture, in U.S. and Europe, die violently? In all of the twentieth century, that's all the years in the 1900s, in the U.S.A. and Europe with two huge world wars happening during that time, less than two percent died violently. So at our worst, when we were killing people in mass with atomic technology, we were still killing less than two percent when you have the Jivaro culture at sixty percent. We are really pretty peaceful. Even when we are warring, we are still pretty peaceful.
In the middle ages, one hundred out of every hundred-thousand people died by homicide, by being killed. In the year 2000, one out of every hundred-thousand people died by homicide. So that's a ninety-nine percent reduction in homicidal deaths between the Middle Ages and the end of the twentieth century.
You can also think about torture, mutilation, and the painful deaths that were administered as punishment for non-violent crimes. This wasn't that long ago. You could be put to death if you stole a loaf of bread. It was a capital offense. And you know pulling people's tongues out, cutting their ears off, gouging their eyes out, and cutting their hands off, were standard punishments not that long ago.
We're doing great! That's my message today. We are doing great! There is this cognitive dissonance going on. "Oh, we're living in such violent times! We are at the precipice of an incredible societal disaster." There really is no evidence for that. I know that is part of the general conversation, and I've heard some A Course in Miracles students say that. I've heard well known A Course in Miracles teachers talking about that. "You know if we don't do something .…" Well anything is possible, right? I can't precisely predict the future, but the overwhelming evidence doesn't support that pessimism. We are progressing to less and less violence and towards a more and more peaceful coexistence. It is just this strange, illogical argument that says otherwise.
Even our religions are so much more peaceful than they used to be. One of these people I was listening to quoted the Bible. I was talking to Rev. Brad about this. The passage is from Numbers, Chapter 31. The book of Numbers talks about Moses leading the Israelites. So when you think about Moses leading the Israelites, you generally think of Moses as a pretty good guy. He took the Israelites out of slavery, right? He also waged violent, merciless, war on his neighbors.
This is from Numbers 31. "And the Lord spake saying, ‘Avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites.'" (Numbers 31:1, KJV) So, 12,000 Israelites went into battle. First they killed all the Midianite kings. They then killed all the adult men. Then they took all the livestock. Then they burnt all the cities. Then they took all the women and children captive. Moses then said to them, now this is the quote from the Bible, "Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known a man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves." (Numbers 31:17-18, KJV) Kill all the non-virgin women! Kill all the men children! But keep the virgin women, and little girls and rape them at will!
Now come on. This is Moses. This is the "Good Book." This is religion. These were the Jews. These were the "Chosen People." This is what we thought God was telling us to do? Times our great now! Times are really, really good!
I was listening to another lecture. I really want to thank Garrick Wilhelm because he gave me links for some Ted talks on YouTube. There is another author who is similar to Steven Pinker, but a little different. He's a little funnier. His name is Robert Wright. Robert Wright is a philosopher and sociologist. He talks about these things that we do, the behaviors that we do. He talks about them as games. He talks about how we are playing more and more "non-zero-sum games." I know this is a strange little meme, "non-zero-sum games."
Robert Wright says that war is a "zero-sum game." Somebody wins; some-body loses. You put that together. You get zero. Winner-loser games are zero-sum games. Nothing really happens, because there is a winner and a loser.
We also have the ability to play non-zero-sum games, which means we behave in ways where possibly both parties win. Then there is an actual advantage to the game. There is an actual positive sum. There is an actual positive value. The trouble with non-zero-sum games is that both people can also loose. You are not guaranteed both will win, but at least the game has the possibility of both winning. He says that business, commerce, capitalism – it's a non-zero sum game. You both could win. You go into business with someone so you both can have an advantage.
Think of it. I am less likely to think that I want to bomb the Japanese, if I like driving my Toyota minivan. We aren't going to bomb the people who made our wonderful minivans. We like them. It's that globalization, that commerce that is going on, that is the non-zero-sum game. It's actually capitalism as a constructive force for good.
Robert Wright makes a big pitch, a big argument for capitalism being a positive force. He calls it "business-class morality." There is a business-class morality that is actually evolving the planet in a very positive direction, and I believe the better angels of our nature are helping. President Trump has a business-class morality. It might be a good thing in the long run. It might actually bring more people together. I don't think he wants to fight some of these people because he wants to do business with them. He wants to make some money, so they can make some money. He says this exact thing frequently. He's playing a non-zero sum game.
I thought after he got elected that the better angels of his nature could come forward. Well maybe they are, in some way. I watched a little bit of his trip to England and Europe. He had a nice meeting with the Queen. There were some nice photo opportunities with that. Then he met with the British Prime Minister Theresa May. They came out pretty friendly and holding hands. I read the whole text of their press conference. Some people said he was really rude to her, and he attacked her. In the text of the press conference, I could not find any of that. They talked about how they had a very special relationship and they always would. There was a lot of talk about trade and how important it was to have each other as trade partners.
Then near the end, President Trump talked about his goal as being to denuclearize the planet. That is why he had the meeting with North Korea's Kim Jong-Un. North Korea is big nuclear power and President Trump wants to be friends with these people. He wants to denuclearize the planet. I don't like President Trump, but I can get that he might be playing a non-zero-sum game.
There is a game where you win. I win. Russia wins. We win. North Korea wins. There are a lot of things about President Trump I might not like, but I'm still going to think the better angels of his nature are coming forward. I don't think the angels, after they didn't win the first battle right after the separation, went away. They are still here and look at the good work they are doing.
Look how wonderfully we have evolved. Violence is so drastically reduced that we don't have Moses telling his soldiers to kill everyone except the young virgin girls and then have them at your will. We are living in wonderfully tremendous times. Yes. We have issues. Yes. We have problems, and we can evolve more.
Remember that angels are hovering around us and all about. They are protecting our light and strengthening it. I believe in those better angels. Amen. That's it! (applause) ♥
Rev. Tony Ponticello is CMC's 20th minister. He currently serves as the CMC's Executive Minister (10.19.2021). He is also the President of the CMC Board of Directors. He was ordained by the CMC on Oct. 17, 1997.
c/o Community Miracles Center
San Francisco, CA 94147
This article appeared in the August 2018 (Vol. 32 No. 6) issue of Miracles Monthly. Miracles Monthly is published by Community Miracles Center in San Francisco, CA. CMC is supported solely by people just like you who: become CMC Supporting Members, Give Donations and Purchase Books and Products through us.