The Age of Greed

October 3, 2008
abraham lincoln bind up the nations wounds statues healing president bronze bench

Broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, 3rd October 2008

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Next week in the Jewish community we'll observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish year. We'll spend the whole day in synagogue, fasting, confessing our sins, admitting what we did wrong, and praying for forgiveness.

Something like that seems to me essential to the health of a culture. Often we see things go wrong. Yet rarely do we see someone stand up, take responsibility and say: I was wrong. I made a mistake. I admit it. I apologise. And now let us work to put it right.

Instead we do other things. We deny there's a problem in the first place. Or if that's impossible, we blame someone else, or say, it's due to circumstances beyond our control. The result is that we lose the habit of being honest with ourselves.

In America in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of fasting and prayer. It was an extraordinary thing to do. Lincoln, after all, was fighting for a noble cause, the abolition of slavery. What did he or those on his side have to atone for?

Yet America was being torn apart, so he asked the nation to set aside one day for reflection and prayer. "It is the duty of nations as well as of men," the proclamation said, "to confess their sins and transgressions, in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon." It was America's 'day of atonement'.

The result was that two years later Lincoln was able, in his Second Inaugural, to deliver one of the great healing speeches of all time, calling on Americans "to bind up the nation's wounds," and care for those who had suffered during the war and were still suffering.

We're living through tough times globally, and we'll need all the inner strength we have to survive the turbulence, learn from the mistakes of the past, and begin again. The real test of a society is not the absence of crises, but whether we come out of them cynical and disillusioned, or strengthened by our rededication to high ideals.

The age of greed is over. Will the age of responsibility now begin? That will depend on whether we are capable of admitting our mistakes, and renewing our commitment to the common good. Atonement, the capacity for honest self criticism, is what allows us to weather the storm without losing our way.