Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Interpreting Lincoln's Second Inaugural Sermon, Part 6

Now, we come to the fourth and final paragraph of Abraham Lincoln's second Inaugural Address:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
1. Before interpreting one of the most sublime sentences ever composed in the English language--because the entire fourth paragraph is one sentence, it's important to understand what Lincoln did not say in the three paragraphs leading to it.

First and foremost, Lincoln did not suggest that the war, with all its death and destruction, was an atoning sacrifice for past sins. Were he to have done so would have required him to totally ignore the teachings of the Bible, from which he drew inspiration for this speech. As a student of the Bible, Lincoln was familiar with passages of the New Testament that tell us that there has been one perfect atoning sacrifice in the history of the world, the death of the sinless Savior, Jesus Christ, Who gave His life for all people.

The New Testament book of Hebrews, for example, asserts that the Old Testament system of sacrificing unblemished lambs on Yom Kippur--the Day of Atonement--was a limited foreshadowing of what would be accomplished when the One John the Baptist called "the lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world," yielded up His life on the cross:
Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who approach. Otherwise, would they not have ceased being offered, since the worshipers, cleansed once for all, would no longer have any consciousness of sin? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure.
Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’ (in the scroll of the book it is written of me).” When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “See, I have come to do your will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And it is by God’s will that we [that is, believers in Jesus Christ] have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. [Hebrews 10:1-10]
Lincoln didn't see the Civil War as either punishment or atoning sacrifice. He saw it as a consequence of both Southern sin and Northern complicity in the sin. The sin was slavery.

There is a Biblical phrase, often misunderstood: wrath of God. It refers less to the active anger of God, although both the Old and New Testament confirm that God does become angry, than it does to the way God has structured the universe.

Here's how I often explain the wrath of God to my Catechism students. "What would you do," I ask them, "if I told you to dip one of your hands in a pan filled with water and to stick the finger of your other hand into of the light socket on a lampstand that's plugged in? Would you do it?"

"No," they tell me.


"Because I might get shocked."

"Is that because the electricity is angry with you?"


By the same token, if one repeatedly violates the will of God, as the United States had in accepting the cancerous sin of slavery to infect its soul for long years, in violation of its own principles, there was bound to be a consequence.

We see this exemplified at a personal level in the Old Testament's story of King David. David knew that he had a relationship with God because he was better than anybody else. It was based, as a relationship with God is always based in both the Old and New Testaments, on the gracious willingness of God to receive those who repent for their sins and believe in Him. But David also knew that one can walk away from a relationship with God by allowing sin to take control of one's life.

That happened during one season of David's life when, at a time of spiritual heedlessness, he took another man's wife, got her pregnant, and then, thinking he could use his position to cover up his wrong, he had the woman's husband murdered.

Ultimately, David repented for his sins and I agree with those Bible scholars who say that God not only forgave David, He also restored David's greatness. Nonetheless, there were consequences to David's foray into unrepentant sin. Things didn't go well for him for a period.

Was this God punishing David? No. It was David suffering the consequences inbuilt in God's universe.

One of the most famous conversations Jesus ever had was with a teacher of Israel named Nicodemus. It's recorded in the Gospel of John in the New Testament. Even those who have never read the Bible are likely to be familiar with some of what Jesus said. But check out three key verses from that interchange (the speaker is Jesus):
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God." [John 3:16-18]
When people spurn the new life God has in mind for us and freely offers to us through Christ, they experience the wrath of God. It isn't that God is lashing out at them. On the contrary, people effectively lash out at themselves by refusing to repent or to believe in Christ. Lincoln clearly understood all this.

2. In this address, Lincoln has led the people of the nation over which he presides through a kind of liturgy of confession. What follows is a kind of "go and sin no more" statement.

He charges his countrymen to embrace the lifestyle every sinner who has experienced God's forgiveness has ever been charged to embrace. "With malice toward none..." They are to forgive, be reconciled with, and to actively love those they had called enemies. Many passages of Scripture speak to this:

Jesus taught His disciples to pray, "Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us" (Luke 11:4)

[Jesus]...told them a parable: “Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. (Luke 6:39-42)

"We love because he first loved us." (First John 4:19)

The wages of sin, the appropriate payment for our sin, the New Testament asserts, is death. But, "the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 6:23)

In the midst of the grim and slowly-dying Civil War, Lincoln saw a glimmer of hopefulness. The nation had experienced the horrible consequences of its sin and now repented. It turned its back on slavery, although the unfolding of history would demonstrate that the old sins of bondage and racism could not be easily or quickly exorcised. Slavery and racism, like all human sins, are addictions, from which we're usually detoxified slowly and painfully.

Grateful that America was still alive, that God had not erased this land of promise, which he had celebrated at Gettysburg, Lincoln called his countrymen to demonstrate their gratitude by forgiving each other and by caring for those who had borne the battle and for their widows and orphans.

3. It's interesting that in this paragraph about charity and reconciliation, Lincoln sounds a note of toughness. This shouldn't surprise us. I often tell people that love isn't always how we feel, it's the good for others we sometimes do in spite of how we feel. Love, as the Bible understands it, isn't primarily about emotion. It's a conscious decision to do the right thing, even though that's often the hard thing. What hard things does Lincoln speak of here?:
  • Firmly pursuing "the right," even if that entails danger, sacrifice, and continued war. Although he clearly sees the war being the fault of both North and South, the South must be defeated in the hostilities which that region began.
  • Binding up the national wounds.
  • Caring for the victims of war.
  • Working for a just and lasting peace.
Rarely in the history of the world have conquering powers chosen the harder course of treating vanquished foes with respect and magnanimity. The easier course has been the preferred one, that of making the conquered people suffer for their losses in war.

In this final paragraph, Lincoln signaled, as he had in conversations with Cabinet members, his intention to depart from the precedents of history. He would pursue a Reconstruction policy that would rapidly incorporate the once-rebellious South into America's national life.

Lincoln, with his winsome personal ways and his extraordinary abilities as a communicator, might have had a better chance of selling a conciliatory Reconstruction approach to the Congress and the North than did his rigid, humorless successor, Andrew Johnson.

Yet, history has confirmed the wisdom of Lincoln's intended policy toward the Union's vanquished enemy as surely as the Bible affirms its rightness. In short, policies of reconciliation work; policies of retribution don't.

At the end of World War 1, for example, then-President Woodrow Wilson, who had grown up in the post-Civil War South hating Abraham Lincoln, nonetheless proposed a Lincolnian policy of reconciliation toward vanquished Germany and its allies. Wilson was overruled by the leaders of France, Britain, and Italy, all of whom sought revenge. The result was a festering and resentful Germany that eventually produced Adolf Hitler.

At the end of World War 2, however, the United States, with Britain and France, was able, in western Europe, to enact a Lincoln-like policy of reconciliation, buttressed by the Marshall Plan. The result: a democratic western Europe that remains strong and free today. The US also successfully enacted such a policy in Japan, with equally spectacular results.

The fourth paragraph of Lincoln's address envisioned a wise Reconstruction policy that did more than speak of charity and forgiveness. It commended the living of these things as essential behaviors for the functioning of democracy.

I hope to wrap this series up in the next installment.

[Rob Asghar of America Bug links to this post while saying that Hugh Hewitt, in citing earlier installments of this series, has missed one of my points. I appreciate Rob's link. But I don't think that his and Hewitt's understandings of what I've been writing here are mutually exclusive. In a world of moral ambiguities, it's possible to see war as the consequence of human sin and believe that sometimes, governments and nations have no choice but to wage war. I suspect that I'll address that more in the final installment of the series. Anyway, thanks, Rob!]

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