Today, as Gabriel dutifully reminded me over chocolate chip muffins, is President’s Day. Usually not one for such things, I thought I would give a patriotic cum theological shout out to Abraham Lincoln. As it happens, it’s a shout out that also echoes the themes of our Lenten Sermon Series on Idolatry, Counterfeit Gods.
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, though panned by its original hearers, is to my mind the best piece of theological writing an American has ever produced (Well, at least it takes a bronze to Rick Warren and Joel Osteen).
Yes, that was sarcasm.
A great book I’d recommend to anyone is Ronald White’s Lincoln’s Greatest Speech, which analyzes the address in theological terms.
As you probably- should- know Lincoln changed his mind about slavery. Lincoln wrestled long and hard with theological questions raised in his mind by slavery and the Civil War. In a private letter to a newspaper in Kentucky, he wrote that both the South and the North would be judged for complicity in the sin of slavery, and that such judgment would ultimately cause people “to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God.”
In his essay “Meditation on the Divine Will” he reflected:
“In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party…”
Lincoln’s theological wisdom lay in being able to distinguish the relative justice of our finite causes from God’s will and work in the world. That both sides of a conflict always claim God’s blessing should give us humility. That God may very well be against both sides in a debate should give us pause. This is exactly why Lincoln’s address is much more theologically sophisticated and biblically grounded than, say, ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ which sees only God acting in a very unnuanced and human way on behalf of one side of a conflict.
Where the author of the ‘Battle Hymn’ looked at the Civil War and saw divine affirmation of their point of view, Lincoln looked at it and saw only God’s judgment on both sides.
Not only was Lincoln’s address prescient for his time, I think it’s a helpful, prophetic word for us today, as so many have staked out uncompromising footholds in the black/white, red/blue, Rep/Dem, Fox News/MSNBC partisan warfare that divides and paralyzes our nation. When friends and fellow citizens find themselves on opposite sides of an inflammatory issue, the recriminations and self-righteousness can be ferocious. It is as true today as it was in Lincoln’s.
Using Lincoln’s theological insight, I think one could make the argument that our present partisan impasse is God’s judgment upon the nation. Following the reasoning, a theologian like Lincoln might speculate that what our nation presently suffers is divine punishment for absolutizing and making idols of our political ideologies.
For putting our parties and politics over people.
This President’s Day I think a theologian like Lincoln might echo Jesus himself and remind us that we must always be aware that God’s purpose is probably something different from the purpose of any party, group our ideology. Therefore it is not a good idea to act as though one side or the other is in possession of the absolute unfiltered truth.
After all, this is the season of Lent when we prepare ourselves to recall that Christ took God’s judgment upon himself, commanding us not to judge others.