It was the year 1865 and Abraham Lincoln was preparing his 2nd Inaugural Address. He had prevailed in the 1864 election to a second term of office, but just barely. On the heels of the long civil war this very unpopular president was faced with a divided and polarized nation. And the completion of the election would in no way lessen that strife and conflict.
For example, in all of Boone County only twelve people voted for Lincoln. And those twelve were white men who held property. The rest voted against him and many of those were slave owners. When the election results were announced there was a mass demonstration on the University of Missouri campus. Imagine, students protesting! Have you ever heard of such a thing? This demonstration was different than the most recent one.
The students – children of those same slave owners who voted against Lincoln – gathered to demand that Missouri succeed from the Union.
This most recent election season through which we have passed may have been the oddest in recorded history, but it has not been the hardest. We have had harder times.
Against a backdrop of division, polarization, strife and conflict, Lincoln prepared his words.
They are the words of a statesman in a time of deep adversity. They are the words of a man who was reviled by many, as would soon be evidenced by the assassin’s bullet. They are the words of a man who had suffered as his nation suffered.
They have such a strange ring, these eloquent words from a real statesman, and they stand in stark contrast to what we have heard in recent months. That is exactly why it is important to share them, to hear again these strange sounding words, to remind ourselves that there is a different way of speaking in the worst of times:
“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.” (Abraham Lincoln, from the Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865)
And those are the words that haunt us, that ask if it is possible for us to do the same, or approximate the same or even attempt the same:
“With malice toward none, charity for all … to bind up the nation’s wounds…achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace …”
How difficult it is to not have malice! When contention is the way of the day it is difficult to have charity for all!
As we know from Lincoln’s time, striving for justice and truth creates conflict and division and often drives people apart. The abolition of slavery was just such a cause and necessity.
What Lincoln knew is that even though such collateral damage was often required when justice prevailed, there was also an equally important necessity to bind up the wounds, to tend the unity of the people. This hard work had to be done or else the center would not hold and all would be lost.
It seems to me that, though not in the same degree of strife or despair, we have passed through parallel times of political division. There has been malice toward all and charity for none. Unlike Lincoln’s time, though, we do not have to wait for news or propaganda to arrive; as an angst-laden people we are surrounded, barraged with it from sunup to sundown.
Many of us have contributed to this spirit of rancor, each in our own way. We have not been the solution, but added to the problem. Or we stood passively by, feeling quite helpless to affect or change anything. But now, it seems to me, it is time to take up a different mantle, even as Lincoln took up a different mantle after the long battle.
Much of the same could be said of the apostle Paul, who rarely turned away from a fight of principle. Always insisting on the highest vision of being a Christian he contended with many and found himself cross-ways with many. But Paul also knew that in the beginning and the end we are one body of Christ, one people with one head, called to be peace-makers and agents of reconciliation.
To do this difficult work we must put the good of the nation first ahead of any allegiance to political party. And to do that we will have to rely on the spiritual principles that guide us as a Christian people.
What will be required is a language unlike we have heard as of late, a vocabulary that exceeds the drone of hatred and selfishness. What will be required for this work is a substantial and deep language, the words of a statesman and apostle, words that look toward a future we must create together. What will be required for this moment is a sound unlike the noise that fills the airwaves.
And who are able and willing in the spirit of Lincoln to speak words of malice toward none and charity for all? Who are able and willing to bind up the wounds? Who are able and willing to achieve a lasting peace?
Who are able and willing in the spirit of the apostle Paul to be humble, gentle and patient, forbearing with one another and charitable, sparing no effort o make fast with bonds of peace the unity which the Spirit gives?
It’s easy to be a peacemaker when things are peaceable. Anyone can do that. The real nerve and metal of a peacemaker is known in the midst of conflict, contention, divisiveness and bitterness. Who are able and willing to speak the truth in love then? Who are able and willing to beat their swords into plowshares then? Who are able and willing to judge not lest you be judged then?
Who, I ask you? I will tell you: We are.
Who will accept the commission to go forth in the spirit of Lincoln and of the Apostle Paul to do the hard work of binding up the wounds?
“I would,” you say, “if only I knew how.” Well, let me give you a hint as to how. Let me share a real life story about a father and his son.
One day a dad passed by his son’s room only to hear voices coming out.
“Ethan, whatcha doin’?”
“Dad, “I’m practicing.”
“Practicing? What are you practicing for?”
Ethan was in the second grade. He said, “Dad, you know how tomorrow is Halloween?” Yeah, he knew that.”Dad, you know Timmy?” He did know Timmy. Timmy had just moved into the neighborhood and Timmy was kind of different.
“Dad, Timmy still really likes Barney.” Dad knew the purple dinosaur. “I’m afraid Timmy’s going to get on the bus tomorrow wearing a Barney costume, so I’m practicing. I’m practicing what I will say to the big kids if they’re mean to him.”
Dad left work early the next day and when the bus pulled up and Ethan popped out he said, “Ethan, how was your day?”
“Dad, it was good, it was Halloween.”
“I know, so … how did it go with Timmy?”
“Good, he wore Superman.” Whew.
And at that Dad asked his son, “Ethan, tell me, why were you, a second grader, practicing to help a kindergartner who might have made the fatal error of wearing a Barney costume?”
And this is what Ethan said: “Just once, I wanted to see what it would feel like to do something someone in a story would do.” (Storytelling Magazine, October/November/December 2016)
You see, our children are right. When things are hard we need to what the heroes in our stories would do, who are, after all, our own highest selves. We need to practice to do that. That’s what the world needs from us when it needs us most.
When things look like they couldn’t get any worse and Timmy really might wear the Barney Costume, you need to practice what someone in a story might say and do, what our heroes would say, who are really our highest and best selves. And you never know. You might say something strange sounding like “with malice toward none and charity toward all … we need to bind up the wounds … and find a lasting peace.”