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Thursday, February 26, 2015
Psalm 19:9 The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever: the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.
On March 4, 1865, Abraham Lincoln delivered a Lenten sermon. More typically, it is called his Second Inaugural Address. But it was surely spoken in the spirit of Lent. It speaks of a painful journey and it describes what must be put down before Hope can be taken up.
The Civil War continued as Lincoln spoke. But the outcome appeared clear and Lincoln could with comfortable understatement describe, “The progress of our arms” as “reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all.”
The address, at 711 words and delivered in less than six minutes, unpacks much public theology over its brief course. He quoted scripture without giving chapter and verse references because his audience would not have needed them. The King James Bible provided a common language in which most were fluent.
Lincoln noted that North and South “read the same Bible and pray to the same God.” But Lincoln did not merely use the Bible for rhetorical effect: He dared to approach the question that disturbs our sleep and hovers unanswered above the death of every innocent child.
Where was God?
As 750,000 lay dead: Where was God? Among the piles of amputated limbs and rotting flesh: Where was God? And where was God as America invented, perpetuated and prospered under a system of race based terrorism?
Of course, we have had no shortage of God talk in recent American political discourse. But mostly that talk comes in the form of gratitude to a God that led “our side” to victory over the other. Astoundingly, Lincoln, total victory in view, speaks of a God sitting in Judgment of us all: the rebellious South and the victorious North. If only he could have blamed it all on Southern Slavery or just slavery – but, no; he spoke of “American slavery.”
Neither side was innocent.
Not the unapologetic Southern defender of institutional dehumanization. But also, not the Northern architects of fugitive slave laws and endless compromise.
This day, he spoke of the Northern blood spilled not as heroic or even tragic. He spoke of that blood as a manifestation of divine justice:
Yet, if God wills that it continue until … every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
And not just the blood of the enemy; but our side’s as well. “You there in the back – the amputee in the blue uniform: you got what you deserved; didn’t you know that: ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”
It is difficult to imagine a modern leader expecting so much from his listeners. It is difficult to imagine a modern audience ready to hear what Lincoln had to say. He demanded an acknowledgement that the victors stood under Judgment. He demanded an exhibition of Christian humility. He called for a time of laying down and setting aside as a necessary prelude to laying claim and picking up.
There is a time for all things.
Lincoln could not have said at Gettysburg, as the war’s outcome lay in the balance, what he said at the second inaugural. Those of us who are less conversant with the church calendar may forget that Lent calls for confessions that may seem out of place when Easter arrives.
Lincoln knew that a “lasting peace among ourselves” was impossible until triumphalism was laid down. He knew that victory gave no permission to claim certainty regarding the “purposes of the Almighty.”
He knew that a new birth could not arise from old hatreds.
As we stand on the edge of Easter’s victory, what must we put down before Hope can be taken up?