The Oscars are over, and Daniel Day Lewis won the best actor award for his portrayal of our 16th President in “Lincoln.” Somewhere over the Atlantic, I treated myself to the movie, thoroughly impressed at how it captured a period that has always fired my imagination. (Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Lincoln was one of my favorite reads from last year, a book my dad and mom enjoyed and that kept me up until 2 a.m. one morning when visiting them).
Most of us know at least part of the famous “Gettysburg Address.” Far fewer are familiar with the majestic cadences of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Delivered on March 4, 1865, the speech is now engraved on the right wall of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. After climbing the long stairs leading up to the shrine, I snapped this shot of the speech:
All 699 words of the address can be found here.
As I stood in the March chill reading its words, I came away with a conviction:
This speech is deeply theological, designed for listeners who appreciate theology.
What does Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address tell us about God? What does it teach us about ourselves?
Let’s look at a handful of passages from the speech to answer these questions.
“Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.”
North and South alike were cut from the same religious cloth, that of Protestantism. Here God is the ruler over all, sovereign among the nations. Both were familiar with Old Testament narratives of battle, from the story of Joshua and the fall of Jericho (Joshua 6) to unlikely victories over superior forces, such as Gideon’s triumph with a small band of 300 against the Midianite army (Judges 6). Yet beyond the obvious irony of each side asking the same God for victory when to grant one petition was to deny another, Lincoln is making an appeal to common ground. His unspoken question would have been obvious to the listener: Do we not serve the same God? If we do, then another question naturally follows: How can we then be tearing at each others’ throats?
“It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces…”
Here is the clearest condemnation in the speech of the practice of slavery. From our perspective more than a century later, it’s difficult to appreciate just how radical abolitionism was. Southern preachers defended slavery based on some New Testament passages, including Paul’s admonition for slaves to obey their masters (Colossians 3:22) and Paul’s return of the runaway, Onesimus, to his owner, Philemon (Philemon 1:12). It was only with time that other passages, such as Galatians 3:28 – “there is neither slave nor free, but you are all one in Christ Jesus” (NIV) – came to carry greater weight, together with appeals to a broader New Testament ethic of love.
“…but let us not judge, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”
The “judge not” reference is to Matthew 7:1, and is one of the most quoted (and misused) passages in the New Testament. (Russell Frazier does a good job of explaining the passage). What is important is that Lincoln chose the path of reconciliation, quoting the “judge not” passage as an appeal to his listeners to be kind toward those who in coming months would no doubt be militarily defeated. He was setting the stage for what he hoped would be a gentle period of reconciliation between estranged brothers.
At the end of the quote, Lincoln paints a God who “has His own purposes.” We are not privy to why God does what God does. Paul says that we “see only reflection, as in a mirror. Then we shall see face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12a, NIV).
“Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.”
This verse is embedded in a narrative where Jesus reminds his disciples that the Kingdom of God is all about children (Matthew 18:1-11). He is critical of those who “offend” little ones, telling them that the offenders are better off dead by drowning (v. 6). The average age of a soldier at the time of the Civil War was 25, yet estimates are that at least 100,000 soldiers in the Union Army were under the age of 15, having lied about their age at the time of enlistment. As Lincoln toured battlefields, he would have been struck by the corpses of mere boys, juvenile soldiers who yet had given their “last full measure of devotion.”
“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that his mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet if God will that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, until every drop of blood drawn by 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.'”
The first phrase is crucial, affirming an essential principle: We do not curse those who oppose us. We can only bless! But we are not God, and God has a different calculus. Here Lincoln appeals to the justice of God. The image is of scales, much like the message written by the hand on the wall: “You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting” (Daniel 5:7, NIV ). The fairness of God is a longstanding attribute, understood in Abraham’s plea for God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah: “Will not the judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25, NLT)? Likewise, Lincoln at the end of the paragraph quotes Psalm 19:9, affirming that God’s judgments are just.
What are we to make of Lincoln’s theology of judgment? In our individualistic culture, particularly at the start of the 21st century, we have a hard time accepting that God judges individuals, to say nothing of entire peoples. Yet here it appears in bold terms: The casualties of the war are the judgment of God upon slavery. Does God still act in this way? Lincoln gives us much to think about. On the one hand is a justified hesitancy to “connect the dots” on other issues, but it must be admitted that Lincoln does so in a way that is at once both eloquent and plausible. At the same time, his view of God seems more attuned to Old Testament theology than what our understanding of God has become in the light of Christ. Law is untempered with grace, at least in this paragraph.
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right…”
What a breath of fresh air! The “with malice toward none, with charity for all” is the phrase most often quoted from the address, yet it is followed by a striking expression of humility. We must be “firm” in the right, yet open for God to show us what is right. God’s truth does not change, yet we are only human, and as such, are imperfect interpreters of that truth. No matter how firm we are in our understanding of God’s truth, we must always in humility ask God to give us more light. For those who all their lives had believed that those whose skin color was black were inferior to those whose skin was white, this new light of equality would have been very troubling, seen as simply wrong by many of his listeners, North and South. Long-held and deeply entrenched opinions were not easily changed and those on both sides of the issue needed to model humility. Lincoln showed them the way.
“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.”
There were walking wounded all around Lincoln, and no less so today. Of 100 soldiers who return from Iraq or Afghanistan, 11 to 20 will suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). What are we doing to help these men and women who put themselves in harm’s way for others?
Lincoln ends the speech on a note of peace. Ours is to “cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Jesus said: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matt. 5:9). Jesus had a preferential option for peace. How about us? On Sundays, we shake hands with fellow worshipers, and “pass the peace” of Christ. Is this a church-only tradition, or do we do everything we possibly can to make sure our leaders know that we are a peace-loving people? Lincoln knew what we must remember: Wars are easy to start but very difficult to finish. Are we leading lives as followers of the Prince of Peace (Romans 12:8)?
Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address makes multiple references to Christianity, particularly God as understood in the pages of the Old Testament. Yet in its appeal for peace and reconciliation, it strikes a tone consistent with the larger ethic of the New Testament. Its themes still resonate when we face issues that divide us. Let us pray for understanding and the gracious attitude of our nation’s 16th President, for “malice toward none, with charity for all.”
Photo credit: Indie Wire