Light and Darkness: Some thoughts on this Presidential Inauguration Rooted in another Inauguration in 1865
Many thoughts move through my mind on this third Monday in January. Just up the street from where I live, the Second Inauguration of President Barack Obama is taking place. Today is also the official celebration of the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And also, later this week, my rectory will be filled to overflowing with priests and seminarians here for the March for life, which takes place on Friday. Yes, so many thoughts: thoughts of civil rights and racial justice, thoughts of the unborn, and their right to life, thoughts of a president, and this nation. So many thoughts.
Somehow, my mind drifts back to 1865, to the 2nd Inaugural Address of President. Abraham Lincoln. Many things also came together on that day: the nation was reeling in the aftermath of the terrible war that killed almost 600,000 soldiers and others. (If that number were projected forward percentage-wise to today’s population, it would mean that over 6 million people in this country would have lost their lives).
President Lincoln, likely out of grief and surely out of reverence, kept his remarks brief that March day. He too thought of life, and he also thought of racial justice, and the connection of a great moral issue to the health of this nation.
Surely he, and the whole nation, was relieved that the war was ending, but President. Lincoln also reflected, in this brief Second Inaugural Address, on the Justice of God, and how that justice cannot ultimately stay silent in the face of grave evil. Lincoln ponders in the address, if the just concluded war was not somehow an exercise of God’s justice: God allowing the war as a way calling the question of the grave evil of slavery, and by extension, calling us to greater racial justice.
Looking ahead, Lincoln also seems to warn that our sufferings may not be ended if we failed to act with justice in the critical days of reconstruction that lay ahead.
I would like to present excerpts from President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and then apply some of it to us on this third Monday in January 2013, a day so filled with meaning regarding race, and life, and the fundamental question: “Whither our Nation?” Here are some excerpts:
[Slavery] constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war…[No one] expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained….Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. 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, but….The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “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.” [Matt 18:7].
If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses….He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and 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.” [Ps 19:9]
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, March 4, 1865]
Yes, a grave injustice had bewitched this land, Slavery and racial injustice. And Lincoln saw something of the justice of God in allowing a terrible punishment to grip this nation, a punishment meant to sober us and avenge the injustice that long awaited God’s decisive action.
This is not to sanction every act of the North in the Civil War, only to say that injustice sets loose evil, and that, at some point, God delivers us to our collective iniquity and that we who would sow in the wind, must now reap the whirlwind (Hosea 8:7). For every drop of blood exacted by the slave holder’s wrath, for every dollar gain through injustice, now the blood would be required back from an unjust nation, and from a nation that had profited on injustice every dollar would be paid back.
That was 1865. What of 2013? The blood of injustice still flows, especially through abortion. And many of the same arguments used for slavery are now used for abortion: personhood, privacy, personally opposed but unwilling to infringe on others rights (?!) to abort, etc. (More on that HERE) The blood has reached epic proportions and cries to heaven for vengeance, (Gen 4:10; Rev 6:10ff). God’s justice cannot remain forever silent.
It is a great irony that today a President is re-inaugurated whose presidency speaks to us of racial healing and justice, a theme that so occupied the mind of President Lincoln and the nation in 1865. And yet, that same president stands wholly in support of an equally and arguably worse injustice, a bloodshed whose numbers (in gallons of blood) far outweigh the grave injustice of Slavery and Jim Crow.
As of today when I write this, 54,559,615 children have been unjustly murdered in this land by abortion. And it is not just the mothers who have done this that are culpable. It is this nation, collectively that is guilty. It is those who have sought abortion, those who perform them, those who pressure women to have them, those who vote to uphold this evil as a “right.” It is those who remain silent and those who vote for those who uphold this grave evil, or downplay its horrific reality. It is those who fail to provide reasonable alternatives and resources for women in crisis. It is those who live unchastely and fail to reproach those in their family members who live that way.
Yes, to a large extent few of us can fail to escape the fact that we have contributed to, even indulged in an unchaste, unjust and and unholy culture that leads to the death of millions every year. Abortion results largely from unchastity and the refusal of Americans, collectively to accept the consequences of our sin.
The President who stands before us today is largely a product of our culture. It is easy to demonize him. He is, in fact, the most virulent advocate of abortion who has ever occupied the Oval Office. So extreme is he in this view that many members of his own party cannot stand with him in this matter. He supported partial birth abortion, a procedure so grim that even “pro-choice” Americans are largely aghast. He also voted against legislation that children “born alive” i.e. children who survive the attempt to kill them in abortion, should then be allowed to live. No, said the President in his Senate days, such children who make it out of the womb alive after a “botched” abortion can still be killed thereafter, with impunity. Even most pro-choice Americans find this a bridge too far. Yet our President voted for such measures.
But as I say, he is a product of “us” collectively speaking. It is easy to demonize him, and he is certainly wrong. But blaming, or simply focusing on him, does not let the rest of us off the hook. We will have to collectively pay for our national sin. God’s justice will not remain forever silent.
And so, on this day of Inauguration, many thoughts flood my mind: prayers for a president, gratitude for racial healing, but also the alarming, ironic and paradoxical reality that a President (Mr. Obama) who points to the healing of one sin, but also points to a new and grave injustice.
We are so often selective in our moral assessments. God help our nation. For even as we celebrate a growing victory over injustice (slavery and racism), and it is/was a grave injustice, we tolerate another grave injustice with an even higher death toll.
President Lincoln rightly warned, with the searing drama of an ancient prophet that God would only tolerate injustice for so long. We cannot go on living outside of God’s justice and expect good results. Sooner or later we will encounter the consequences of what we do. Lincoln said that every drop of blood unjustly shed would be repaid, every dollar unjustly earned would be exacted, that we would pay to the full for our injustice. What was true in 1865 is no less true today.
Our only hope is collective and national repentance. Only then can the floodgates of mercy open. But, as our sad history often shows, collective repentance is hard to come by. Too many are on the take, too many profit by sin in a temporary and worldly way. The usual human story is that we are stubborn in our injustice, and only the severe measure of God handing us over to our iniquity has salutary effects.
Would that we could repent, but as for now the scales of justice are steeply tipped against us, our repentance seems unlikely, and the blood of the murdered cries ever louder from the rich soil of this land. God will not remain forever unmoved from that cry for justice.
I realize that it is not possible for me to write these remarks, or for you, dear reader, to read them, outside the prism of politics. But I want to be clear that as a Christian, and an American, I pray for our President (and nation) this day. I ask God’s blessing upon him, and his family. I pray that God will give him strength, and above all, wisdom. I cannot, and do not align myself with some Americans who seem to have a very personal dislike of President Obama, or who demonize him as though he were personally evil. I do not think this of him, nor do I dislike him. As a Catholic, I see it as my duty to pray for him in accord with the words of Scripture:
I [Paul] urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior. (1 Tim 2:1-3)
If the early Christians could pray for Nero, I can surely pray for our current leaders.
That said, it is clear that there are a number of positions and policies of our current president is gravely troubling, especially issues related to human life and religious liberty. Let me be clear though, my remarks in this blog should not be seen as directed and one man, President. Obama. My remarks are directed ultimately to us collectively as a nation.
As President Lincoln spoke of his concerns in 1865 for the nation, he did not simply focus his remarks on one man, e.g. Confederate “President” Jefferson Davis, or merely on one segment of the nation, the South. He spoke of a nation, and to a nation and summoned us to remember that we must act justly, and that if we chose to live outside of God’s justice, the toll, already so high, could become far worse.
And what of us today? Today we inaugurate for a Second Term an African-American President and we rightfully celebrate significant progress in racial justice. And yet, another, grave, and newer injustice has entered this land, the shedding of vast amounts of innocent blood in abortion. And this nation continues to legally sanction that very killing of the innocent as a “right.” This cannot stand.
I speak to day of the President only to pray for him and for his conversion in terms of the sacredness of human life, the proper understanding of Marriage and sexuality, and the proper respect for Religious Liberty. But in praying for him, I pray also for this nation, so soaked in blood. May we repent before it is too late, before the dam of God’s mercy breaks and we are drowned by the very innocent blood we have individually and collectively shed.
God bless our President and the Congress, and Go bless the United States of America.