In March 1861, 150 years ago, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office, to lead his nation at a time of terrible division and violence. What lessons can we learn from Lincoln's character— and about our own Christian responsibility?
On a cool and cloudy day in Washington, DC, the President-elect stepped forward to the speaker's table and prepared to address the throng of nearly 30,000 before him. The day was March 4, 1861, and Abraham Lincoln was being inaugurated as the 16th President of the United States.
The chill in the air reflected the mood of a deeply divided nation. "No inaugural address had ever been presented in such turbulent times. Rumors raced through the capital of threats to Lincoln and of attacks on Washington" (A. Lincoln, Ronald C. White, Jr., p. 388). As the President-elect was preparing to take office, the prospects for averting a shooting war were diminishing. Jefferson Davis had been sworn in as the President of a newly formed Confederate States of America just two weeks before. Seven states had already quit the Union, and four more were soon to follow. Within just 39 days of Lincoln's oath of office, the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, near Charleston, South Carolina. A war that would last four painful years would begin, involving nearly three million fighting men, and leaving more than 620,000 dead.
In Lincoln's address to the assembled crowd, he made it clear that he was prepared to go to war to keep the Union together. And yet, he also labored to set a conciliatory tone, to avert an armed conflict if possible. Toward the end of his speech, he made a powerful appeal to the brotherhood of the nation: "I am loath to close. We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies.…"
Through the following four years, passions ran hot in a polarizing war that even split families. For every household that praised Lincoln's forceful effort to keep the Union together, another reviled him as a tyrant whose actions made a mockery of the Constitution of the United States. Divisions in America ran deep, and President Lincoln personally felt the pain of a divided house: five of his wife's siblings had sided with the Union, eight with the Confederacy (House of Abraham: Lincoln & the Todds, A Family Divided by War, Stephen Barry, p. ix).
Hated by some and idolized by others, Lincoln and his conduct of the war brought out strong emotions from partisans in both the Union and the Confederacy. Yet, as a man, Lincoln was widely respected by friends and foes alike for one quality that many would find surprising in any man in his position. In dealing with individuals, as attested by his contemporaries and by later historians, President Lincoln endeavored to treat all with fairness and dignity, to the extent he possibly could. Whenever in difficult positions, "he fell back on the foundation of his personality: honesty, integrity, compassion, and mercy. He seemed to have virtually no feelings of hate, vindictiveness, or malice" (Lincoln on Leadership, Donald T. Phillips, p. 59). This trait was so prominent that many of his contemporaries thought him weak and irresolute for his leniency. He granted more pardons than any other President, before or since.
Lincoln even seems to have imbued some of his generals with his mood of reconciliation. When Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Union General Ulysses S. Grant gave the Confederate troops a generous gesture of goodwill. Officers were allowed to keep their side arms, and all Confederate soldiers were sent home with their horses and mules, in order to plant their crops for the season. To this offer, General Lee responded gratefully: "This will have the best possible effect upon our men. It will be very gratifying and will do much toward conciliating our people" (White, p. 670).
During the formal surrender ceremony that followed, as Con-federate General John B. Gordon and his men passed before the Union soldiers, no taunts or jeers from the Union lines were permitted. Instead, Union General Joshua Chamberlain gave the order for the "marching salute." Immediately recognizing the honor this expressed to fellow soldiers, Confederate General Gordon wheeled his horse and gave the signal to his own brigades to salute in return. It had a profound effect, for instead of shaming the Confederates, the Union soldiers had treated them with respect (The Passing of the Armies, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, pp. 260–261).
After the Civil War was over, some strident voices called for recriminations against Confederate soldiers and officers. But President Lincoln had left no doubt that he wished not to treat them like criminals, but rather to welcome them back into the fold (Phillips, pp. 60–61). During a post-war rally at the White House, Mr. Lincoln directed the band to play "Dixie" as a tribute to the Southern states.
In his memorable second inaugural address, Lincoln focused not on triumph and victory, but on healing and reconciliation. He uttered those famous words, "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" (White, p. 666). It was President Lincoln's hope that the wounds of war-torn America would heal quickly.
Sadly, after his tragic assassination, not everyone shared President Lincoln's vision. While the next decade saw much progress in "the establishment of public school systems, the granting of equal citizenship to blacks, and the effort to revitalize the devastated Southern economy" (A Short History of Reconstruction, Eric Foner, p. xiii), there was also much corruption and abuse, and scars remain to this day.
One hundred fifty years later, President Lincoln's personal sense of honor, mercy and desire for reconciliation is still needed today—and now more than ever. As a "culture war" divides the U.S. and other Western nations, political opponents reach ever-new levels of anger and vindictiveness. Civility in politics is simply not a reality today, according to veteran political reporters and syndicated columnists Cokie and Steve Roberts, "Not when a Republican lawmaker shouts 'You lie' at the President during the State of the Union. Not when a Democratic fundraising appeal refers to 'fire-breathing tea party nut jobs'... Politicians in both parties run for office by denigrating the very institutions they want to join… the other side is not just wrong but evil" ("We Need Civility," The Pottstown Mercury, November 19, 2010).
Personal spite in America, however, is not just limited to the political stage. Many in our generation have simply not been taught to "turn the other cheek" (Matthew 5:39) and handle conflict constructively. Instead, we see troubled youth murdering classmates and teachers to get back at bullies. We see motorists shooting each other for not yielding on the highways. We see disgruntled employees bringing weapons to work to settle scores. As movies, television programs, and video games glorify acts of vengeance, an angry and unforgiving cancer of the spirit spreads.
Economic problems also deepen personal tensions, as families are forced to live within ever-shrinking budgets. Long-term unemployment has added to the stress of millions, and poverty in the U.S. has soared to its highest level in 50 years ("About 44 million in U.S. lived below poverty line in 2009, census data show," Washington Post, September 16, 2010). For those still working, fears of losing a job can lead to more tension and pressures. Stress from fear of home foreclosures, and spiraling personal debt, can cause tremendous strain on marriages and families. As the U.S. faces its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, people are being tested in ways they have not experienced before. Will these challenges make Americans stronger, or cause them to turn on one another?
Sadly, respected observers expect civil strife—with riots over food and other resources—in our future. Gerald Celente, CEO of Trends Research Institute, foretells a coming chaotic disintegration of the United States. Writer Alfred W. McCoy, in his article "Four Scenarios for the Coming Collapse of the American Empire" warns that several scenarios could combine "in thoroughly unexpected ways, [and] create crises for which Americans are remarkably unprepared, and threaten to spin the economy into a sudden downward spiral, consigning this country to a generation or more of economic misery."
Protests in Europe have already turned violent, as austerity measures have snapped already frayed nerves. The so-called PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain) are now hanging by a financial thread. Union leaders in France have protested the French government's plan to raise the retirement age. Protests in Britain over tuition hikes even turned angry British rioters against the royal family, with a mob attacking a car carrying Prince Charles and his wife Camilla last December. Tensions over economic crises are indeed global.
Now is not the time to be distracted by foolish desires for vengeance. Christ's command for patience and mercy, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 19:19), rings true, now more than ever. The question is, do we love our neighbor? Or, when under stress, do we allow desires for personal vengeance to take over? When money is tight and times are tough, will we take out our frustrations on those around us, treating them like enemies?
Yes, a Christian has been called to a life of spiritual warfare (2 Timothy 2:3). But sometimes we do not recognize the real enemy! Our neighbors, co-workers and family members are not our enemies. Yet, when we are under pressure, we sometimes make choices we later regret. We may say the wrong thing to a loved one, or may "cut off" speaking to family and friends because of words spoken or actions taken in moments of stress or frustration. But the Bible says we must not live that way: "Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, 'Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,' says the Lord. Therefore, 'If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink…' Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Romans 12:17–21).
Who is our real enemy? There is a very angry and spiteful spirit who influences our world, and stirs up hatred among the human family. He is a powerful spirit being who "works in the sons of disobedience" (Ephesians 2:2). At the time just before Christ's return, this being—Satan, the Devil—will cause even greater chaos and unrest: "Woe to the inhabitants of the earth and the sea! For the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, because he knows that he has a short time" (Revelation 12:12). Paul exhorts true Christians to complete our course faithfully, and to "put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil" (Ephesians 6:11).
Just before Jesus Christ returns and sets up His Kingdom, "many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another.... And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold" (Matthew 24:10, 12). The Apostle Paul warns that many in our day will become more selfish and spiteful as condit-ions crumble: "But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphem-ers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty" (2 Timothy 3:1–4). Even some family members will betray one another, as Christ foretold: "But when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be troubled; for such things must happen, but the end is not yet… Now brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death" (Mark 13:7, 12). The days ahead will be a time of growing incivility—and worse!
Thankfully, we do not need to fall into ever-increasing cycles of hatred and animosity. Jesus said that His most faithful followers will be different. They will be called spiritual "Philadelphians" (Revelation 3:7–13), for their kindness to their neighbors and their passionate zeal for the Truth. They will be known for their love for one another (John 13:35)—and even for loving their enemies (Matthew 5:44).
These true Christians will be following the example of Jesus Christ. Even under extreme duress, He refused to hate His enemies. He was scourged and beaten while His executioners taunted Him mercilessly. And yet, He is recorded as saying, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do" (Luke 23:34). Jesus Christ was the Man without vengeance. His example inspired others: the martyr Stephen said almost the exact same words as he was being killed: "Lord, do not charge them with this sin" (Acts 7:60).
When true Christians observe the New Testament Passover (see "Easter or Passover: Which Is for Christians?" on page 22 of this issue), they learn the attitude of true humility toward one another, as Christ taught by example (John 15:15). They learn to be forgiving of others, not lashing out at them (Luke 6:37). They become people of strong personal character, "wise as serpents and harmless as doves" (Matthew 10:16). These are the kinds of people God is looking for today, to prepare for His Kingdom. The question is: What does He see in your conduct, and in mine?
Jesus Christ presented an important parable about recon-ciliation. A man had two sons, one obedient and one disobedient. The disobedient son squandered his whole inheritance on \wine, women and song,\ but one day repented and returned to his father in profound humility.
His father was overjoyed! Though he did not condone his son's sins or lifestyle, he was grateful that his son had found his way to repentance. Seeing his son a long way off, he ran to meet him, hugged him, and tearfully welcomed him back. Later, when the older son vengefully wanted his brother to be rejected for his past misdeeds, his father said "No." Instead, he told his angry son, "It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found" (Luke 15:31–32).
Are we not grateful that God forgives us when we wholeheartedly repent and turn to Him? As recipients of His mercy, if we are becoming like Christ, how can we not be willing to extend our mercy to others—husbands or wives, parents or children, friends or co-workers—even if they have said or done hurtful things to us (Philippians 2:5)? True Christians are to do everything in their power to be "first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy" (James 3:17). Even under stress, Christians must not seek vengeance (Romans 12:19). Vengeance belongs to God, who always judges with ultimate fairness and equity.
During Lincoln's administration, one of the President's many unpleasant duties was to deal with military dismissals. In one such case, the military sought to discharge a young officer for "quarrelling with other officers." Instead of approving his discharge, President Lincoln sent the young man back to his unit with a letter of fatherly advice: "You have too much of life before you, and have shown too much promise as an officer, for your future to be lightly surrendered… Quarrel not at all… No man resolved to make the most of himself, can spare time for personal contention" (White, p. 653). The young officer, James Madison Cutts, went on to become the only soldier in U.S. history to win the Medal of Honor three times.
True Christians are exhorted to follow the same advice. Do not quarrel. Forgive and forget. Do not seek vengeance. Why? Because we are to become like God, and our Father is always "ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abundant in kindness" (Nehemiah 9:17).
One hundred fifty years after the Civil War began, the U.S. is just one of many nations facing unprecedented dangers and challenges. Now is the time for faithful Christians to resist the distraction of conflicts that squander our time and weaken our spirit. Jesus Christ warned, "But take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day come on you unexpectedly.… Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man" (Luke 21:34–36).
Even in tough times—especially in tough times—we must be men, and women, without vengeance!