Republicans and Democrats. Conservatives and Liberals. Baptists and Catholics. Believers and Atheists. Black and White. Straight and Gay. Citizen and Immigrant. Men and Women.
We have many divisions in our American society. This has always been a strength and a weakness. We are “One nation under God”. But many of us are wondering if our diversity will eventually tear us apart. It did once.
I just finished reading a classic book about Abraham Lincoln, Lessons in Spiritual Leadership, by Elton Trueblood. Wow! Talk about a divided country. During his presidency we went through a Civil War. More soldiers were killed in that war than any war in American history – brother against brother.
It was Abraham Lincoln who quoted the Bible when he said, “A house divided against itself shall not stand” (from Matthew 12:25). This was part of his speech as an Illinois senator and launched him into the presidency. At this time in American history, each state could decide if it wanted slavery or not. The country was divided on this issue. Below is the excerpt in its context from his speech.
A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.
When he became President, the stage was set. States began to leave the Union. Battles were fought. Soldiers were killed. Lincoln vowed to save the country.
Lincoln soon learned that slavery was not the most important issue. The issue of the continuation of democracy was at stake. As President, Lincoln proclaimed, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” Such a policy was hated by extremists on either side. But the Union was saved.
Ironically, both sides of the issue believed they were doing God’s will. Slavery is taught in the Bible and many of God’s leaders had slaves. The Bible never condemns slavery. But the Bible teaches freedom for all. Lincoln had such a high respect for God’s will and Word that he refused to claim God was on his side. He allowed God’s sovereignty to prove God’s will.
Though Lincoln was prepared to save the union, even if it was ‘half slave and half free’, it became apparent this could not be done. The only way to save the Union was by abolishing slavery.
Lincoln was heart-broken over his country. As he witnessed the violence and bloodshed, it grieved his heart. Andrew White, later President of Cornell University, said, “His face seemed to me one of the saddest I have ever seen.” The war took a personal toll on Lincoln.
Both sides of the issue hated war. But one side would make war rather let the nation survive without their issues compulsory. The other side would accept war rather than let it perish. So the war came and the nation survives.
My hope is that we will resolve our differences before it gets ugly. Issues are always more complicated than most of us realize. All positions have something wrong with them. Lincoln was opposed to both war and the oppression of slavery. The task of good leadership is to choose the least damaging among all the options.
it is always right to do right. Yet, we must ‘keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). Unity must never be sacrificed at the cost of Truth. Truth will win in the end. Truth will ultimately set us free (John 8:32).
As a final note, Lincoln’s knowledge and respect of the Bible was a foundation for his decisions and policies. At one time, he said about the Bible, “… it is the best gift God has given to man… All the good Savior gave to the world was communicated through this book. But for it we could not know right from wrong. All things most desirable for man’s welfare, here and hereafter, are to be found portrayed in it.”