“I Miss Abe”: Leadership In a Politically Polarized Climate

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Surprised that tears would accompany my visit to the Abraham Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois, I pondered, “Why the tears?” How could a simple walk through a historical museum elicit such a strong emotional response? I’m not a historian, nor a Lincoln scholar. I am a citizen of a country that is torn by a myriad of divisions, racial and political divisions among them. After some reflection, I believe my response was in part due to the parallel that exists between Lincoln’s day and our own.

Like the days during our civil war, our culture is marked by political and cultural polarity. Deep divisions are evidenced on almost every news broadcast and in almost every newspaper. Even ordinary conversations in coffee shops and around dining room tables reveal the great political and racial divides. As a follower of Jesus I understand there will come a future day when Jesus makes the world right. But as a follower of Jesus I also long for a more immediate fulfillment of our Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” I long for the day when history comes to a conclusion and God’s kingdom is revealed in its fullness. But I also long for a greater fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer in our own time. I believe it is possible to experience a preview of that future kingdom now. I believe Jesus taught us to pray for it and work towards it.

My visit to the Lincoln museum revealed a time in America when Jesus’ prayer began to be answered even in the midst of political and racial polarities, even more deeply rooted than they are in our own day. The animosity during Lincoln’s day wasn’t just expressed in mutual insults uttered during split screen political monologues on the nightly news. Rather the animosity was expressed in a Civil War, in which more Americans died than in any war before or since. A record 620, 000 Americans perished as result of that conflict.

How did our nation survive that kind of carnage? How were evidences of a Kingdom ethic revealed during an era of conflict and war? I along with countless others believe it was because of the able leadership of our then President, Abraham Lincoln. What was it about Lincoln’s leadership that enabled him to navigate such a divisive period of history? Here are just a few qualities that come to mind:

Lincoln was able to strategically engage others with whom he disagreed: In today’s political climate the working assumption seems to be, “If you disagree with me, you are my enemy.” Another way of putting it is, “if you disagree with me, you either fear me or hate me.” As a result, there is an inability and/or unwillingness among our politicians to work together and to show respect toward those with whom they disagree. Lincoln not only respected his political opponents, but he invited many of them on to his cabinet. In her book, A Team of Rivals Doris Kearns-Goodwin reminds us how Lincoln invited into his cabinet men that competed against him in the race for the highest political office of our land. Our current political leaders would do well to learn from our 16th President, engaging and respecting those with whom they disagree.

Lincoln was not reactive but rather a man of principle: Lincoln lived during a day, when reactivity marked the cultural landscape. He was harshly criticized by those who believed he was too slow to free the slaves and others who attacked him for his desire to free slaves. His contemporaries mercilessly criticized him. Yet, rather than retaliate in kind, Lincoln was able to steer a straight course and followed a well-tuned inner compass as he led our nation without rancor or defensiveness.

Lincoln believed in Divine Providence: Lincoln’s moral and political principles were rooted in a rule of law that stands above humanity and to which he believed all men were accountable. He also realized that God is the ultimate judge. He acknowledged that both the North and the South appealed to the same God. Yet, he still maintained that both sides in the great conflict were accountable to God who stands above both sides and even all sides. Here is an excerpt from his second inaugural address:

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 let us judge not, 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. “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.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, 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.”

While volumes could be written about the nature of Lincoln’s religious faith, he clearly believed in divine providence even though he was not a member of any particular religious group or denomination. He once said,

“I never joined a church because the churches of my day required you to subscribe to a particular doctrine or creed.  I told a minister who was trying to recruit me that if I ever found a church that would inscribe over its altar only two requirements, I would join that church with all my heart: The first requirement would be, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart.’ The second requirement would be, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’”

Though the exact nature of his faith may be debated, it is clear that Lincoln had a strong faith in the Providence of God and an allegiance to a moral law, which all people are obligated to obey.

Lincoln was a man of principle: His belief in God enabled him to have a well-calibrated moral compass. Lincoln was aware that a giant economic engine fueled slavery in the South. Europe purchased cotton harvested by American slaves. Wealthy plantation owners enjoyed rich benefits while slaves suffered cruelty and injustice. Lincoln did not allow the economic benefits of slavery to blur his moral vision. Even as a young man, when Lincoln had personally witnessed that injustice it forever marked him as one who upheld the principle of “liberty and justice for all.” Lincoln was ultimately driven by justice, rather than political popularity, economics or personal advancement.

Lincoln’s life was marked by difficulty and hardship: Lincoln grew up in a family of modest means in rural America in what was then the Wild West. As a result, he worked hard and had only one year of formal education. As a child he lost his mother and then later his sister. As a young man the women he admired passed away. Following that loss, experienced deep depression and even thoughts of suicide. Three of his four children preceded him and his wife Mary in death. Lincoln also lost friends during the Civil War. Abe was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He could identify with the plight of the poor and the oppressed. When he saw the brutality and injustice of slavery, his heart was broken. Lincoln was a man who identified with those he led and personally knew the pain that could mark human existence. As a result he labored hard to ensure a just society where unnecessary suffering would be addressed and where possible eliminated.

 Lincoln used power for the good of others: Many people who have suffered have an ability to use their power for the benefit of others. They somehow understand that being in a position of power and influence is not for the purpose of self-advancement or self-comfort. They understand the world does not revolve around them. Lincoln was willing to make hard choices to ensure the establishment of a just society. History teaches that those wielding power, having never experienced their own their own brokenness often turn into despots and tyrants.

 Lincoln was a man who could forgive his enemies: When the major battles of the Civil War were finally over and it was clear that the North had won, Lincoln was asked how Southerners should be treated. His response was, “we shall treat them as though they never left.” While visiting Gettysburg, the scene of the battle with more casualties than any other, Lincoln said, “

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.

It is a rare thing to see a victorious leader not seek retribution toward enemies after such a barbaric and violent conflict.

Of course there are nuances and complexities to America’s conflict that I’ve not mentioned here. Yet, I believe our nation moved from chaos toward civility and even toward principles taught by Jesus because of the character of our then President.

Like most museums I’ve visited, after my visit I was dismissed through a gift shop where a variety of items were offered for sale. There were Lincoln biographies and other items of historic significance. There were also, the tee shirts, coffee mugs and trinkets that seemed to cheapen my visit. However, one mug captured my thoughts and feelings as I exited the museum. It simply said, “I miss Abe.” Indeed I do miss Abe. I hope and pray America could have the good fortune to have another leader with similar leadership qualities.

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