By DUNCAN NEWCOMER
Host of the ‘Quiet Fire’ series
This is Quiet Fire, a meditation on the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln and its relevance to us today. Welcome. Here’s a Lincoln quote for you—as penned in a secret 1862 meditation he wrote that later was echoed in that powerful passage from his Second Inaugural Address.
“The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party; and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect his purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true; that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere great power on the minds of the now contestants, he could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And, having begun, he could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.”
What were the origins of this view of these cataclysmic events?
Most every wagon coming down the Wilderness Road, or out the Cumberland, packed a Bible, maybe wrapped in a quilt. The Bible was the code book for the coming civilization.
The Bible was the iPhone of the New World. It could bring up most of the Old World. It was basic social media. There were some who also had a Shakespeare, or Blackstone’s English Common Law. A few others had a small library with Enlightenment philosophy, the Greek and the Roman classics.
The language of Lincoln’s new world was a hybrid of the Bible, of law, Enlightenment and slang. “Americanese” became almost ungovernable, a vernacular something—secular and sometimes almost sacred. Those who spoke or wrote about America brought forth new ideas with old words. This was going to be the new kingdom of God in America or the new republic without the old world King.
There was an underlying obsession: Could the New World be free of the old? Was it better? Was it to be judged as a shining light when seen by the old world? They were watching. They were judging and a judgment was required to make this meaningful.
Nowadays, when a newly aggrieved citizen cries out, “God, why are you doing this?” it is a cry of judgment against the old judge. Making judgments makes meaning.
Lincoln himself put God on the witness stand in his secretly written Meditations of the Divine Will in 1862, just after the war had begun. In that meditation, he says pretty much the same thing as our aggrieved citizen—except that Lincoln does not whine and doesn’t think it’s about him. With his own profound logic and heart, he does try to judge the Eternal. Today’s citizen or yesterday’s Civil War solider can cry out, why are you doing this to us, God? Lincoln cried a lot. Lincoln truly wept his way through the Civil War. But when he did cry out—he followed with a resolve to meditate.
Of course, “why” is a parent’s question (“Why are you late?!”) and to turn it back on the Parent God is a nearly blasphemous thing to do. But this is America and we have rights. The Enlightenment philosophers did encourage us to question God, even God’s judgmental analytics.
Lincoln put God on trial again in his Second Inaugural. He puts the North and the South on the witness stand. He passes some judgments on them all: North, South and God. Both sides are guilty of the war because slavery is, he says: “American.” One side is guilty of fighting for slavery, but all Americans are guilty of slavery. God, to Lincoln, is not guilty, or only guilty of being a righteous god.
But then in a modest tongue in cheek he says, quoting Jesus obliquely: Let us judge not, that we be not judged.
But of course he has already passed on his view of God’s judgment. In Lincoln’s mind God willed this war as a blood punishment for the blood spilled in the sin of slavery.
There is some pilgrim’s progress going on. The pilgrim nation has to go from a bad starting point to a good end. It is a moral journey that implies a judgment at the end to make it meaningful, good or bad. This is the biblical code that Lincoln grew up in.
America will be good when, but only when, it seems, a judgment—even a punishment—has been meted out.
The wrath of God, the grapes of wrath, and God’s judgment, were not thoughts hidden from the 19th century Americans, whether they believed them or rejected them.
In a recent newspaper interview, in a poignant plaintive lament, a 75-year-old single American woman in lockdown with her cats and dog says, “I must apologize to God for what I feel.” I must apologize, she is saying, to the one great standard of meaning and truth, because God must surely judge her for what she is thinking and feeling nowadays about God and America. She, like a Civil War widow, feels estranged from God, has a voice of lament and complaint that, she fears, would offend God or at least hurt God’s feeling. She is saying: “I don’t not like what is happening. I do not approve. I judge it as all wrong. I’ve almost had it.” Then: “Sorry, I apologize. I’m sorry God, but really…! I’m sorry America but….”
But, now is when we can be good. Lincoln would have thought that. “When” is when suffering cleanses us like a Greek tragedy, or transforms us in the Divine Will of a righteous God, stamping out the vintage of the grapes of wrath. Americans could be good after the Civil War, he believed. Healing would be a matter of recognizing that we have all been in a state of estrangement, the united states of estrangement.
That is what Lincoln recognized when he saw the judgment on all of us, on both sides. That is why he could have asserted that we must not be enemies. We are guilty friends who belong together. Unfortunately, few really heard what he had to say.
Lincoln had told Congress, we must all rise with the occasion and see ourselves in each other. We would free ourselves as we free the slaves because we are all enslaved by slavery. But they were enthralled in a truly un-American way of life, not what the Kingdom of God in America was to be.
The tragedy of Lincoln was that too many Americans were not able to see themselves in the Other. John Wilkes Booth did not see his white face in the black face. Yankees did not see their money in the Cotton Gin’s wealth. The Fire Eater did not see his own righteous indignation in the coming terrible swift sword.
Lincoln’s sermon-Inaugurals failed.
People couldn’t just start out trying to see the better angels in the other’s nature. Not until they wept. That is where Lincoln was taking us.
This is Duncan Newcomer and this has been Quiet Fire—the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln.
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- Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 4: The courage to say—’In spite of all this, I will be!’
- Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 1: In this cruel month of death, what will be our legacy?
- Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 2: Coping with the Uncertainty and Mystery of a Deadly Disease
- Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 3: We Must Rise with the Occasion
- Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln: When will we be good? God knows!
- Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 6: Lincoln’s Courage to Judge and to Lament
- Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 7: Lincoln looks toward his spiritual hero, Washington
- Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 8: Four Score and Seven
- Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 9: A Unique Spiritual Quest and The Pilgrim’s Progress
- Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 10—When all three meet: Lincoln, black people and the Bible.
- Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 11—Raising a Flag and Contemplating the Sacred Pillars of America
- Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 12—Why do we refer to our most eloquent president as ‘Quiet’?
- Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 13—Ultimately, we are responsible for our faces.
- In Our Struggle for Freedom, the Truth is Not in Our Statues—It’s in Our Souls
- Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 16—In racial justice, ‘We … bear the responsibility.’
- Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 17—Remembering Mrs. Keckley, a close friend who Lincoln realized he did not truly know
- Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln: Remember when a president’s 1st value was Kindness?
- Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 19—’The election was a necessity’
- Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 20—’A Most Sacred Right’
- Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 21—Locating the spiritual X-factor in Lincoln’s ground-breaking life
- Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 22—Lincoln shows us the power of holding even opposites together
- Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 23—The forest vision Lincoln shared with poet Rabindranath Tagore
- Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 24—Myths and wisdom in national conversation about rule of law
- Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 25—How a true leader expresses the nation’s grief
- Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 26—Choosing Humility over Humiliation
- Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire 27—What shaped Lincoln’s soul?
- Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire—Here’s to you Mrs. Robinson!
- Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire—Now, we’re all hoping for ‘Yonder’
- Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire—In three words, he said it: ‘We are elected.’
- Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire—Let’s remember how he reached across the aisle to discover new friends
- Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire—Marking the anniversary of those 272 words at Gettysburg
- Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire—’The Last Best Hope of Earth’
- Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire—’A Christmas Carol’ with Abraham Lincoln