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sermon59

 

"With Malice toward NoneÖ"

A Lay-led Service at River Road Unitarian Church
Sunday, February 20, 2000

Participants
Jane Baluss
Don Bunis
Tim Downs
Sara Toney

Ö And the War Came
by Don Bunis

In the century-and-a-quarter since the Civil War ended, more than 50,000 books have been written about it. And new volumes appear each year, describing and analyzing every conceivable historical aspect of it. But I think it was Ken Burnsí television documentary of 1990 that helped many of us in this room and around the nation, truly to understand for the first time the human dimensions of Americaís bloodiest war. In Burnsí words, "Between 1861 and 1865, Americans slaughtered one another wholesale, right here in America, in their own cornfields and peach orchards." The slaughter was, indeed, horrific: 620,000 died, more lost than in all the rest of the wars this country has fought combined. Of these, the majority were Union soldiers. Proportionally, though, the South was devastated; it lost fully one quarter of all its white males of military age.

Let the significance of these losses sink in. The war left two hundred thousand widows and perhaps twice that number of fatherless children. It laid waste to millions of acres of farm and forest. It changed life in this nation in profound ways forever. Historian Shelby Foote says that we cannot even begin to understand the America we live in today without understanding the impact of the enormous tragedy that took place in the middle of the 19th Century. This morning I ask that each of us try to imagine ourselves in the midst of that "enormous tragedy."

Can we here today truly appreciate what the country was feeling and what President Lincoln was facing at the time of his second inaugural in March of 1865? Can you imagine what confronted this President as he prepared to address the nation in the waning days of this long and devastating war? Can you relate to what was in the hearts and minds of the people at that moment in our history, when so much had been destroyed and so much uncertainty remained about the future?

Put yourself in the place of a parent who had lost one or more children directly in battle or to the diseases that spread as a direct result of the war. How would you feel about the "other side?" If you were a farmer whose property and crops had been destroyed, would you not want moral justice, retribution for you losses? It is easy to understand why there was so much anger, bitterness and hatred pervading the country. The hard work of rebuilding the Union lay ahead, and it would have to be done in this terribly, terribly hostile environment.

So, here is a President, exhausted from having led a deeply divided nation through 4 years of a war that broke out within a month of his taking office; a President who, as a father, bore the personal grief of losing his young son, Willie, who died just a year into his presidency. Here is a man who, by all accounts, loved humanity deeply. But as President, he had to exercise the terrible responsibility of ordering thousands of men into certain death. He did this in the cause of saving the union. For Lincoln, and ultimately for the future of this countryĖincluding all of us here todayĖsaving the union was of paramount importance and worth any price.

From what deep well of faith would he have to draw strength and vision, let alone the inspiration to go on? What could he possibly say to the people who looked to him for leadership on the eve of reconstruction, when there were no answers that were evident and no direction that was clearly right? To see beyond the widespread hurt and hostility that surrounded him and envision "a binding up of the nationís wounds," this was the true mark of Lincolnís integrity as a President as well as a tribute to his wisdom and his compassion. It is from this very difficult moment in his life that we may draw inspiration and wisdom for the living of our own lives. Here is was President Lincoln said:

Lincolnís Second Inaugural Address

Fellow Countrymen:
At this second appearing to take the oath of the presidential office, there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement, somewhat in detail, of a course to be pursued, seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this, four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it; all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war - seeking to dissolve the Union and divide its effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perishĖand the war came.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained.

Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict, itself, should cease. 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 let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. And 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, ĖĖĖand 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 righteousĖaltogether."

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.

March 4, 1865

 

 

"He Gives To Both North And South"
by Timothy Downs

What an excellent speech given by Lincoln on that cold, blustery day of March 4, 1865.

But what a speech against expectations!

Picture it: casualties continuing to mount on the battlefields; reconstruction issues already causing real fights in Congress; former slaves---voting rights, property rights, fourty acres and a mule?

Talk about a nation in need of some direction; some show of leadership!

But no explicit guidance from Lincoln. In fact, a seeming rejection that anything can be done: "little that is new can be presented", and "no prediction in regards to it (the war) is ventured."

Even the pronoun "I" disappears after an oblique use in the opening paragraph.

The chief executive vanishes.

The only hint that someone might be at the helm comes, rather vaguely, in the opening sentence of the final paragraph. Lincoln says the nation is supposed to finish the work of the war in a manner consistent "With malice toward none; with charity for all....

What could this mean? the Golden Rule? turn the other cheek? sentimental Christianity?

Lincoln was anything but a sentimentalist, particularly when it came to the nationís business.

Any trace of sentimentality left in Lincoln after a prosperous law practice successfully representing railroad interests against small property owners, had been burned out by the war.

For example, he introduced for the first time in modern warfare the concept of "total" or "hard" war. This means that he, as matter of the policy of the United States of America, erased the distinction between soldier and civilian. He went after both.

First, Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley. Then two months later the wreckage left by Sherman in Georgia and later in South Carolina, the cradle of the rebellion, where Sherman, as it is sometimes said of the Los Angles Police Department, truly warmed to his work.

Let no mistake be made: Lincoln was anything but a "feel good sentimentalist."

So, on that day of March 4, 1865 with the war fast ending, and the problems of reconstruction looming, what possibly could be the meaning of :"With malice toward none; and with charity for all"?

First, we need to be clear as to Lincolnís goal; for the Second Inaugural was, before anything else, a political speech.

Lincolnís goal was limited, though extremely difficult. He sought, and I quote the phrase he used five times in his April 11th, 1865 speech, "to restore proper, practical relations between the states".

He deliberately chose not to set forth, as Garry Wills put it:

"grand theories or ultimate principles, since that would make the problems of living together again irresolvable. The Second Inaugural was meant, with great daring, to spell out a principle of not acting on principle.

In short, Lincoln needed the political flexibility to try any number and any kinds of solutions---some of which would require that both hardships and benefits be imposed upon the victors and the vanquished, alike.

But , in reaching for this goal, Lincoln was faced with a quandary. He needed to support his political program with a sound moral foundation.

And here was the intractable, unavoidable political problem: how in the world could a program to restore "the proper, practical relations" between the states, regardless of past behaviors, be moral?

It might be pragmatic; it might be expedient; it might be consistent with realpolitik, but moral?

To absolve and reward those who would rent the union in order to continue their practice of enslavement?

Who slaughtered hundreds of thousands?

Who captured, starved, then buried thousands of Union solders at Andersonville?

How could this be moral? And moral in a sense which would be understood and accepted by a still hemorrhaging North?

It is in answering this question that Lincolnís genius came through. It was a hard genius; one that had an almost Old Testament ruthlessness to it. It demanded the acceptance of a hard truth.

Lincoln started by asking why this unwanted war? A war that seemed to be an entity with a will of its own. Those deadly words: "And the war came."

The "why" that caused these horrors was the various consequences of slavery: "These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war."

And it is then that Lincoln delivers a terrible indictment. An indictment of all Americans, both North and South. And in doing so he reforms the nation back into a single entity.

"...we shall suppose that American Slavery (note; not southern, but 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..."

This, I believe, is the heart of the Second Inaugural:

The assertion that there is a commonality of responsibility in a culture. A great wrong, as does a great good, does not arise from a vacuum; it comes from the entire mix.

But once accepted, such a hard truth can provide the moral foundation for a policy of pragmatic flexibility.

As Wills put it:

"Men could not pretend to have Godís adjudicating powers. People had acted for mixed motives on all sides of the civil conflict just past. The perfectly calibrated punishment or reward for each leader, each soldier, each state, could not be incorporated into a single political disposition of the problems."

But, those who stress only Lincolnís final words about charity for all, about the healing of wounds, are off the mark. Lincoln was not calling for a fairly indiscriminate forgiveness for those through whom slavery came.

Not when Lincoln says:

"... if God wills it (the war) continue, until all the wealth piled up by the bond-manís 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 it was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said Ďthe judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.í ".

Lincoln knew that pragmatic solutions, absent correction of the underlying moral wrong, merely paper over the fissures. And in this too, he was right. Only look to todayís most pressing social and economic problems.

So it is in this dual recognition that Lincolnís genius comes forth:

First, in his political courage in shunning the easy posture of either demonizing the South, or deifying the North.

Second, in setting forth the hard, hard truth of joint liability.

Lincoln turned the tables: the victors were not to judge, but be judged, as were to be the vanquished. The unpaid debt of slavery was still to be paid, and to be paid by all.

Thus, we see how Lincoln gave moral purpose to the policy designed, not to punish the wicked and reward the good---for all, to various and shifting degrees, fell within such ambits---but to restore the "proper practical relations between the states."

The Second Inaugural was indeed an excellent speech. And it indeed worked against expectations. And I believe it reflected Lincoln at his greatest.

A man able to devise political solutions based upon pragmatic needs, free from ideological constraints

A man with the personal and political courage to insist upon the hard, hard moral truths.

A man wise enough to be satisfied with incremental advances, and secure enough not to be a hero.

And that is why I believe Lincoln to be great. And why I believe his work should be continually freshened in our recollection.

For Lincoln puts a sharp mirror in front of us.

And it is in looking into his mirror that we truly honor the man and his works.

 

 

"The Almighty Has His Own Purposes"
by Sallie Toney

The confluence of three winter streams of thought has brought me to this talk today. In December I attended a performance of Handelís Messiah. That powerful experience led me to read Jesus: A Life by the brilliant British author, A.N. Wilson. The song that haunted me from Messiah was the alto aria; "He was rejected, rejected and de-spise-ed" -- sung over and over -- along with "A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief." When I came to concentrate on Lincoln, I was struck by the similarities in the two men's lives. Lincoln, too, was "a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief." He , too, was killed on Good Friday. He, too, was "rejected, rejected and de-spise-ed" by millions of Americans. He was also greatly admired and loved by other millions, as Jesus was by his thousands of followers.

Lincoln was a strong believer in God and His justice, a mood that breathes through the whole of the Second Inaugural. Speaking of the citizens on both sides of the conflict Lincoln says: "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." In one of his proclamations Lincoln said: "It is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, and to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon, and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in Holy Scripture, and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord."

Jesus, too, as Wilson reminds us, believed that his mission was to persuade Israel to return to the Lord, in a spirit of penitence and joy. He believed that any Jew could turn back to the Lord, and that it did not require any great intellectual skill or spiritual energy, but a simple trust in God. Love of God, and love of one's neighbor. These, Jesus taught, were the fulfilling of all the Torah.

Of course, Jesus did not have a government to run. He was free to roam the countryside, preaching the word as he saw fit, performing miracles, exorcising demons, raising the dead ,associating with all sorts of people, not just the educated and the right thinkers, and exhorting them to turn from evil to the path of good.

Lincoln's task was harder. He had a difficult, often faltering war to run. He had generals who ignored or disobeyed his orders. Above all else he had to try to keep the Union together, in peace as well as in war and in the aftermath of war. Jesus was called "King of the Jews," seriously by some, scornfully by some, but he didn't seek temporal power. His kingdom was a kingdom of the spirit. Lincoln was a politician and a statesman.

I have more personal thoughts on Lincoln, his Second Inaugural and the Civil War that so devastated the country for decades afterwards without his leadership. How close am I to that experience of the War? Lincoln's address was given on March 4, 1865. My father was born in 1873, a mere eight years later. I was born 50 years after the end of the War, in 1914. We had Grand Army of the Republic veterans visit our schools on Memorial Day all through our childhood. They were in their eighties then, but they sat proudly in their uniforms in front of the class while the students recited poems and sang songs in memory of the War. "Tenting tonight, tenting tonight, tenting on the old camp grounds" could then and can now bring tears to my eyes. Walt Whitman heard Lincoln give his Second Inaugural address. His tribute to Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed," has a similar emotional effect on me. I don't feel so far away from the conflict as may those born generations later, for whom the Civil War is something they read about in the history books. It was real to me in my childhood and it is real to me now.

With the help of David Herbert Donald, Gary Wills and others I can think of the scene of the Inaugural, thousands of people with upturned faces, puzzled by the brief 703 words that Lincoln spoke, most of the audience failing to realize how brilliantly the words were crafted, wondering why he didn't tell them how he was going to solve the problems inherent in putting the country back together. They saw the sun burst forth as he began to speak, and that may have renewed their hope.

The fact was that Lincoln didn't know just what he would do. On April 11, two days after Lee surrendered, Lincoln, from a second-story window of the White House, spoke chiefly about the reconstructed government of Louisiana in these words: "Concede that the new government of Louisiana is only to what it should be as the egg is to the fowl, we shall sooner have the fowl by hatching the egg than by smashing it." He concluded: "I am considering, and shall not fail to act, when satisfied that action will be proper."

Lincoln was a Theist; he believed that God not only created but ruled the world and controlled human destiny. We modern UUs are not apt to concur in that interpretation of history. Yet we should honor Lincoln on this anniversary; we should feel reverence for him and love. This world and our country has known very few of his calibre and courage, his humor, his tolerance, and his rare gift for leadership.

 

 

"The Work We Are In"
by Jane Baluss

So. Abraham Lincoln stands before the nation at an unimaginable crossroad of history, arrived at through an implacable and devastating war whose impending end foreshadows still more dissension and suffering for North and South alike. Refusing either to claim victory as proof of righteousness or to seize its momentum to advance the politics of Reconstruction, he tells us instead that itís time to wipe our mutually bloody hands on our respectively blue or grey trousers and "strive on to finish the work we are in". And then he tells us how the work should be done: with malice toward none, with charity toward all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right." Thatís it, folks.

As the four of us worked on this service, each of us was inspired by different aspects of Lincolnís address. For me, the compelling phrase was "the work we are in." What did it mean for Lincoln in March of 1865, and what might it mean for me and for us as - God help us - twenty-FIRST century American UUs?

[What did Lincoln mean by "the work we are in?" Well, first, what DIDNíT he mean? Not winning the war - he ventured "high hopes," but "no predictions" about that. Not ending slavery, the original cause of the war - that "fundamental and astounding" result had already been set in motion by the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln certainly wasnít selling the Lincoln Administrationís Reconstruction program - even though Congress had hotly debated those issues all through the previous night. Lincoln did speak of binding up the wounds of war - caring for veterans, widows, and orphans, but that was only the beginning of the work to come. And even the immense task of "securing a just and lasting peace among ourselves and all nations" only hints at the real work Lincoln set before himself and the nation. So what can it possibly mean, "the work that we are in"?]

Well, I quickly discovered that it was impossible to go very deeply into the meaning of that phrase without delving into the earlier address that Lincoln delivered in 1863, at the dedication of the then-new military cemetary at the site of the battle of Gettysburg. Lincolnís task at Gettysburg was to purify the air, both literally and ideologically, in the wake of a battle that cost enormous casualties on both sides without winning the war for either - and Lincoln suceeded magnificently on both levels.

He did it by framing the War not as a clash of enemy nations, but as a great American experiment, testing the survival of the unified nation envisioned in the Declaration of Independence - a nation "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." Then he called on the memory of those who had died in that testing to dedicate those still living to "take up the great task that remains before us." And what was that great task? It was " to bring a "new birth of freedom," and to ensure that "government of the people by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth."

In the view of distinguished historian Gary Wills, the Gettysburg Address ["GA"] "won the whole civil war in ideological terms" because it drove back the messy particulars of slavery, secession, and battles, and transformed the discussion to one of enduring ideals. In particular, Lincoln resolved the knotty tension between the ideal of liberty and the Americaís incontovertible history of tolerance for slavery, by appealing from imperfect and amendable letter of the Constitution to the enduring spirit of the founding Declaration. In Willsí view, the GA transformed American history by changing Americansí understanding of history. In a passage I just love, Wills says: "By implicitly doing this, [Lincoln]performed one of the most daring acts of open-air sleight-of-hand ever witnessed by the unsuspecting. Everyone in that vast throng of thousands was having his or her intellectual pocket picked. The crowd departed with a new thing in its ideological baggage, that new Consitution Lincoln had substituted for the one they brought there with them. They walked off . . . into a different America . . . [with] a new past that would change their future indefinitely."

Just as the GA had outlined the "great task" of striving to realizing the ideal of self government against the bitter realities of war, the 2d inaugural set the stage for continuing exposition of the same great task: "the work we are in" is the continuing work of realizing that ideal in the face of the hard actualities of warís aftermath and continuing bitter division.

But where did those astounding ideas come from? It turns out that both the GA and the 2d Inaugural address are steeped in the ideas of 19th century transcendentalism, as espoused by prominent Unitarian thinkers and activists including Ralph Waldo Emerson and especially noted abolitionist and Unitarian preacher Theodore Parker. The transcendentalists believed that the actual particulars of nature and history reflect an ideal state that can be known through intuition, even though it cannot be proved by objective experience, and that the actual should progressively tend towards the ideal.

We know that Lincoln was directly familiar with the work of Theodore Parker through his Springfield law partner Billy Herndon, who was a fervent transcendentalist and Parker disciple. Lincoln and Parker ultimately shared the same views on slavery - Parker was a fiery abolitionist who criticized Lincoln for politically appeasing slave interests, but they both saw slavery as a fundamental attack on on the founding American values of equality and self government..

Most importantly, Lincoln and Parker shared the same vision of the Declaration of Independence as expressing a transcendental ideal struggling for realization in human history. Indeed, there are striking parallels between the two menís words and writings that indicate how strongly Lincoln was influenced by Parker in this view. For example, Lincoln described the Declaration as "a standard maxim for free society which should be familiar to all and revered by all; constantly looked to, constatnly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated" - listen to that part again - "never perfectly attained, but constantly approximated - and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to people of all colors everywhere."

Does that sound like the way our UU principles are supposed to work? It does to me.

Theodore Parker likewise held up the Declaration as the ideal of a government that protects all men as equals in the enjoyment of inalienable rights. Just like Lincoln after him, Parker recognized that "there never was a government that did this, nor is there now . . . every inalienable right has been alienated, still is; no two men have been actually equal in actual rights. Yet the idea is true, capable of proof by human Nature, not of verification by experience. . . . [and it] demands for its organization a government of all, for all, and by all."

Government of, by, and for the people . . . sound familiar?

Willsí transcendentalist interpretation also helps make sense of Lincolnís willingness to forgo judgment and pass over even the most pressing particulars of the day. As Tim described earlier, Lincolnís appeal to fundamental ideals paradoxically freed him to work towards them by "constant approximat[ion]", adapting his tactics and positions as events unfolded, rather than becoming bogged down by doctrines or principles that simply perpetuated entrenched divisions.

Finally, of course, the idea of striving to uphold fundamental ideals without insisting on credal or doctrinal principles is exactly what we are about as a UU religious community. We covenant to affirm and promote a whole raft of transcendal ideals, including the inherent worth of every person, the use of the democratic process in our congregations and the world at large, and the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all - to name just a few. And "we draw our shared living tradition from many sources," including "the words and deeds of prophetic men and women [ - like Lincolnís - ] which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love."

Thinking through all of this has brought me to a deeper understanding of the meaning of "the work that we are in" as individuals, as a religious community, as a nation today. Iím no historical scholar - Iíve already told you more about the Life and Times of Lincoln than I actually know. My dedication to public affairs springs much more from duty than passion. My personal commitment to social justice work is far too often grudged and sapped by what I recognize as sins of cynicism and despair. Lincolnís words offer an antidote to cynicism and despair just when Iím feeling overwhelmed by the particulars of human disputes and disasters. I find myself heartened by Lincolnís profound call to "strive on to finish the work we are in."

If the work that we are in with Abraham Lincoln is the work of striving to approximate the ideal of equality in the face of devastating struggles and unremitting division -

If we are to find our strength in enduring ideals -

If dedication to fundamental ideals can free us to stand aside from doctrine to find workable solutions...

Abraham Lincoln still has much to say. We should listen, and keep listening. With malice toward none. With charity toward all. With firmness in the right as God gives us to see the light. Let it be so.