Knowing that his election had precipitated the secession of the southern states, but that, as yet, no shots had been fired, Abraham Lincoln ended his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861, with this appeal:
I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
At the time, most people, North or South, believed that, if war came, it would be relatively short-lived before the other side would realize, through failure of arms, the fragility of its moral claims. Yet four years later, at the time of Lincoln’s second inaugural, with months, if not years, of war still looming, the nation could count almost 700,000 dead.
The second inaugural address was much shorter than the first. Then Lincoln still had hoped to persuade those who wanted war — convinced that they knew the purposes of the Almighty — to think again. In the second address, a terribly tempered Lincoln noted this curious feature about God and war:
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. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.
The great danger of belief is presumption, the notion that, because we firmly believe in God, we are granted firm insight into the ways of God. Belief is a gift from God; presumption is a foolish response to that gift.
For example, it’s presumptuous to presume that God is speaking of us, when the Prophet Jeremiah is told: "They will fight against you but not prevail over you, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord" (Jer 1:19). Those words may well apply to ourselves, our viewpoints and insights. It may indeed be the case that we understand much better than our fellows the meaning of scripture, the teachings of the Church, the very designs of the Deity, but, of course, the opposite may also be true. When we fight in the name of Christ, we cannot know, without any doubt, that we aren’t the ones fighting Christ, that we aren’t ourselves, like those angry folk from the synagogue in Nazareth, "filled with fury," determined to drive Christ away (Lk 4: 28-30).
Yet if we believe in God, we can’t help but try to understand God. We can’t hide in the notion that, because certainty has been granted to none, no one must act. Not to act when the good is threatened by evil, when error masks as truth, is already to have surrendered the good and the true. Inactivity is itself an action
So, if we must act, how, amid the winds of change, do we find the God who never changes? Religious authorities? Certainly, they have their place. Someone who has never learned from others is either a newborn infant or a fool. And yet it’s not enough to quote authorities, of whatever ilk we prefer. Anyone can misquote or misunderstand an authority.
In the end, the search for God’s ways runs deeper than arguments and authorities. It’s ultimately a quest for life. We seek that which enhances life, which expands life, which endows life with meaning and purpose. Instead of looking around the world we look within. What makes us grow? Which decisions have proven to be life-giving?
Saint Paul writes, "When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things" (1 Cor 13:11). Anyone can misinterpret the Bible, misunderstand the Pope, be confused by the currents of change. Like that of Paul, most lives can be organized into chapters of mistaken ideas, but a man or woman who prays and who, in the deep silence of prayer, seeks life, will not forever follow fatuous ideas. Humans can be so wrong about so much, but we tend to recognize when our humanity is expanding and when it’s dying. That’s the place to ponder.
Only a few weeks before he would die, that’s also the insight Lincoln shared with his fellow citizens. Look to life. Look to that which heals and fosters growth. He ended his second inaugural address with these 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.
Anyone can be wrong, yet all must look for life.
Jeremiah 1: 4-5, 17-19 1 Corinthians 12: 31-13: 13 Luke 4: 21-30