Even with so many dead in the Civil War, what Lincoln teaches us about the value of human life.


Though we revere him as something of an American saint, while in office Abraham Lincoln was one of the most reviled of presidents, and not only by those who supported the Southern cause. When Union victory proved elusive, everyone became a critic, had a better idea and did not mind sharing it.

Here is a small letter, which would be all but lost to history if George Saunders had not retrieved it for his novel Lincoln in the Bardo, the newest recipient of the Booker Prize.


How miny more ded do you attend to make sir afore you is done? One minit there was our litle Nate on that bridge with a fishpole and ware is that boy now? And who is it called him hither, in that Notice he saw down to Orbys, wellsir, that was your name he saw upon it “Abraham Lincoln.”

At our distance, we are willing to grant the dead boy’s father his pain, even as we dismiss the resentment toward the president from Robert Hansworthy of Boonsboro, Md. We consider Abraham Lincoln to be an instrument of providence. Who could have done more to keep the country united and to suppress slavery?

But let us set aside our 21st-century perspective and our inclination to read the purposes of history, and listen to the pain of the boy’s father. Does it matter that the world which Mr. Lincoln is fighting to create comes to fruition if the world of Mr. Hansworthy comes to ruin? His son was his world. Most all of his hopes, his desires, his dreams. “One minit there was our little Nate on that bridge with a fishpole and ware is that boy now?”

Sometimes it seems that all we can do is to struggle to minimize evil.

We love our definitions, our categories and our ability to transform most anything in the world into an equation. But what cannot be defined, nor even adequately described, is our own personhood. One could even say, to know another person, the sort of knowledge that comes with love, is to know more of absence than of presence. Why? Because whatever the loved one has said, whatever the loved one has done, the bounteous joy of human existence is that the loved can still speak, can still do more. Unlimited human potential is the reason why we are more absent than present to others, even to ourselves. Saint Augustine spoke of a mystery at the core of every person, “an abyss so deep as to be hidden from him in whom it is.”

Come at it like this. It is easy enough to define a bridge, but who can define that boy Nate, fishing off the bridge, early on a summer morning? Who can say what the objects in his pocket mean to him, like that pretty polished stone he found in a dry river bed? Who can recount the reckless deeds of boyhood, which produced the scars his young body already bears? Who can say what lies within the absence of his life, within that which is yet to be revealed? How do we know that Abraham Lincoln—unwillingly, reluctantly, unknowingly—did not kill the next Abraham Lincoln?

This is why there are moral absolutes. When the value is incalculable, reverence and reticence must be intense. And every human life is of just such an untold value, because both the infant in the womb and the prisoner on death row present us with more absence than presence. We do not know—and we deceive ourselves if we say that we do—what this human being, this person, will yet say, will yet do.

You shall not molest or oppress an alien,
for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.
You shall not wrong any widow or orphan.
If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me,
I will surely hear their cry. (Ex 20: 20-22)

We, and our government, must reverence all persons. Every law we enact and enforce must look to the good of the individual, because it is not government which endows the person with rights. Rights are how we recognize and revere persons. Because we come from God, because our origin is that mystery which is always more absence than presence—yet never ceases to manifest itself in works of mercy—we cannot make any individual into a mere instrument of polity. We must reverence the absence of God that lies within the absence of every person.

You shall love the Lord, your God,
with all your heart,
with all your soul,
and with all your mind.
This is the greatest and the first commandment.
The second is like it:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments. (Mt 22: 37-40)

Mr. Lincoln did not start the war, and Nate knew what he was doing when he was called hither. Indeed, Nate freely surrendered the incalculable whole that was his life, and he did this, ultimately, in love of other persons. We have no honor to bestow upon such a sacrifice. All the honor is already his, in virtue of what he gave. As Mr. Lincoln was later to note at Gettysburg in dedicating its cemetery, “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”

In a fallen world one right vies with another, and the interests of one group smash against those of another. Sometimes it seems that all we can do is to struggle to minimize evil. Perhaps that is why the church teaches that government is essential but it is not our savior. The best it can do is to shield us from some of life’s evils.

Only that which is truly noble, only that which is boundless, which, in offering itself on the cross, has already given everything that can be given—only this one can ask for the very sacrifice of self. The only time it makes sense to waste a world of untold potential, the absence within the human person, is when you are throwing it into the abyss of that absent yet absolute life, which we call God. We alone have the right to do that, and only for ourselves.

“How miny more ded do you attend to make sir afore you is done?” In the eyes of Providence, Abraham Lincoln stands absolved from the charge of failing to reverence his God in his fellow persons. But in those very same eyes, are we?

Readings: Exodus 22: 20-26,   1 Thessalonians 1: 5c-10,   Matthew 32: 34-40

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