President Abraham Lincoln believed that he was acting in the humane religious tradition of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights when he spoke in March of 1865. “This was their majestic interpretation of the economy of the Universe,” he said of the Founders’ view of what Hamilton had called mankind’s “sacred rights.” “This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to His creatures,” Lincoln said. “Yes, gentlemen, to all His creatures, to the whole great family of man. In their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows.”
Lincoln concluded this short second inaugural address with one of the most memorable lines about race ever spoken in our entire history:
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.”
Seeing the new film 12 Years a Slave brought these terrible words home to me with fresh impact. Let me put this very plainly – I felt ashamed. I felt that a terrible wrong still haunted me/us in a way that I had never ever felt so strongly. Movies have a way of making you feel something. That is the point of a good story, not just to state a few facts. Sometime you can listen to the facts but then the time comes when you need to feel the heavy weight of reality. 12 Years a Slave creates the passion and feeling of the story if you allow yourself to be lost in it for a few memorable hours. Reviews about the movie’s use of “facts,” or the technical aspects of the movie itself, cannot do it justice. You have to “feel” it for yourself. (Warning: If you really and truly cannot handle seeing terrible beatings and human abuse then do not see it!)
Some say that Lincoln’s second inaugural address was one of the greatest speeches ever given. I agree. Before the days of television one has to wonder what impact the speech had on the crowd that day. We know how it has impacted multitudes who have read it since 1865. But the speech ends with a note of hope, one that I was reminded of as I walked out of my area cineplex after seeing 12 Years a Slave. The president ended that amazing day by saying:
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.
This is my prayer for us as the people of God, black and white, in the United States of America in 2013: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work . . .” Please Lord, make this so in a fresh way as we are embroiled in more controversy that seems endless.
I ask, “What have I done to cherish a just and lasting peace” among my fellow Americans? How have I contributed to the hurt and harm of racism in this land that I love? I resolve to deal with my part and then to encourage others to do the same. This is not false race-based PR repentance but a simple acknowledgment of a growing awareness of my own heart and my own response to so many public issues.
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