In March of 1865, President Abraham Lincoln delivered a speech to a weary nation. The Civil War was winding down and would be over in a month. This abbreviated address, shared before a very small and subdued crowd in the midst of a national crisis, is often overshadowed by The Gettysburg Address. Yet many historians consider Lincoln’s Second Inaugural his best work and it has a word for us today:
“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.”
With malice toward none, with charity toward all. Lincoln’s vision of unity amidst division would sadly not be realized in his lifetime, as he was assassinated days later. A martyr for the nation he so desperately wanted to save. The war was over, but the divisions remained. Slavery was vanquished but it would not spell the end of injustice against black Americans.
Yet there is something in Lincoln’s healing words for us, as we recover from a bitterly divided election season: “With malice toward none and charity toward all” echoes Paul’s words to the church in his famous love chapter in 1 Corinthians 13. Love, Paul says, “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
Christian love, the kind of intentional care for others, energized by Gods love for us in Christ, commits to giving the benefit of the doubt. Bearing all things is expressing empathy, especially toward those with whom we may not agree. In American, in this moment, it might mean a Democrat working to understand what motivated his neighbor to vote for Trump. For a Republican, what motivated his neighbor to vote for Biden. And for every Christian, the willingness to see in others, the best intentions and not the worst motives.
We are so locked in our seemingly impenetrable echo chambers, gathering and listening to news that affirms our worldview, befriending only those who nod when we nod, plugging our ears to alternate ideas and voices.
Listening. Bearing all things. Refusing to imagine malice. These are the postures that love demands. Love doesn’t require us to yield our convictions. Love doesn’t silence our voices in the face of injustices. Love doesn’t ask us to deny what we know to be true. What love does require is a posture of empathy for those who see the world differently.
What’s more it presses us to return to Jesus and ask questions. Can we find rays of hope in the midst of despair? Will we place our hope in something other than temporal institutions? Can we endure with a world that is not as it should be in hope of a better world to come?
The votes are still being counted, but it appears that slightly over half of the country voted for Vice-President Joe Biden and slightly under half of the country voted for President Donald Trump. Elections are motivated by passion and this one was no different, resulting in a record turnout. Each side believes that power in the other’s hands spells doom for the country they love. And yet, this means we have to convince ourselves that the 70 million or so people who voted differently are irredeemable.
Is this the way of love? We may go to church with people who voted differently. We may live in neighborhoods with people who voted differently. We may work with people who voted differently. Are these people our enemies?
Healing demands we reach out to the other side in meaningful ways. I didn’t vote for President-elect Biden, but I appreciated this emphasis in his victory speech. It wasn’t quite Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, but perhaps a step toward healing:
And to those who voted for President Trump, I understand your disappointment tonight.
I’ve lost a couple of elections myself.
But now, let’s give each other a chance.
It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric.
To lower the temperature.
To see each other again.
To listen to each other again.
To make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy. We are not enemies. We are Americans.
Of course, speeches are just that: words on a page. But hopefully this rhetoric will inspire Americans to put away our enemies’ lists and put away our insults. Civility is important for our country, but this it an even more important practice for the church. These years have exposed grievous rifts among the people of God. We need to bend our year to yet another set of words, these whispered from the mouth of our Lord. In Jesus’ prayer in the Upper Room, we hear him ask of the Father:
I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by your name that you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one (John 17:11).
Jesus’ desire is for his people to be unified. That they may be one as we are one. This gospel bring together God’s family from every nation, tribe and tongue. This is not a flimsy unity, but one that is anchored in the truth. Heresy and untruth sever what Jesus’ blood has bound together.
We’d have to admit that most of our fights are not over issues of orthodoxy. Those are battles worth having in every generation. No, we mostly savage each other over pragmatic issues of prudence, where godly people genuinely differ on the best approach to engaging a complex world. Jesus wasn’t praying for and His Spirit isn’t creating a kind of uniformity. The kingdom of God is a mosaic. Yet we should all ask ourselves if our fights are really worth it. Can we listen, again, and give each other the benefit of the doubt? Can we learn, like Lincoln, to see each other without malice and with charity? Can we disagree deeply without dividing permanently?
Unity and civility are big, almost superhuman tasks. But the Spirit moves among the willing and for each of us, we might start not with the piece of glass in our pockets but with the mirror on the wall. Each of us should ask ourselves where we can individually work to heal and mend, to bridge divides, to love and listen in the church.
We know that we’ll never see perfect civility in a world broken by sin. And we’ll never see perfect unity in the church until Christ returns for his Bride. Until then we can work, not by looking to the next election, but for that city whose builder and maker is God.