In the days leading up to the inauguration, there was a lot of talk about President Abraham Lincoln by both Obama and his team. Two nights ago, the new cabinet members joined the soon-to-be First Family in a meal recreated from the favorite foods and even the personal china of our sixteenth president. Then, yesterday, our new president took his oath of office on Lincoln’s Bible.
What are we to make of this reverential acknowledgement of the great emancipator? What does Lincoln have to do with Obama? What does the world of our nation’s sixteenth president have to do with us?
Well, I am moved by the tribute to Lincoln. His speeches, letters, diary and life have been a continual inspiration to me, as they have been to countless other Americans. Lincoln is a treasure.
In many ways though, Lincoln is hardly a symbol of our country as it has become. Introspective, often depressed, scholarly and physically unattractive, Lincoln is everything that modern America tries not to be.
We are dangerously addicted to entertainment and much too inclined to glorify ignorance. We substitute piety for knowledge and sincerity for responsible reflection and informed action. Lincoln may have been tempted to do those things too, for all we know. However, if this was so, his times and his duties pushed him into an entirely different direction.
Perhaps against his will, he peered long and deep into the reality of the human condition and pondered the divine purpose for our country’s existence like few of our leaders ever have. Today, there are few pastors who are inclined to do such a thing!
We are doers. We live in the fiery rush of urgency. We thrash about, listening to bits and pieces of this and that, doing what is at hand to do, answering our email, greeting dozens of individuals a day with a superficial sentence or two. We do not truly converse. Even when we try…well, before any meaningful words are exchanged, we must answer our cell phones. Then, when we return to the conversation, the moment of connection has been lost.
This is not the age of Lincoln.
Our sixteenth president often retired to read the scripture, or Shakespeare, or to tell several jokes to a few friends. He wrote letters. He prayed. He took long walks. He plunged into solitude for hours at a time.
Lincoln did all of this not because he did not have urgent things to attend to. People were forever complaining that the president was lazy and unfocused. He moved with a quiet deliberation at his own pace and came to conclusions when they had matured in his own mind and heart.
That is how we got the Gettysburg Address, the Second Inaugural Address and the Emancipation Proclamation. He was molding a nation, not merely responding to crisis.
Lincoln is an altogether beautiful man, at least when viewed through the mists of the generations and fourteen decades that separate us from him. He was a man of his own time that did not allow the issues and urgencies of his own time to imprison him. He stood on a mountain and looked out over the future and dedicated himself to preparing as good a world as he could – for us.
Leon Kass claims (in The Beginning of Wisdom) that the entire focus of covenant is to help a man become responsible, first to his living family, then to his descendents, and finally to his ancestors.
Modern America has drifted very far into a preoccupation with self, the immediate, the urgent and the titillating. This is as true of believers as it is of unbelievers.
When Obama put his hand on Lincoln’s bible, perhaps he was telling us that he intends to take a different course of action than we have been taking of late. Perhaps he is thinking about how to become a great man and not merely a popular man. If so, he will walk a lonely path. Lincoln could tell him that. But the loneliness will be worth it if he succeeds in waking us up from our stupor and focusing us on our nation’s purpose: to make it possible for every man, woman, boy and girl to become truly great and truly free.
Lincoln can help Obama do all of that because Lincoln did it.
Christians call it the Communion of Saints. It is the belief that our past brothers and sisters are living presences in our everyday lives and that their journey can inform our own.
The reward of taking seriously the communion of saints is that we slowly join their ranks. Our contemporaries may not see it; indeed, we may not see it ourselves. However, gradually, little by little, our thoughts and our deeds become a part of the great conversation and the archive of the ages. An Obama can become a Lincoln. I can become a Daniel, a Barnabas or a Patrick.
It takes a lot more than eating Lincoln’s food or putting one’s hand on his Bible.
But it’s a start; a very good start.