With Malice Toward None

I’m an Lincolnphile. Love Abe. I have all his books. Read all the biographies. Whenever I’m asked who in history I’d most want to meet if ever given the chance, I always say Abraham Lincoln even though I know I’m supposed to say Jesus. (Of course I believe I get to meet Jesus, so he’s already covered).

It was with absolute giddyness that I went to see Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln this week. Knowing that Spielberg would do my icon justice, especially by getting Daniel Day-Lewis (an Irishman!) to play the title role, I had no fear of being disappointed. And I wasn’t. I wept for the entire three hours.

What is it about Lincoln? How is it possible for a man of such humble origins and self-learned abilities to emerge as arguably the greatest leader the world (or at least America) has ever experienced? His integrity and wisdom are nonpareil. That these endure and exhibit during the most horrific days of American history over the most horrific blot on the American experiment only enhance the stature of their virtue. The consummate politician, Lincoln nevertheless crafted some of the most solid theology ever spoken (even if he was a sketchy believer).

Like Jesus, Lincoln told a lot of stories and parables. He understood, or learned, that the most direct way to the human heart is through the imagination. In one wonderful clip, Lincoln works to persuade radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (magnificently portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones) to reach across the aisle to Democrats for the sake of passing the Thirteenth Amendment and eradicating slavery. Stevens loathes the compromise of principle that would be required to get the necessary votes. He appeals to his own true compass–his pure passion for liberty and equality that cannot suffer the ignominy of compromise. Lincoln replies that while a compass can show true north, it fails to show any swampland that might lie in the path. Solely follow your compass, and you could get sunk.

It’s a critical commentary on the limitations of ideals. Yes, slavery was an abomination. Justice and righteousness demanded its destruction. But doing that in nineteenth century America took wisdom. You couldn’t just rely on your compass. You had to walk the road.

Considering the current political and theological landscape in America, clinging to various “true norths” to the exclusion of the roads it takes to get there likely means never arriving. If everybody went to see Lincoln, who knows, perhaps some of his practical wisdom might make its way back into America.

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  • John Murphy

    I’ve loved Lincoln also, ever since taking a course about him from Ron Rietveld, Lincoln scholar and consummate story-teller, at Cal State Fullerton 30 years ago. What fascinates me is that he was so politically abused and reviled up until mid-1864 when it finally appeared that the Union might have a chance of succeeding. Had we been alive at that time, we probably would not have thought so highly of him, and of course his leadership looked to be a disaster all the way through the 1864 elections. Misunderstood, consistently underestimated, lonely, ugly….such a fascinating character. And thank you, Daniel Day Lewis for doing such a superb job. My film of the year.


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