Did Lincoln Die in Vain?

A 2011 TIME Magazine article, “The Civil War, 150 Years Later,” claims that we’re still fighting the Civil War. The sub-heading of the article includes these lines, “North and South shared the burden of slavery, and after the war, they shared in forgetting about it.” The front cover bears a picture of Lincoln shedding a tear and includes the words: “The endless battle over the war’s true cause would make Lincoln weep.” Did Lincoln die in vain?

While the causes of the Civil War were complex, slavery (and not simply factors pertaining to such matters as states’ rights) was central to the North and South’s rationale for going to war. However, according to the TIME article, you wouldn’t know how central slavery was based on how history and Hollywood have often portrayed the conflict and its origins. No one likes to admit guilt, unless perhaps it is someone else’s. But Lincoln viewed things differently. He believed the entire country was to blame for the war (a point often lost on us Northerners). Lincoln no doubt knew what the TIME article claims: “Slavery was not incidental to America’s origins; it was central” (p. 48).

This TIME article got me thinking further about the matter. I reviewed three of Lincoln’s most famous speeches: his first inaugural address, the Gettysburg address, and his second inaugural. I came across a “This American Life” documentary on the second inaugural. The following statement from the program puts the matter well: “In his second inaugural address, Lincoln wondered aloud why God saw fit to send the slaughter of the Civil War to the United States. His conclusion: that slavery was a kind of original sin for the United States, for both North and South, and all Americans had to do penance for it.” Assuming that this is correct, if the Lincoln of the second inaugural were here today, I wonder if he would claim that those who died in the Civil War to do penance for the nation’s “original sin” died in vain based on the North’s and South’s ongoing denial of the war’s true cause.

So often, we function with pragmatic and collective amnesia for the sake of pursuing progress. Like Teddy Roosevelt who according to the article became the champion of reconciliation and the prophet of progress, we grew up as a nation post-Civil War receiving “a master tutorial in leaving certain things unsaid in the pursuit of harmony” (TIME, p. 48). But there can never really be progress where there is no ownership and repentance of personal and corporate sins. As 2nd Chronicles 7:14 declares, “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (ESV). No confession, no forgiveness, no cleansing, no true progress. This is not simply an individual matter. What some of us take to be true personally for our spiritual condition and relationship with God must be taken to be true corporately as a church and as a nation.

Lincoln did not view slavery as the sin of the South for which the North brought judgment during the war. As stated above, Lincoln saw the war and its carnage as the judgment of God on the North and the South. Lincoln’s words taken from the second inaugural come to us from the grave:

If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? 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” (link).

The American church is often so rootless. While you and I may think we haven’t committed any act to reinforce the evolving structures that slavery and its post-Civil War legacy generated, are we doing something—anything—to overturn those structures the previous generations put in place and nurtured? If not, we are still reinforcing those evil structures; failing to act righteously is just as bad as acting in an unrighteous manner. Both forms of sin flow from a hardened heart and both forms of sin harden fallen structures. We must understand that history is with us. It lives into the present. Lincoln saw the connection between the nation’s past and its present trial at the time of the Civil War. The connection was and is organic. As such, we are not talking about fatalism. Fatalism involves a sense of helplessness, being bound to impersonal cause and effect forces beyond our control. Corporate guilt passed down from generation to generation is not a problem we are powerless to challenge. We can bring an end to it by owning it and restructuring our individual and corporate existence, beginning with acknowledging the central place slavery had in bringing about the Civil War and repenting of our nation’s ongoing disengagement from our racialized story.

By not seeing that North and South alike were to blame for the Civil War (TIME, p. 51) and by not advocating for racial equality and unity in our day, the people who according to Lincoln died to do penance, from his perspective, may have actually died in vain. The same might be true for Lincoln. If only we could talk to him now.

I believe we listen more to General George McClellan today than we do President Lincoln. McClellan had been Lincoln’s chief general at the outset of the war and later Lincoln defeated McClellan on the way to his short-lived second term in office as President of the United States. McClellan viewed the race question as “incidental and subsidiary” to unity (TIME, p. 42). But what kind of unity is it when there is no reconciliation? McClellan “did not perceive…that the Union and slavery had become irreconcilable” (TIME, p. 46). The same held true during the Civil Rights era, but Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his movement sought to show us that separate but supposedly equal is no real equality and cannot sustain a nation—or a church.

Things still have not changed all that much as a country and as the church in this country (See the consumingjesus.org post by Daniel Fan titled “Is Racism Over Now That a Black Man is President of the United States?”. See also the link to The Oregonian “Opinion” piece by Clifford Chappell titled “Is Racism Gone for Good?” along with the ensuing interview at consumingjesus.org with Rev. Chappell). In all too many quarters, we are still separate and nothing more than supposedly equal. Racism and racialization has not come to an end, but has evolved. As I argued in a post titled “White Theology, Part I,”

It is worth noting that according to Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, racialization does not proceed by way of “constants,” but rather “variables.” And yet, many Americans view racialization not in terms of its evolving nature, but in constant, static terms. Thus, Americans tend to limit racialization to a specific timeframe and do not comprehend that racialization is very adaptable and undergoes an evolution over time. Emerson and Smith maintain that there are “grave implications” for failing to recognize that racialization evolves over time. The failure to recognize the evolving nature of racialization has “grave implications”: the more we fail to account for racialization or think that we live in a post-racialized society, the more entrenched racialization becomes (Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America [New York: Oxford University Press, 2000], p. 8). Read more.

Black Theologian James Cone said in a 2006 interview that in some ways the situation in our country is actually worse in terms of such things as health care, education, employment, and the prison system. In the interview, Cone exhorts white theologians to speak out forthrightly about the unrighteous situation in which we find ourselves, claiming that the white Christian establishment is complicit. As a white theologian, I believe we should listen to Lincoln and Cone, among others, and speak out and live forthrightly. Otherwise, I fear that not only Lincoln’s death but also Jesus’ death may be robbed of its redemptive, catalytic power in our lives (See 1 Corinthians 1:17 where Paul talks about the possibility of emptying Christ’s cross of its power in his ministry if he were to preach the gospel with words of human wisdom). Sins of omission (righteous acts we have failed to do) are just as evil as sins of commission (evils we have committed). Jesus died for both. May we live to please him in every way, making sure we contend against sins of commission and omission.

What does speaking out and living forthrightly look like—especially in the church? For starters, we need to denounce the McClellan version of the church growth principle that claims that the race question is incidental and subsidiary to Christian unity. What kind of unity are we talking about when we claim that we are separate but equal in our ecclesial experience (separate churches for whites and blacks and others)? The McClellan church growth principle is pragmatic, though not practical if we mean missional. Christendom’s collapse in our country is bound up with the Civil War: Christianity came to be viewed as captive to cultural trends—the North and South had the same red, white and black letter Bible but read and preached it differently on matters black and white. Christian America took a further hit during the Civil Rights era, as many Christian conservatives stood in opposition to King’s biblical mandate. The Evangelical church will take another hit shortly if white Evangelicalism doesn’t make far greater space for unity along ethnic lines in its worship centers across the land, for America is becoming increasingly brown, decreasingly white.

However, our concern is not political correctness, opportunism and penance, but biblical justice and repentance in keeping with 2 Chronicles 7:14 (This is not simply an individual, personal matter. The prophets of old identified with their people’s sin and confessed on their behalf; see for example Daniel 9:1-19). No confession, no forgiveness, no cleansing, no true progress. What kind of unity and progress are we talking about when we are talking about unity and progress based on non-confessed sins of commission and omission? There is no prophetic power and progress in such unity.

Lincoln was seen as a rabble rouser in his day. That’s why he got shot in the head. King was seen as a rabble rouser in his day. That’s why he got shot in the head. Jesus was seen as a rabble rouser in his day. That’s one key reason why he was hung on a cross. Each one died to bring unity and create one people out of the ashes of disparity. While as a Protestant, I do not believe in doing penance, I do believe that we are responsible for our sins of commission and omission. When we don’t own the sins of our past and present disunity whereby we fail to love our brothers and sisters of diverse ethnicity in concrete forms of ecclesial and civic engagement, it is almost as if we are saying with our lives that Lincoln, King, and the Lord Jesus died in vain. Did they?

An earlier version of this piece was cross-posted on Monday, May 16th, 2011 at consumingjesus.org and new-wineskins.org.

About Paul Louis Metzger

Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including "Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths" and "Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church." These volumes and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.

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