Two Presidents, Two Tragedies, Two Appeals for Reconciliation

Barack Obama's speech at the memorial service one week ago for the victims of the Tucson shooting was, I think, the best speech I have heard from him since his 2004 Democratic National Convention address. I was moved to tears by the president's words about Christina Taylor Green. Perhaps it was because I have a 9-year-old daughter who, like Christina, exudes wonder and "magic" every day.

But as a historian, I could not help but compare this civic funeral sermon, this call for national healing, with one of the greatest presidential addresses of all time—Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural. In that speech, delivered on March 4, 1865, Lincoln was facing a nation nearing the conclusion of a long and bloody Civil War. Granted, a four-year war that took 600,000 lives does not compare with a shooting that took six, but every human life is precious. The Civil War and the Tucson shootings were tragedies. And in both cases the President of the United States stepped to the podium to try to make sense of it all.

It would have been easy for either Lincoln or Obama to cast blame for these tragedies. Lincoln could have blamed the South for the war and used his inaugural address to draw scorn and punishment down on the former Confederacy. This is what many of the Northern evangelical clergy did. They used their pulpits to call down God's wrath on the South. These ministers believed that the Union victory, which was nearly complete when Lincoln delivered his speech, was confirmation that God was indeed on the side of the North.

But Lincoln wasn't so sure. After all, both sides in this conflict read the same Bible and prayed to the same God. "The prayers of both could not be answered: that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes." Lincoln would not settle for easy theological answers. He instead appealed to the mystery of God.

And then he made sure that no one in the North would use the Civil War to bring further division to the country he loved. Lincoln knew there were politicians in his own political party who were ready to exploit this tragedy for political gain. These "Radical Republicans" were prepared to humiliate the South by making it very difficult for them to return to the Union. With this in mind, Lincoln urged the nation to approach the post-war settlement "with malice toward none; with charity for all."

All Americans, Lincoln suggested, were to blame for this ugly war. The hands of both the North and the South had been dirtied by slavery. It was now time for national repentance. He implied that his northern politician friends should be careful to take the plank out of their own eye before they passed Reconstruction legislation to remove the speck from the collective eye of the former Confederacy.

Obama also appealed to the mystery of God to try to fathom the meaning of tragedy. He turned to the Old Testament book of Job, chapter 30, verses 26-28:"Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, ‘when I looked for light, then came darkness.' Bad things happen, and we must guard against simple explanations in the aftermath." The Almighty has his own purposes.

Like Lincoln, Obama would not let an event like this become politicized. By the time he took the podium last week in Tucson, the blame game had already begun. Members of Obama's own party were quick to explain this tragedy by appealing to a "climate of hate" fostered by conservative Republicans. Obama soared above the political punditry and used the opportunity to call us all to follow our better angels, but recognize that horrible things like this were also the product of our common propensity to sin.

In a time of great tragedy, Obama called us not toward hatred, but to civility. He asked us to stop the venomous nature of public discourse, to have malice toward none and charity toward all. I think Abraham Lincoln would have been proud. On days like this I am glad Barack Obama is our president.