Tuesday, March 1, 2011

What Lincoln Can Teach Us

I have a confession to make.  I am addicted to mystery stories.  I enjoy reading the stories of Anne Perry, Robert Barnard, Agatha Christie, Tony Hillerman, Margaret Coel and Mary Daheim to name just a few of my favorite authors.  Since I am now retired I have more time for reading and I find a good mystery is a good way to relax.  However, I have recently moved into a new genre of reading.  My son gave me the first book in the trilogy by Edmund Morris of the life of Theodore Roosevelt.  I found it fascinating reading and that led me to purchase the remaining two books in the series.

On my last trip to our public library I decided to try out the biography section.  I selected two biographies and the first was Abraham Lincoln by Benjamin P. Thomas.  I already knew a lot about Lincoln but this book led me through a life that was most remarkable in many ways.  Born somewhat in poverty, he rose to lead the nation during one of the most difficult times in its history.

The Civil War was the bloodiest war in our nation's history.  Over 1,030,000 casualties occured (3% of the population) including civilians.  Over 620,000 soldiers were lost on both sides of the conflict removing from the scene 10% of the young male population in the North and 30% in the South.  Through this conflict, Lincoln strove to preserve the Union and bring about the end to slavery in our nation.  As a compassionate man he agonized over many facets of the war.  I am sure that no president in our history who has had to call the nation to war can fail to agonize over the number of lives lost in whatever the struggle may be.

The reason I chose to write about Lincoln today was because he epitomizes the spirit of forgiveness that I had spoken about in my previous post.  Jesus had commanded us (in his Sermon on the Mount) to love our enemies.  This requires forgiveness on our part of those who have hurt or offended us.  You can imagine the calls for recrimination that must have occured following the Civil War regarding how the seceding Southern states should be punished.  Lincoln would have none of that.  While Lincoln did not belong to any established church he was inbued with the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount and would act accordingly.

Toward the end of the war he was faced with a request for approval of various court-martial sentences (almost 30,000 in one year).  According to one of his secretaries, he would use any possible means to avoid having a soldier's life taken as punishment.  He did not want to approve the death penalty for cowardice, and as he remitted such sentences he would say: It would frighten the poor fellows too terribly to kill them.

His spirit of forgiveness was most evident after the conclusion of the war.  He did not want severe recriminations brought upon the seceding states but rather wished to "bind up the nation's wounds."  His words at his second inauguration in 1865 are classic:

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.

This is what Lincoln can teach us today - a spirit of forgiveness and a search for lasting peace and harmony between ourselves and others and between nations.  We must never give up hope that such can be accomplished for if we do it can never happen.

A contemporary of Lincoln's - Mark Twain - once wrote:  Forgiveness is the fragrance that the flower leaves on the heel of the one who crushed it.  In the spirit of forgiveness that Jesus taught us and as it was seen in the life of Lincoln, may we reach out to all those who have offended us and leave that fragrance for them to experience.

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