Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.
The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." 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 judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."--Lincoln (1865) The Second Inaugural.
In trying to find words to organize the jumble of my thoughts on this week's events Stateside, I was reminded of my second visit to Washington DC with the College Democrats in the early 1990s. One bright night I got bored with the networking and the efforts of the under-aged to obtain drinks, and went with a small group to the Lincoln Memorial. I had never been there. I had discerned that professional politics was not for me. One of my companions mentioned that Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream speech," was given at the base of Lincoln's statue.
A few years before I had visited the Jefferson Memorial and I had struggled with my response. The rhetoric gripped me at first, but over time I came to see in the particular choice of words a clumsy effort at propaganda. I was bracing myself for disappointment as I entered the Lincoln Memorial. And at first, I had to suppress laughter--Lincoln looked just like I imagined him to look and I expected him to stand up and play the part in a cartoon or a third rate horror movie. I recognized the Gettysburg address (recall my post), but the words of the Second Inaugural were unfamiliar. I was horrified and astounded by it: while allowing that God's providential plan may be unknowable, he was treating the suffering of the war inflicted on all parties (both North and South) as divine punishment for the evil of slavery.
I was astounded because I could not imagine a politician, certainly not a war-time leader, magnifying the voters' sins back at them. I had come to assume that while democratic political leadership was coextensive with some truth, it primarily entailed a form of flattery of the people by the politician. That Lincoln's stance had seemed impossible to me, made me feel not just physically small in his statue's presence, but I suddenly saw that my purported knowing-ness and realism revealed itself as underestimating democratic, no human, possibility.
I was awestruck, yet angry.
His words horrified and angered me because it reminded me of the Rabbinic argument that I had encountered as a teenager that the Holocaust was divine punishment of the Jews' sins. My teenage (modestly existentialist) self earnestly opted for nihilism given the choice between meaning-less suffering or a God that inflicts such (disproportionate) horrors on his creatures. (I didn't recognize that if God existed, my choice would seem comic to her.) Since, I learned that God is not required for the stance I rejected; I sometimes spot secular versions of a divine retribution theory (e.g., austerity measures inflicted on 'lazy' populations).
I have come to recognize the moral majesty of Lincoln's great sense of shared complicity in evil. And I am impressed by his willingness to entertain, subtly, such public doubt in God's possession of the attribute of justice and his sense of the absurdity even blasphemy of so much prayer. Yet, whether he believed his own words or not, I revolted against the embrace of divine retribution because (as a doctrine/explanatory principle) it seems biased against history's victims--it victimizes them twice over. Even so, while steady in my rejection of this theology, as the years have passed, I have come to wonder whether Lincoln's greatness and his theology are inseparable. (I am not claiming this theology is sufficient for greatness!)
So, here I am, a father of a young child, hoping that he will be surrounded by people willing to cope and adjust to each other without violence, knowing that I have no grounds for expecting this. Out of scholarly duty I look up the full text of Psalm 19, and there just before reaching, "the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether," I read, אֵין-אֹמֶר, וְאֵין דְּבָרִים: בְּלִי, נִשְׁמָע קוֹלָם. There is no speech, there are no words, neither is their voice heard.*