What Would Lincoln Do?

Wednesday, 12 February 2003

In 1896 Charles M. Sheldon published In His Steps, a book that asked the question, What would Jesus do? Owing to a mistake in filing the proper number of copies of the book with the U.S. Copyright Office, the book immediately passed into the public domain and was published by many different companies and translated into many languages. Soon people all over the world were making decisions based on Sheldon's simple question.

Because today is the birthday of perhaps the greatest American who ever lived, I would like to ask a slightly different question: What would Lincoln do? Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth president of the United States of America, was also the first Republican president, so it is fitting to apply this question to the current leader of the Party of Lincoln, U.S. President George W. Bush, specifically with regard to the impending attack on Iraq.

Bush ran on a platform of "compassionate conservatism," and one can hardly argue with the "conservative" part of that phrase--even huge deficit spending, formerly a Republican no-no, has solid precedent in the administrations of Reagan and Bush père. Bush fils been conservative to a fault, his Johnny-come-lately (or perhaps bait-and-switch) concern for the AIDS epidemic in Africa being the exception that proves the rule. But are his policies compassionate? Here the comparison with Lincoln can be instructive.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln describes two parties, the North and the South: "One of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish." The U.S. is in no immediate danger of civil war, but what about the community of nations? Polls show that in the Western democracies of Europe and Canada, traditionally our most stalwart allies, between 70 and 80 percent of the population is opposed to war on Iraq without a U.N. resolution specifically authorizing it. A unilateral attack on Iraq will severely damage our nation's ties with the rest of the world, but Bush's choice is apparently to make war rather than let the community of nations survive. That's not what Lincoln would do.

When Lincoln heard of the deaths of five brothers fighting for the Union army, he wrote a memorable letter to their mother, Mrs. Bixby. His words deserve to be cited in full.

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
The loss of a son or daughter is the greatest tragedy a parent can face, and undoubtedly the president is concerned about American soldiers that might be lost in battle. However, if he were to write a letter to a mother concerning the loss of her child in the battle for Iraq, could he honestly say that the child died to save the Republic, or that a costly sacrifice had been laid upon the altar of freedom? This ill-conceived war, with undertones of revenge and lust for oil, can hardly be equated with a war to preserve the Union. Yes, the sacrifice of the mothers will be costly, but those who are lost will be sacrificed on an altogether different altar, that of neo-colonialism. That's not what Lincoln would do.

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is a succinct, powerful reminder of the human costs of war. Some 51,000 people were killed, wounded, or captured in the Battle of Gettysburg, and Lincoln expressed the hope that because of their sacrifices, "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." The current president claims that the war on Iraq is designed to bring freedom and promote democracy, but the U.S. has a very bad track record in those areas. The U.S. has often supported dictators and suppressed any thought of democracy when it was supposedly in our national interest to do so--witness Chile, Venezuela, Argentina, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama, Cuba, South Africa, Angola, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, and yes, even Iraq. Sure we're against Iraq now, but what about 15 years ago when Saddam Hussein was just as mean and nasty? And what about the organization that represents the democratic ideals of the world, the United Nations? Current U.S. policy is to bribe or threaten would-be opponents of our views, bad-mouth those who have the courage to stand against us, and ignore international treaties and laws when we don't feel like observing them. The U.S., the self-proclaimed lone superpower, acts like a world dictator rather than an equal partner in the community of nations. We're not interested in freedom and democracy; we're interested in leading the world--or driving it, if need be--down the path that we have chosen for it. That's not what Lincoln would do.

At the conclusion of his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln looked beyond the current days of conflict and challenged the country:

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.
When the war is over in Iraq, after we have decimated their populace (again), and destroyed their infrastructure (again), and littered their land with radioactive depleted uranium shells (again), what then? War is always evil, and though some rare wars might be necessary evils, can one that is instigated on such flimsy--and disingenuous--grounds have any redemptive value? Even if Iraq is rid of a bloody tyrant, will the people be better off in the long run? They certainly won't be in the short run. Will this war bring about a just and lasting peace in the region, and with all nations? The countries in the region, aside from Israel, don't seem to think so, and neither do the nations of the rest of the world. Yesterday Osama bin Laden released an audio tape calling on Muslims to fight American aggression in Iraq. The U.S. administration was quick to jump to the ridiculous conclusion that the message proved a concrete link between Al Qaeda and Iraq. On the contrary, all it proves is that the war on Iraq is likely to multiply our enemies, increase global terrorism, and further ravage an already devastated region of our planet. Bush, however, seems determined to act, regardless of the consequences. That's not what Lincoln would do.

In his annual message to Congress in 1862, Lincoln said:

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate for the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise to the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country. We cannot escape history. We will be remembered, in spite of ourselves. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor, to the last generation. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose our last, best hope of Earth.
As I began writing this piece, I was engaged in an annual ritual associated with Lincoln's birthday, listening to Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait. When I heard the deep, bass voice of James Earl Jones intone the word of Lincoln, "Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history," it occurred to me that we are at another crucial moment in history. This time, it is not only our country, but the entire world that is at risk. We need solutions to the world's problems that involve intelligence and innovation more than simple military might. We need leaders who will cooperate with other world leaders on the basis of mutual respect, leaders who know how to listen carefully to different opinions without getting into a snit, leaders who have compassion for people on all sides of a conflict. That's what Lincoln would do.

© Copyright 2003, Progressive Theology

Progressive Theology