By March 1865, our nation had been rent asunder as never before and, I pray, never again.
Nearly four years of civil war had devastated the landscape, especially in the South. The war had also seared Americans’ collective conscience. Boiling hatred, blame and bitterness had displaced brotherhood.
Unimaginably brutal battles on unprecedented scales, combined with army-camp epidemics, had left a half-million dead and countless others disabled, disfigured, impoverished, orphaned or widowed.
At last, the war was nearly over; it seemed clear that the Union would emerge victorious.
In the North, vengeful Yankees demanded that, once the rebels’ surrender was secured, senior Confederate officials should be hanged as traitors. The whole South must be subjugated, to teach it a cruel and lasting lesson.
In the South, diehard rebels argued that their soldiers, vanquished on the larger battlefields, should scatter into the woods and mountains to wage guerrilla warfare against the North for years to come.
Into this roiling, poisonous atmosphere, President Abraham Lincoln stepped forward at the Capitol to deliver his second inaugural address.
He spoke not of revenge, but of humility — and of mystery.
“Both (sides in the war) read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other,” Lincoln observed. “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.”
He called not for retaliation against the Union’s enemies, but of forgiveness and healing.
“With malice toward none,” he said, “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.”
Lincoln’s plea lay at odds with the prevailing sentiments of his times. He urged the country to transcend itself — not economically or militarily, but morally and spiritually.
You might say that he wanted America to make itself great again.
That is what true statesmanship looks like.
Compare Lincoln with our current presidential timber.
Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton accused Republican Donald Trump of having called a Miss Universe winner “Miss Housekeeping” because she was Hispanic and “Miss Piggy” because she gained weight.
“She’s nasty, but I can be nastier than she can ever be,” Trump later said of Clinton, suggesting that he’d delve into Bill Clinton’s past infidelities.
Sort of makes your spirit soar, doesn’t it?
This is presidential campaigning as one-upmanship on a middle school playground.
This whole contest has, more than anything, left me sad.
There’s no question we live in a culture riven by paranoia, arrogance and pettiness. I wonder where it’s headed.
But God always grants us a choice, as individuals and as a country: We can wallow in fury and chaos, or ascend toward forgiveness and unity.
We can remain angry and mistrustful, or we can transcend our baser instincts and follow what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” It’s up to us.
At crucial times such as this, if we need anything, we need leaders who move us toward the latter goal, not the former.
It’s sobering to remember that at Lincoln’s second inauguration, as he appealed for magnanimity, John Wilkes Booth and several of his co-conspirators stood listening in the crowd.
The following month, Booth, a zealot driven by hatred and arrogance, put a bullet through the president’s skull and thus destined the battered nation to further darkness.
It’s hard enough for a country to reach a higher path when its leaders pursue that road themselves. Great leaders can be drowned out by the crowds or, like Lincoln, struck down by the plotting minions of darkness and unreason.
But if our leaders themselves deliberately choose the lower road, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.