Yesterday was the 150th anniversary of the most famous speech in American history, the Gettysburg Address, originally given by president Lincoln on November 19, 1863. One of the ways it is being commemorated is a film project by Ken Burns. He secured readings of the address by hundreds of people, both unknown and famous, including all five living U.S. presidents, and he is preparing a mashup (actually several mashups) of their readings.
It is a good thing to preserve and remind the country about such formative words. Lincoln gave the speech on blood stained and battle torn ground. In a sense, Gettysburg was the nation at that moment. As he rose to speak the evidence of war surrounded the platform. War. One of the most famous quotes about war says “war is the continuation of politics by other means” (Carl von Clausewitz). And what is politics? The Greek word for “city” is “polis.” It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to see how that leads to our word “politics” does it? If you live in the countryside and you farm for a living, getting along with your neighbors doesn’t take up a huge amount of time or need its own vocabulary, its just called getting along with your neighbors. But if you begin living in a city you have to have both a vocabulary and a system to get along with your neighbors because you spend a lot more time interacting with them. Politics is how we try to get along with people we have to get along with because we inhabit the same space or share common interest or resources. When von Clausewitz talks about war he is saying that ultimately we either have to learn how to live with our neighbors, or we have to kill them. And killing our neighbor is a way of getting along with them. A very permanent way.
In essence, politics (and war) are forms of mediation. We need something between us to help us get along. What we’ve come up with are forms of government and/or forms of weaponry; Congress and cutlasses, Kings and AK-47’s. What Lincoln looked upon at Gettysburg was not the failure of our politics, but merely one of the means by which mankind has always conducted its politics when left to our own designs.
I know this week there’s been an uproar about our current president’s reading of the Gettysburg address for the Burns project. During his reading he left out “under God” in this phrase: “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” This is the wording chiseled in the Lincoln memorial and generally accepted as the way the 16th U.S. president delivered his speech. I did not know it, but there is some question as to the exact wording of Lincoln’s speech as written. What he said on the battlefield is not in doubt, but in some early drafts he moved phrases and words in and out like all writers do. He may even have stood up to make the speech that day with a draft that did not mention God. But what is absolutely sure is that Lincoln, looking upon the result of man-mediation, invoked the presence and help of something beyond men. He called upon God to mediate the differences between us.
No doubt we are in as dire need as ever for God mediation in our country. Our politics are not working. We are not being healed, rather we are being forced further apart day by day. Why did Lincoln leave God out at first? Who knows? Why did our current president leave God out, choosing to use another rendition of the speech? Who knows? What will help us now is what helped the nation then, whether it happened spontaneously on the battlefield or in the revision of drafts: we need to see clearly that man mediation is not working and it is not enough. Don’t think so? Think I’m “dragging religion into this” where it doesn’t belong?? Look, please. Please look. I’m not a culture warrior. I’m not trying to bash someone or impugn other’s motives. Nor am I wearing religious colored glasses (much worse than rose). Let me lay out three points for your consideration:
1. No God = no right and wrong other than a man/society created right and wrong. Implication = Might does equal right if I can get enough people to agree with me or if I can get mighty enough that it doesn’t matter how many people disagree with me. This means that we have no legitimate complaint to make about anyone in power. It is survival of the fittest and if we don’t like it we can do whatever we like to depose anyone in our way. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live next to a neighbor like that.
2. Religion is not the answer, but the problem. Religion is essentially the politics of man applied to our relationship with God. When mankind is in charge of mediation between heaven and earth, we end up with systems that alienate us from both. Religion is about control. If I perform the religious duties God must bless me, therefore if I am currently blessed it is because I am doing enough/doing it right = pride BUT if I am currently not blessed it is because I am not doing enough/doing it right = fear. Proud people and fearful people are necessarily self-centered people and are not good neighbors.
3. The Gospel is the only way we can ever have a “new birth of freedom” Lincoln mentioned. The Christian gospel is the politics of heaven applied to earth. It is God mediating between him and us. It is God demonstrating he will go to any length to get along with us, up to and including shedding his own blood. Applying the gospel to ourselves first takes away both fear and pride. How can I be fearful of a God who has the greatest weaponry imaginable yet chooses to die rather than use it on me?? But it also takes away pride because God does have to die for me because I am unable to be a good neighbor to him on my own – he has to give up all his rights in order to make me right. If we take the gospel into our lives we really do have the new birth of freedom. Freedom from self interest. Freedom from putting anyone else down so that I can rise. Even the freedom to lay my own life down for others. Freedom to be good neighbors…the best good neighbors.
How free are you? How much does the politics of man control you by making you afraid or proud? We are a deeply divided people right now. Our divisions will not be healed by looking to man-mediation in the city of the Lincoln Memorial. There is no freedom to be had there that the next occupant of the seat of man power cannot take away. If we look out upon the devastation as Lincoln did and see the utter fruitlessness of self mediation, could we stop asking why the president left God out, and begin to invite God into our own lives through seeing and accepting the gospel of Jesus?