Faith and Film: Lincoln

Steven Spielberg\’s Lincoln, along with Argo and The Life of Pi, is one of my favorite Oscar-type movies of 2012. Daniel Day-Lewis is predictably incredible. Sally Field shows the same talent that earned her two Academy Awards. My review for Plugged In can be found here, so I won\’t probably say too much more about it. The movie speaks eloquently enough.
But I did want to point you to a pretty interesting, related article I ran across on the Christianity Today website this morning, written by Lincoln scholar Ronald C. White Jr. White discusses President Lincoln’s mighty second inaugural address, parsing his frequent mentions of God and quotations of Scripture to show how he tried to use faith as a conduit for national healing.
“In a total of 701 words, Lincoln mentioned God 14 times, quoted Scripture 4 times, and invoked prayer 3 times,” White writes. “Lincoln\’s address provides a model for how Christians can speak of faith and politics together.”
I’d agree. Lincoln used language as well as any president, and the address shows Lincoln at his best, I think: Thoughtful, forgiving, wise. It’s fitting that Spielberg’s movie actually concludes with Lincoln reciting part of his address. There’s a weariness about it; an admission that the country, north and south, have been through a terrible trial unequaled in its annals. It stressed the commonality of the combatants, not their differences, and suggested the whole country was being judged by God (the sort of admission that would get a politician roundly mocked today). And yet, for all its sometimes gloomy realism, it offers a thread of hope—of redemption and healing.  Take a look:

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. … 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 judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.\”
   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.

We owe Lincoln a lot and we know it. His kindness and wisdom have become so inculcated in our national heritage that it’s easy to forget or ignore the flip side of Lincoln—the consummate, cagey politician that we see in Spielberg’s Lincoln. I think some people might be surprised, even shocked. Christians who demand their heroes be as pure as a newborn unicorn may, perhaps, think of Lincoln a little less fondly. But it’s good to remember, I think.
Jesus told his disciples to be “as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” And that bit of advice is worth remembering in any age.

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