Most of us have a pretty solid grip on history. Slavery was evil. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution which ended slavery was most excellent, and you would most certainly have voted for it. And Lincoln was a great guy as can be seen by the fact that he is on mineral and paper money.
One of the marvelous things Steven Spielberg’s film, Lincoln, does is show how difficult some of these choices were a century and a half ago. In April of 1864, the US Senate passed the 13th Amendment with relative ease. The passage of the amendment through the House of Representatives, which was much more of a struggle, is the focus of the film’s action.
I choose the word “action” carefully. If your knowledge of legislation comes from Schoolhouse Rock’s “I’m Just a Bill,” you might be surprised by the intrigue, drama and humor that screenwriter Tony Kushner draws from public debate and backroom deals. We’re not presented with clear white and black (or blue and grey) hats to root for or against. We see good, wise and, yes, Christian men pitted in opposition.
Many Republican Representatives looked to Francis Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) for direction. Blair was concerned that passage of the amendment would endanger peace talks. As great an evil slavery was, he believed, war was a greater evil. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), a leader of the abolitionist movement, had to downplay the scope and consequences of the legislation to help it pass. This galled the abolitionists, and was even more offensive to those of African descent.
Other Christian men, primarily Democrats, believed that slavery itself wasn’t evil, but was sanctioned by Scripture. Godly men (and women, but they couldn’t vote) claimed to seek God’s will on the issue of slavery and came to opposing positions. They didn’t have history’s hindsight to know what position would have the 21st century stamp of approval.
Abraham Lincoln admitted as much, even in the midst of the great Civil War. In an 1862 memorandum, he wrote, “In great contests, each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time.” Throughout the film we see Lincoln (portrayed brilliantly by Daniel Day-Lewis) fighting, sometime even underhandedly, for what he believes is right, all the while acknowledging that he might not be right. He acts boldly, yet with great humility.
If Lincoln could show so much humility in the issues of slavery, war and suffrage, perhaps we can show some humility when it comes to such issues as abortion, marriage, and immigration. There are great dangers we face as Christians, and especially as a church, when we delve into issues the world views as political.
Jesus confronted one such danger when approached on tax policy (Matthew 22: 17 – 21). Jesus said some realms belonged to God and some to Caesar. We need to discern which things are sacred and which are secular, but we must avoid two other great dangers: we must not ascribe ignorance, evil or incompetence to others, just because they disagree with our moral or political points of view, and we must not abandon great issues to the world just because they are controversial.
The church played a great role in ending legal slavery in the Western World (don’t think slavery itself is dead). The church helped secure civil rights and fought racial prejudice. There are many other moral battles that must be waged, but we must walk in the Lord’s footsteps, being as wise as serpents, yet as gentle as doves.
(Lincoln is rated PG-13 for graphic battlefield violence and vulgar language, some of it escaping the lips of the 16th President.)