Lesson 5: What is the Present National Story?

Lincoln's Gettysburg AddressAbraham Lincoln probably articulates the story by which our nation now understands war in his Second Inaugural Address. It is very much like the one Derek posted earlier in this study. Lincoln called war a mighty scourge that God applies as penalty for sin, in this case slavery. He cautioned, “Let us judge not that we be not judged,” because the ways of God are beyond our comprehension. “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. .. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes.”

Because Lincoln believes “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether,” he thinks we have no other course than to do the best we can until God is satisfied the penalty has been paid. He ends with “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.”

The call to finish the work echoes the Gettysburg Address whose primary point was “It is for us the living… to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is … from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

These words reflect the change that took place after Gettysburg. That historic battle was lead by gentlemen generals. There was only one civilian causality. The rest of the war featured Sherman and Grant’s scorched earth policy that provoked terror throughout the South. Lincoln approved of this latter strategy, because it brought an end to the fighting so the nation could get on with peace.

This story and strategy have pretty much become the way we wage war ever since. At its best, the story claims democracy is worth dying for and we honor those who have given their lives for it by finishing what they have started as quickly and efficiently as possible. At its worst, it is reduced simply to the observation that war is hell, but we have to support the troops by finishing the fight for which they have sacrificed. All effort should be given to winning and any kind of opposition is treason.

The question is whether this story works in a modern technological society in which power is so great and uncontrollable. Lincoln assumed peace would follow once we subdued the enemy. Today we have to question that. The most efficient way to end war in our day is genocide that from a Christian perspective is a return to the wanton violence of barbarism. The most efficient way to eliminate the enemy is nuclear warfare that might destroy humanity. We obviously need to find a better story if we are to preserve civilization and build a peaceful future.

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