Road to Freedom

Americans think and talk a great deal about freedom.  And that is appropriate.  Especially when July 4th comes on the calendar, freedom moves to the front of the news.  For most people freedom is at the core of our country.  Doubtlessly, for most Americans freedom would be part of the explanation of what our country is all about.  I don’t disagree with that.

I have been thinking about freedom quite a bit.  And I have been reading about it.  I agreed to do a series of presentations and one of the people I have to speak about is Abraham Lincoln.  So I have been reading more Lincoln that I probably have read since high school or, maybe, college days.  It is not a chore.  In fact I am fascinated by what I remember and the new things I am learning.

I suppose most Americans think Lincoln was an amazing President.  That is probably true even in the South, but I am sure there are exceptions there---and elsewhere.  As I read about Lincoln, it is clear not everyone in the 1850s and 60s thought he was an amazing man and, then, President after his election in 1860.  He did have enough votes to win the election and become leader of this country.  But that action helped drive seven Confederate states to secede and attempt to divide this one country into two countries.  Most of us generally know the general story.

Of course, the major focus of his Presidency was the Civil War.  The War began in April, 1861, one month after Lincoln was sworn into the Office.  The War commenced when Fort Sumter in South Carolina came under attack.  While I have been interested in becoming acquainted again with the history, I am more focused on the religious dimensions of the time and the events.  Particularly, I am intrigued to learn more about Lincoln and his views.

It is interesting that Lincoln never was a member of a Christian congregation.  Lincoln was born in the middle of nowhere in Kentucky.  His family attended a Baptist church, but he never became a member of this congregation or any other one.  While we don’t know much about his earliest days, one thing that is interesting is recognizing that generally Baptists were anti-slavery.  This may be a key factor in the relocation of his parents from Kentucky to southern Indiana when Lincoln was a boy of eight years old.  In the period of the Civil War, this would have been a move from a Confederate State to a State within the Union.

We know Lincoln spent most of his time living in Illinois and then the moved to Washington, DC when he was elected to the US House of Representatives and, then of course, his Presidency.  During all his Illinois and DC years, religion continued to play an increasingly important role.  That is the thing that interests me the most.  I have read quite a few of his writings to see how religion functioned in his mind.

Some things can be definitely said.  Clearly, he believed in God.  He was familiar with the Bible in a way that is characteristic of his era and is much less so in our own times.  One thing that seems true to me is his experiences changed and deepened his faith.  Unless one has been in the seat and shoes of a person, such as Lincoln, it is difficult to appreciate how the experiences he has continue to form him.  Because he tried to walk the middle ground, he stirred rancor from both sides---the Confederates and the radical abolitionists alike.

The road to freedom that we can talk about so easily today was a road full of trepidation and pitfalls.  While I will give more attention to Lincoln in more pieces in the future, I  want to identify one key theological idea that stands out in my reading.  The idea is that God deals with people in a providential way.  Simply put, God works in history through Providence.

This means God does not move people around like puppets on a string.  And yet God does have a will and through the working of history provides that that will comes to be true.  To believe God works providentially makes it more difficult to be absolutely sure you know what God’s Providence means.  Rather, it calls for a kind of discernment.  If you believe in God’s Predestination, then it is much easier to assume you know what God is up to.  This was never Lincoln’s perspective.

And this explains to me why Lincoln always was humble and not self-righteous.  He had faith that he sensed God’s will, but he also knew others---the Confederate leaders, especially---were equally appealing to God to honor their cause.  Reinhold Niebuhr, famous mid-20th century theologian nicely captures this.  Niebuhr says that Lincoln was able to “embrace a paradox…namely, the affirmation of a meaningful history and the religious reservation about the partiality and bias which the human actors and agents betray in the definition of meaning.”

This is a complex way of saying Lincoln was ultimately sure God knew where things would go.  Lincoln was not sure he knew how that Divine Will would happen.  But Lincoln was committed to a road of freedom for all.

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