Other than Triumphalism

7 Dec

Christians communicate to others that we are specially favored when we position ourselves as judges over society and standard-bearers of morality. For about 30 years Protestants of all stripes have turned public witness into battles over morality. This presumption not only contradicts the great Protestant truth that “no one is righteous” but God Rom. 3:9, it also contradicts Jesus, who did not present himself as a model of moral righteousness but belonged wholly to the world by taking the form of a sinner in public life. (Jennifer M. McBride)

Yesterday was the last class day in my History of the United States to 1865. This past week we have considered the Civil War, partly through the film Glory (old enough that most students had not seen it), even more through reading Abraham Lincoln in a collection edited by Michael Johnson.

Yesterday we focused, among other things, on Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. I think we managed to not just recognize the theology in the address, but also to note how Reformed it was, and  also the paradox of this theology was expressed by a non-adherent to any church. (Lincoln regularly attended New York Avenue Presybterian Church while in office, renting a pew there, but he was not a member of it or any other congregation.)

The Reformedness of the address has to do with the clear recognition by Lincoln that both sides, the Union and the Confederacy, were implicated in the injustice–the wrong, the sin–of slavery. All Americans were sinners, Lincoln implied, not just the enemy:

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 offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences 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 offence 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 bond-man’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 our common need recognized, then the way forward could also be recognized:

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 a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

A decidedly un-triumphalistic political (and religious) statement.

Not the sort of thing we hear from most leaders most of the time. (The late Nelson Mandela is an exception that proves the rule, so to speak.)

So “my heart was strangely warmed” (I am not exclusively Reformed; I aspire to be ecumenical) to read this morning the words by Iowa-based theologian Jennifer M. McBride with which I began this post. Her interview in the current Christian Century was a theological affirmation of what I try to do in my work as a professor of history. (As a historian at a Christian college, one of the occupational hazards I encounter almost daily is religious and national triumphalism of the past and present–and in myself.)

Find McBride’s entire interview here:

via The witness of sinners: An interview with theologian Jennifer McBride | The Christian Century.

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