My thoughts on this Fourth of July have been centered on the Civil War rather than the war for independence. It was, by far, the bloodiest war in American history. Approximately 620,000 soldiers died, or about 2% of the population. At today’s numbers, that would mean 6 million deaths. It was not just north against south, the union vs. the confederacy. It was brother against brother, parents against children, neighbor against neighbor. The fact that America survived, reunited, and prospered after the war is surely one of the great miracles of history.
Abraham Lincoln has been given much credit for ending slavery, but the moral vision contained in his second inaugural is perhaps his defining legacy. It was, in some ways, a deeply theological reflection in which he struggled with the meaning of God’s providence in the wake of such devastation. Acknowledging that both sides studied the Bible and prayed to God, he ended with these enduring words: “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.”
Words can be powerful, and I sometimes wonder if America would have survived without Lincoln’s vision of humility, compassion, and unity. While in office, Lincoln was haunted both by the death of his son Willie and by the thousands who died on the battlefield under his watch. Six weeks after the inaugural he was assassinated. But his words lived on, reminding us all that nothing is more important than the moral vision that lies at the heart of our American experiment.
My prayer on this Independence Day is that we might be once again united by a moral vision that overcomes the pettiness of our politics and the arrogance of our ideologies; that reminds us of the ideals that birthed us; and that can continue to animate us in the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness for all people.
Rev. Don Underwood