Spielberg’s Lincoln is a stunning, captivating story of the four most important months in Lincoln’s presidency and, perhaps, in our nation’s history.
In his first inaugural Lincoln was holding out hope that the war between the states could still be avoided, so he addressed those who had seceded, saying:
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
The phrase, “The better angels of our nature,” is at once an affirmation of that which is good in us, in human nature, and by implication it acknowledges the shadow side of our nature. The reference to angels brings me to my point and purpose of this sermon effort: our need for mythology, our need for religion or faith…which is the same as our appreciation of poetry and music and all of the arts.
Abraham Lincoln – just the name stirs up something in our collective mindset that has to do with our shared sense of the sacred, the holy, the mystical, the heroic – all the ingredients of mythology at its best – the profound Truths contained in myth.
It’s a shame that the word myth or mythology when attached to traditional religious stories has such a negative sound in so many ears. To the religious who believe in the literal truth of the stories it sounds like we’re saying that the story is not true, that it’s a lie and you have to be foolish to believe it. “It’s just a myth,” we say.
After watching the new film, Lincoln, my first response was, “This film and Lincoln’s story and life is the stuff of a good myth.” It touched me of that line: ‘where the spirit meets the bone.”
What are the mythological aspects in the story about the life and times of Abraham Lincoln?
Lincoln’s paternal grandfather was named Abraham, and Abraham was the name of the first patriarch of the Jewish people and, by extension, the father of Christianity and Islam who were built on the same historical foundation, the cornerstone of which is historical but the framework is mythological.
The mythological story of Abraham Lincoln begins in the rough-hewn, one-room log cabin, in Kentucky, reminiscent of the rough-hewn stable, scene of another mythological birth in Bethlehem about 2000 years ago.
The Pope’s latest book about Jesus acknowledges that the nativity story told at Christmas is not literal truth.
Jesus was a real, flesh-and-blood person who lived 2000 years ago. The story of his birth in a stable is the stuff of mythology, as are the so-called miracles of Jesus.
There is, of course, lots of disagreement about Jesus, but I’m simply stating our Unitarian Universalist view – with my own personal slant on it – and hopefully it doesn’t sound disrespectful to those who believe that Jesus is God, born of a virgin, any more than their beliefs, when spoken, ought to be taken as disrespect of me, or of us.
Mythology is like poetry – an attempt to express the deeper Truth in the human story, the human experience.
Carl Sandburg has a little poem about Lincoln’s birth in that log cabin as his mother, Nancy Hanks, waited for her second child to be born. Sandburg called it FIRE-LOGS:
NANCY HANKS dreams by the fire;
Dreams, and the logs sputter,
And the yellow tongues climb.
Red lines lick their way in flickers.
Oh, sputter, logs.
Oh, dream, Nancy.
Time now for a beautiful child.
Time now for a tall man to come.
He was a tall, strong, self-made man, the son of a carpenter who grew up in hard times, overcoming the obstacles, studying by candle light, self-taught, and eventually becoming President of the United States of America.
We talk about the American Dream – it’s a defining metaphor for us – the idea that every person in our nation has an opportunity, through their own effort, to succeed – it’s about financial success, to be sure, but it’s also about other kinds of success – the kind that comes from your own effort to carve out meaning, purpose and direction in life – to live a meaningful life.
We all know that the idea of the American Dream has, from the beginning, been stained by prejudice, bigotry and various kinds of discrimination and other obstacles…but the idea is there. In a way it’s part of our national mythology – the story we tell ourselves and one another about ourselves – our shared ideal. We all know that it is an ideal, which is why we call it a dream, an aspiration.
Lincoln epitomizes the American Dream. He was born in humble circumstances and pulled himself up by those proverbial bootstraps to become our 16th President.
The number 16 plays a part in our collective mythology as well as our sectarian religious story.
In Jewish tradition a young man or woman has a bar mitzvah at twelve, then at sixteen there’s a ceremony of confirmation – the process of affirming his or her faith, affirming his or her Jewish identity. At 16 the young man or woman is given a kind of implicit independence, in the sense of being expected to have their own interpretation of the stories – to study Torah is to interpret the ancient myths in a way that makes sense for each person.
My rabbi friend, Bob Orkand, put it this way: “I tell our confirmation class that they should think of themselves as receiving the Torah and Ten Commandments first-hand at Sinai, as if they are now standing at the foot of the mountain, and they have to come to an understanding of the law as it relates to their own lives and to the life of the culture in which they live today.”
In a very powerful way, Lincoln’s presidency, our 16th, was America’s coming of age, our confrontation with ourselves as a nation, a kind of confirmation, captured poetically in Lincoln’s comments at Gettysburg…”Our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
But in our infancy, only white, male, property-owning citizens could participate in the political life of the nation – women could not vote, blacks could not vote, those without property could not vote. We didn’t come forth full grown – it took years and hard work to get to where we are now, which is still not the nation of ‘liberty and justice for all’ to which we aspire. So, we ‘have a dream.’ A goal.
We’re getting there, step by step.
Lincoln’s metaphor at Gettysburg applies. Listen again to the way Lincoln said it at on that November day in 1863:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.
The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that 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.
Lincoln opened that speech with a direct reference to our nation’s birth narrative — the opening lines in the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government…”
So, from a mythological point of view, the Declaration of Independence was a kind of naming ceremony like the naming ceremony for a new child in the Jewish tradition, or a baptism or christening in Christian religious practice, or the Muslim ceremony Aqiqah, celebrating the birth of a child – at Aquqah the child is given a name.
Our Unitarian Universalist service of dedication of parents and children includes a naming ceremony – affirming the uniqueness of every person and the responsibility that each of us assumes in a child’s growth and development.
Lincoln is the most mythologized of our presidents, not only because of the stories about his childhood or writing the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope on the train on his way to the site of the great, tragic battle, but because he is most like a savior, in the Jewish sense of the Messiah. He saved the union, the United States of America, thus he entered the realm of mythology.
Among our presidents, Lincoln is in a category by himself, like a Biblical character sent by God to be sacrificed for our nation’s great sin, slavery.
Jewish religious texts, the Torah (Bible) and Talmud, contain ‘numerous laws governing the ownership and treatment of slaves.’ There’s a set of laws governing Hebrew slaves and another set of laws governing non-Hebrew slaves. But slavery was a given. Acceptable.
The mythology of the Passover story is all about the great sacrifices made to end the slavery of the Hebrew people in Egypt – perhaps a metaphor for their ownership of slaves.
Lincoln’s Biblical namesake, Abraham, is the primary mythological character – father of the three Western religions, the first patriarch of the Hebrew people, the architect who set the foundation, the forefather of Moses, another mythological character credited with the liberation of the Hebrew people.
Moses, the story says, received the law on those stone tablets in a direct meeting with God, so he became the law giver – a messenger of God.
Lincoln, in his capacity as president, issued the Emancipation Proclamation, a law, if you will, and he was the force behind the 13th amendment to the Constitution, ending slavery.
Like Moses who never got to the Promised Land, Lincoln didn’t live to see the end of slavery – he died on Good Friday, April 15, 1865 and it took several more months for the 13 amendment to be ratified.
In the book of Genesis God tells Abraham that he is to be ‘the father of a great nation,’ whose numbers will be as numerous as the stars, and that through him all nations would be blessed.
That’s when he went through a name change from Abram to Abraham. Genesis 17: 5 says:
“No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.”
The first son of Abram was Ishmael, the son of Hagar, Abram’s wife’s slave and Abraham’s concubine. In this mythological story, Ishmael and Hagar are sent from Abram’s house once Sarah gives birth to Isaac.
Ishmael, the homeless wanderer, eventually becomes the father of Islam, the Muslim people. “Call me Ishmael.”
When his son Isaac is born, Abram becomes Abraham and when Isaac was a young man Abraham was put to the test by being told by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, and he willingly complied, giving not a word of protest of such an enormous atrocity.
Later, when God told Abraham that he was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham argued with God, criticizing God for his willingness to kill the innocent with the guilty, suggesting a change of attitude toward God from blind obedience to a call for justice – a symbol for moral maturity.
Lincoln was put to the same test. The death toll was enormous –about 1,030,000 casualties (3% of the population), including about 620,000 soldier deaths—two-thirds by disease, and 50,000 civilians. Some historians believe the death toll was much higher – perhaps 850,000.
On January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued an executive order, based on the president’s constitutional authority as commander in chief of the armed forces, proclaiming that all slaves in Confederate territory were free, which accounted for 75% of all slaves in the U.S. at the time.
The Emancipation Proclamation did not outlaw slavery and it did not make former slaves citizens. It was akin to the Pharaoh letting the Hebrew people go, but it took the next forty years for them to reach Promised Land. Moses, the story says, got but a glimpse of the Promised Land
Deuteronomy 34:1-4 says, “Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo… There the Lord showed him the whole land… Then the Lord said to him, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob… I will let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.”
Shortly after, Moses dies and is buried by God, and his successor, Joshua, leads the people of Israel into the so-called Promised Land, over which the descendents of Isaac and the descendents of Ishmael continue to fight.
Martin Luther King, Jr. is another character of mythological proportions in our nation’s history, often used Biblical imagery. The night before his assassination he said, prophetically:
“I’ve been to the mountaintop…. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
King’s words and life was the stuff of mythology, in the best, most powerful sense.
Lincoln had to get his proposal to legally end slavery, the 13th amendment to the Constitution, ratified. That process is the essence of Spielberg’s powerful film, bringing Lincoln down to earth as he wheels and deals, doing what needs to be done, politically, to accomplish his goal.
The original reason for the Civil War was to preserve the Union. That reason evolved into fighting the Civil War in order to end slavery in every state of the union.
With the passage of the 13th amendment, slavery was made illegal everywhere in the U.S. On December 6, 1865, when Georgia ratified the 13th amendment, the institution of slavery officially ceased to exist in the United States.
Lincoln, who was born on February 12th, 1809, and died on April 15, 1865 at age 54, didn’t live to see it happen. He died eight months before slavery officially came to an end. He died on Good Friday, adding to the mythological element.
What would Lincoln think about having an African-American living and working in his former home – the White House?
Lincoln was not without racial prejudice. But the 1809 America into which he was born was a different America than it was exactly 200 years after Lincoln’s birth when the 44th president, the first African-American president, was inaugurated.
Obama’s inauguration set a record for attendance at any event held in Washington, D. C. Of course Lincoln would be amazed at the television viewership of that event, and the Internet traffic – making it one of the most observed events ever by a global audience.
Obama’s inaugural theme was ‘A New Birth of Freedom,’ a phrase from the Gettysburg Address and celebrated in the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth year. In his speeches to the huge crowds, Obama made references to the ideals expressed by Lincoln about the unity of the nation, about renewal and continuity, and the need for shared sacrifice and a new sense of responsibility of ‘all the people, by all the people and for all the people.’
Obama’s inaugural events included a national day of community service on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, who, like Lincoln, has been transformed into a mythological figure in America.
The American Dream is alive and well – Abe’s life still speaks the language of the dreamers in the symbolism of the long journey from that one-room log cabin in Kentucky to the White House in Washington, D. C.
We’ll close with the famous passage from Lincoln’s second inaugural:
“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.”