(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering, UCC, All Rights Reserved
To listen to the message, download here:
As President, Abraham Lincoln enjoyed telling a story about two religious women who were discussing the possible outcome of the Civil War. One of the women announced that she believed the South would win the war. “Jefferson Davis is a praying man,” she piously said. “But Abraham Lincoln is a praying man too,” the other exclaimed. “Yes, indeed he is,” the first woman replied, “but the Lord thinks Lincoln is joking!”
This story perfectly captures one of the great qualities of Lincoln. He had a keen sense of humor and he peppered many of his conversations with funny stories. He used them to poke fun at himself, to disarm his critics, to politely end conversations that had gone on too long and, just as Jesus used parables, to leave his listeners with something memorable.
It is in that regard that Lincoln’s calculating brilliance showed through. His folksy humor suggested his backwoods Kentucky upbringing. When matched against more educated and supposedly refined opponents, he seemed the country jester or the rural naïf who was out of his element. Many did not take him seriously. But friends and opponents who ignored Lincoln’s cunning and intuitive wisdom did so at their own peril.
False impressions of Lincoln have also shaped him into a mythic hero of honesty and moral purpose – one who fought and was martyred in order to preserve the Union and end slavery. In many biographies about him and even in his marble Memorial in Washington, Lincoln is depicted as embodying all that America sees as good, righteous and moral about themselves. For many, he is the quintessential good and decent American – a man of pure and noble purpose.
A closer examination of Lincoln by historians and, more recently by the filmmaker Steven Spielberg, reveals a far more complex, nuanced and often conniving person who was, at times, the nastiest description of all – a consummate politician. Such revelations surprise many people. Recent histories strip away the gloss of myth and thus uncover a statesman who was a regular practitioner of the sometimes sordid art of politics. Machiavelli, the famous renaissance Italian writer, claimed that an effective leader must act in morally questionable ways in order to achieve a higher good. While few leaders wish to be labeled Machiavellian, Lincoln lived true to that philosophy.
As I have done in February for the past three years, we’ll look this month at different films that have been nominated for the Best Picture award. We’ll seek insight into spiritual lessons we might learn from them. Since most forms of entertainment are ultimately morality plays about life and human behavior, finding spiritual enlightenment from great film artists is a worthy endeavor. A movie’s views may or may not be our own but, like most works of literature or art, good movies provoke introspection and deep questioning of what is right and wrong. They help lead us to a better understanding of our values and how we might live in ways that advance humanity.
In that regard, Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln” is a worthy contribution. In his examination of Lincoln’s efforts to pass the 13th amendment in a deeply divided House of Representatives, Spielberg compels us to consider a timeless question we frequently face but are usually too afraid to answer. Does the end justify the means? Did the passage of one of the hallmarks of constitutional amendments, the 13th, outweigh the dirty means by which it was achieved – by lying, bullying, bribery and other nefarious tactics? In the film, Lincoln is shown to deceive Congress, lie to them and even meet in the middle of the night, to arrange with paid henchmen, efforts to bribe, trick and bully wavering Congressmen to vote in favor of the amendment. What we see is almost, almost! a 19th century version of “Nixonian” dirty tricks. What Lincoln did was possibly criminal and certainly executive abuse of power. His actions make the nickname “Honest Abe” seem ridiculous.
But, the film also depicts the joyous and uplifting approval of the amendment by the House. After its adoption ten months later by three fourths of the states, the amendment insured an end to slavery throughout the United States as it enshrined in law the ideal that each and every citizen, no matter race or ethnicity, was free and equal. Not only did it permanently end slavery, it became the foundational constitutional precept for ending Jim Crow practices and the resulting Civil Rights laws.
Many people of faith and, indeed, those who profess no faith, believe they operate by a set of guiding morals or principles that are often universal and eternal. Do not kill. Do not steal. Do not lie. Such ethics are framed in the Biblical Ten Commandments even as they are also represented in many other moral codes of conduct. The Jewish faith has thousands of religious laws and countless interpretations of them by which those of orthodox belief seek to maintain their purity before a perfect deity. Muslims have their Five Pillars of faith by which they regulate devotion to Allah and the teachings of his prophet Muhammad. Hindus and Buddhists have their own traditions and rituals which also prescribe how one ought to live in a morally decent manner.
Importantly, however, such religious and moral rules often conflict with other moral principles humans wish to achieve. Did defeating Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler allow for the firebombing of Dresden and the killing of thousands of civilians? Did the defeat of Japan and preventing countless additional troop and civilian casualties allow the United States to drop nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, two cities with minimal military value? Would water-boarding a terrorist who has knowledge of an attack that could kill thousands be morally justified? On a simpler level, is it OK to lie to a friend or family member if it means not deeply hurting his or her feelings?
How far can we go in bending or breaking so called rules of morality if the goal we wish to achieve is believed to be greater or better? These are vexing questions to ask ourselves and I don’t believe we will arrive at any perfectly satisfying answer for each and every situation. But, we either ask such questions and seek solutions, or we ignore them at our peril.
As I often say, truth is not a black and white, yes or no, good or bad proposition. Truth often lies somewhere in the murky, obscure and grey middle. Those who say life can be led by adhering to absolutes either delude themselves or else are too rigid and too doctrinaire to be of practical use in any real world solution. Indeed, those who are moral, political or religious absolutists are, in my humble opinion, immoral because they fail to discern and think about the many ambiguous or even negative implications of their unbending rules and beliefs.
In the Biblical story of Exodus, the Jewish people find themselves, after forty years of wandering in the desert, without a leader. Moses has died. To lead the Jewish people into their new land, God selects Joshua. In a prudent effort to scout out the new land, Joshua sends three spies across the Jordan River to determine the strengths and weaknesses of Jericho – the walled border city that was key to gaining entrance into Palestine.
The spies do their duty and eventually meet a prostitute, Rahab, who because of her profession had close contact with leaders of Jericho. She also lived in a strategic part of the city – near its defense walls. Rahab gave confidential information to the spies about Jericho and even hid them in her home. When that city’s military leaders learned there were spies in their midst, they questioned many people including Rahab. She, however, acted as a traitor and lied to the leaders by denying any knowledge of the Jewish spies. Rahab did so knowing full well the spies would report back to Joshua who would then lead a military assault on Jericho that would likely succeed, since they now had inside knowledge. Given how ruthless the Jews were known to be when fighting so-called pagans, Rahab knew her lies meant the death of most of Jericho’s residents. Indeed, that would soon be the case.
But nowhere in the Bible is Rahab condemned for her actions. She is even called a righteous woman. And, in one of the highest compliments paid to any Biblical character, she is listed in the New Testament book of Matthew as a direct ancestor of Jesus. Such an inclusion clearly indicates Jews and Christians condone Rahab’s lying. In almost all Jewish and Christian commentaries, her lies were moral lies because they helped achieve a supposedly good result – the ability of Jews to claim the land promised them by God. In the name of a godly cause, it seems that almost any action, including bearing false witness and breaking one of the Ten Commandments, is not only OK, but good.
The same is also true about the conquest of the rest of Palestine. In the Biblical book of 1st Samuel, God tells the Jews, “Now go, attack the pagans and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.” Again, almost all Jewish and Christian commentaries approve such a command – even the death of innocent children and infants. They claim that God’s ways are perfect and that such harsh measures were necessary to insure the moral purity of Palestine, since the pagans practiced ritual sex acts and child sacrifice. Indeed, that is the implicit motivation of God in issuing his command.
Jesus himself acknowledged that breaking absolute rules in the name of human compassion is a good and right thing. He purposefully approved the theft of small amounts of wheat, even on the Sabbath, when one is hungry and in need. He committed such theft himself.
While some, including the Atheist writer Richard Dawkins, assert that these examples render the Bible unworthy of respect, such an assertion is equally absolutist. The Bible was written by many different individuals, at many different times, each with different agendas and purposes. It is likely that the history portions of the Bible were written with the intent to justify Jewish conquest of Palestine and even to encourage a bit of boasting on their part: “Look at how God was on our side!” For us, however, we need NOT abandon the countless great insights and pieces of wisdom in the Bible even if portions are morally inconsistent.
The essential question for us today is how we humans often justify the methods used to achieve a desired result. Just like the Jews of the Bible, many Americans have justified the killing of Native Americans and the conquest of their lands because it was a manifest or even Divine destiny that our continent be settled and supposedly civilized. Our nation and its history are not perfect but America has significantly contributed to world-wide ideals of democracy, compassion and equality. How do we reconcile that fact with our history of land theft and conquest of Native Americans? That is not an easy answer, for if we say such actions were totally evil and indefensible no matter what, then we must also claim that America is not a just nation and its existence is based on a moral wrong. Much like some writers of the Bible used allegedly good outcomes to justify the conquest of Palestine, so must we also grapple with our own dark history contrasted against the inherent goodness of American ideals and institutions.
All of this takes us back to the moral question posed in the movie “Lincoln”. Does the constitutional ban on slavery – and its resulting foundation for complete human equality – somehow make the dishonest and deceitful practices Lincoln used to pass the 13th amendment permissible and even moral? We ask ourselves once again, can a moral end justify immoral means?
John Stuart Mill, the nineteenth century English philosopher, writer and economist, advanced the ideas of utilitarianism. Mill proposed that humans judge the utility or merit of anything in life by the goodness it brings. A thing or action is moral if it achieves the “greatest possible good for the greatest number of people.” That is a key proposition and it can inform our own tentative approach to moral quandaries similar to Lincoln’s.
Mill rejected the Christian belief that goodness is revealed to us by God. Rather, goodness is largely determined by reason and applied intuition. Indeed, we have just considered examples from the Bible where seemingly immoral acts were justified by supposedly moral results. Even God and Jesus, according to the Bible, abandoned the absolutes of the Ten Commandments and used ethical reasoning to determine that stealing, lying and killing are permissible in certain circumstances. Such examples indicate that even religion and holy Scriptures cannot address all questions of morality. Ultimately, we are left to ourselves, our minds, our hearts and our intuitive sense of love and compassion to determine what is good, right and true.
As Steven Spielberg depicts in his film, Lincoln knew that if an end to the Civil War resulted without an emphatic end to the very reason over which it was fought – that of slavery – then the hundreds of thousands of lives lost in the war, both in the North and the South, would be of no meaning. Even worse, without a constitutional ban on slavery – something the Emancipation Proclamation did not do – the nation could very well have found itself once again in a civil war. American history would be very, very different – and far worse – had the 13th amendment failed. If the amendment’s passage required a few bribes, a few untruths, a few threats and a few patronage jobs, then the great good it brought to millions of people was and is worth such actions. Indeed, as a counter-intuitive statement, Lincoln’s lies and deceptions in that instance were deeply moral acts. The utility, and thus the intrinsic morality of the 13th amendment have been proven time and time again. It brought the greatest good to the greatest number of people.
In making any decision about the means we use to achieve goals that are good and right, we must apply rigorous examination. There is little question that Lincoln deeply thought about his actions. His guiding star was saving the United States and ending racial slavery. He knew America was not perfect and yet he also understood the implicit goodness of our nation. Such a nation must not perish, as he said, lest the high ideals of liberty, justice, fairness and democracy be diminished instead of enhanced.
For each of us, let us not presume to understand or know absolute morality or absolute certainty on any matter. As we all know, there are very few absolutes in our universe. In matters of what is right, true and good, there are even fewer. But we have been endowed with wonderful minds, compassionate hearts and collective insights that grant us the tools to sort through moral questions with reason and heart wisdom. I suggest we abandon the extreme poles of right and wrong, moral and immoral, believer and unbeliever, liberal and conservative, and move instead into the often messy and ill defined grey zone where compromise and collective reason prevail. Let us look to the greats of the past – men and women like Jesus, Lincoln and others who acted not with absolute certainty but with well-reasoned intentions to serve and love as much of humanity as possible.
I wish us all peace and joy.