January 25, 2009

The Higher Law and the Gettysburg Address

In my opinion there are two great discourses that have done more to motivate and revolutionize the western world than all others. They are Christ’s Sermon on the Mount and Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Both are similar in one remarkable respect: In the way of all revolutionary ideas, they sought to override existing social paradigms.

In the case of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus asked His followers to exceed the requirements of the Mosaic Law by focusing on the development of pure hearts in addition to clean hands. According to His sermon, it isn’t good enough to avoid acts that inflict pain and suffering on others, but we should also cultivate the kind of virtuous thoughts and intentions that guide charitable behavior. Anger, lust, greed and vengefulness, therefore, have no place in this construct.

In the same way, Lincoln successfully rebuffed aspects of the prevailing law of the land in favor of a higher standard. Garry Wills, in his Pulitzer-winning book, Lincoln at Gettysburg, makes an important point about the speech: Lincoln essentially pulled rank on the Constitution, which had perpetuated slavery in order to keep peace between constituents of a divided nation. The Constitution, for example, contains the following provisions, which were repealed by the 13th Amendment:
  • Article I. Section 2 required the counting of slaves as 3/5ths a person when determining state populations
  • Article I. Section 9 restricted Congress from prohibiting the importation of slaves (prior to 1808)
  • Article IV. Section 2 required states where slavery was illegal to return escaped slaves to their owners
By contrast, Lincoln laid claim to an authority higher than even the Constitution by reminding the nation of “the proposition that all men are created equal.” This notion, of course, comes from the Declaration of Independence, which in its totality acknowledges God’s laws.

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.

Though Lincoln had ostensibly gone to Gettysburg to “dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place,” he used the opportunity to rally the nation by insisting: It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us.

While the subsequent changes that Lincoln instituted were concrete and obvious—including the implementation of a constitutional amendment that led to the abolishment of slavery—I believe Christ’s gospel hasn’t had its intended revolutionary effect on the people who profess to follow Him. In numerous ways, we continue to follow the lesser Mosaic Law. Christ asked us, for example, to rise above the requirement to exact “an eye for an eye,” which was meant to establish maximum punishments that didn’t exceed the nature of crimes committed. Yet, implicit in our allowance of capital punishment is the Old Testament notion that only blood can atone for blood. Furthermore, attempts to restrict gay marriage is more influenced by the Mosaic Law's requirement that homosexuals be stoned, than the gospel of love Jesus taught.

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