By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Memorial Day Thoughts

I write tonight from the Washington, D. C., area, on this Memorial Day weekend. (For readers not from the U.S., this holiday is focused on commemorating those who have died in the various wars in which the U.S. has been involved. It began as a commemoration of the dead from the American Civil War. See link.)Like many other Americans, over the course of my life, I have visited the nation's capital several times. The first time was as a child in 1974--the last summer we had President Nixon before he resigned that August. I recall touring the White House back then in 1974. Today, I was unable to tour the White House because a reservation through one's congressional representative is now needed. I assure you that, back in 1974, we simply got in line and got in, without a reservation. I also recall my father taking me and my brother into the Library of Congress reading room, where he proudly showed us a book mentioning his small business. Today, I also visited the Library of Congress--only people with special permission are now allowed in the reading room. The general public has to view the magnificent main reading room from a glass-enclosed balcony.

Yes, the Washington of 1974 was a simpler time with no concrete barricades or closed streets around the White House. It would be too easy to bemoan the loss of access. It seems that the government has endeavored to strike a balance between security and the right of the people to see the assets that the people own--although the lack of direct access to the Library of Congress reading room seems, to me, an overreaction.

Patriotism is certainly a Catholic and Christian virtue, expressing gratitude to the land of our birth or nationality and all the blessings that derive from it. Yet, let me be "perfectly clear" (recall that little phrase from President Nixon) that Christianity does not exalt any one nation or culture over any other and that no Christian gives a blank check to any nation, even the nation of his birth or nationality. Having given these needed disclaimers, let me give a few thoughts as a Catholic who happens to be of American nationality.

If you meet individuals from other nations who need to understand what America is all about, I can think of no better advice than this: tell them to visit our national landmarks in D.C. They will see evidence of a great and dignified history of astoundingly sublime personalities. The cumulative impression is of a vigorous, free people who are a bracing, refreshing presence in world history. In my opinion, Washington and Lincoln stand alone on the first rung of American greatness. Lincoln's memorial is, in my view and likely that of many others based on my observations, the most impressive in the entire capital city. It is in fact a memorial temple inscribed with Lincoln's greatest words--words that can be fully appreciated only by those familiar with the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Our history is inseparable and unintelligible apart from those two books. That, my friends, is not a theological statement. It is, rather, a statement of historical and cultural fact.

Think of Lincoln especially. Out of all our presidents, I can think of none who came from a more economically and socially deprived background (history buffs, feel free to correct me--I propose Andrew Jackson as a close second). He literally came out of nowhere. He never graduated from any kind of school. Yet, except for Churchill, I am aware of no political leader with words of similar eloquence in the English language. Frankly, I rate Lincoln far above even the great Churchill--for in Lincoln, I sense a lucid simplicity that shines forth like a brilliant, self-contained flame. And all of this from a self-educated man from the rough frontier, whose father was barely literate and a mother apparently born out of wedlock who was not much more literate than his father. His family were frontier Baptists (I am reminded of the little rural Baptist churches I have recently seen while driving through Virginia, the same state where Lincoln's mother was born). Lincoln's genius is a testament to the enduring American embrace of equal opportunity and hostility to elitist distinctions (a hostility not present in our many prestige-obsessed political elites--take, for example, the Ivy League dominance in the Supreme Court exemplified by the latest Court nominee ).

As a Catholic who happens to be American, I am grateful for being born in a nation which has offered generous opportunity to so many from so many places. I am aware of no other nation with a matching record. I am aware of no other nation matching America in her fascinating attraction for so many immigrants seeking a better life.

At the Lincoln Memorial, which I visited today for the third time or so in my life, I read again his Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address inscribed on the walls of this national temple. I reprint below the Second Inaugural Address. It is undeniably a biblical and theological address testifying to the Judeo-Christian reality of American culture and history:

Second Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln
[Emphasis and Biblical Citations Added]

SATURDAY, MARCH 4, 1865

Fellow-Countrymen:

At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war--seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. 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 offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh" [Matthew 18:7]. If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses 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 offense 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 bondsman'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" [Psalm 19:19]. 

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.

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Update: A friend from Rhode Island let me know, after this post was written, that the Lincoln Memorial was in fact dedicated on the traditional date for Memorial Day, May 30th, in 1922.