Two weeks ago I found myself in Washington DC, standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Contemplating but not silent, the 19 foot tall form of Lincoln looks out through the columns of the temple where his memory is enshrined, towards the towering monument honoring the father of the nation, George Washington. This was the man who helped root in America’s foundation the notion that the America was conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal.”
The message is easy to hear, it is placed in stone for all to see. In case the juxtaposition of the two memories escapes the viewer, Lincoln’s words are also inscribed on the walls. The ideals of America were not being lived. Slavery was a wrong that had to be corrected, even if it meant a war between brothers: “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.”
Lincoln explains that, after the war, the healing of the nation must be done: “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.”
War is never to be desired but it was necessary in order to preserve the founding principles of America. After the war the Union could not be healed if brother held malice for brother, to achieve a just and lasting peace it was necessary to bind the nation’s wounds and care for all (not care only for one side or the other).
Saving the Union was not a result of winning the war but rather a result of both adhering to founding principles and having no malice towards the side that did not do the same.
I stood in the temple dedicated less to the specific man and more to his ideas about what it took to save the Union and felt a weight of sadness. What would he say about the America of today?
Turning to look where he gazed, out past the reflecting pool, towards the Washington Monument, I could not help but think of a different man who stood, looking in the same direction. Rev. Dr. King stood in the shadow of Lincoln, looking towards the memory of Washington and told the people of America that she was not living her founding principles. I felt dizzy picturing the sea of faces looking up at Rev. Dr. King. Black and white, men and women, young and old – Americans stood side by side because they too believed in proposition that all men are created equal.
And they did it with malice towards none.
The rage felt by the followers of Malcolm X stands in stark contrast. On one hand it is easy to understand. Wrath is a justifiable reaction to extreme injustice. The desire to inflict pain on people (or even their representations) who have caused deep physical and spiritual wounds is a natural reaction. But, to borrow from Lincoln’s words, when both sides read the same Bible, and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other, the prayers of both sides cannot not be fully answered.
It was not the rage of Malcom X or the Black Panthers that changed America. It was the people who stood together, despite the danger to themselves, who in their presence declared, with no malice but “with firmness in the right,” that liberty belongs to all men.
Anger did not change America. Courage, honor and love did.
It changed the world.
It was never one man that “made America great,” it was many, vastly different individuals who united with adherence to guiding principles. It was courageous, unwavering conviction, despite danger and little hope for victory. Above all, it was malice towards none that swayed the balance. Love won.
America was never great because a great conqueror made her so. America was great because the courage and love of her people made her honorable in ways that other nations were not.
But what about the America of today?
It seems that the fundamental change Obama promised is being fulfilled. He taught America, and the world, that there is no such thing as American exceptionalism and many seem to believe him.
Americans are busy arguing over whose lives matter more, dividing over race lines and attacking people of different religious or political beliefs. A large group of Americans feel the political system is so corrupt that maybe it is time to try socialism. Another group, is crying out for a strong man to swoop in, take control and “make America great again.”
For the past years America has stood on the wrong side of conflicts around the world. She has abandoned her allies, enabled the rise of terrorism which has in turn, destabilized the world. America is vacant from the scene, enabling other powers such as Russia and China to take her place at the world’s table.
Where has America’s honor gone?
Freedom in America is not just an American issue. The existence of a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal” is a beacon of hope for people worldwide.
In the Gettysburg Address Lincoln acknowledged that an America that lives by her guiding principles is an “unfinished work” and asked the people 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.”
In the America of today I see the Union (and with it, the free world) hanging in the balance.
If the people of America choose to continue the broken political system America will drift even further from her founding principles.
If the people choose to abandon the American experiment and replace it with a socialist government America as we know it will no longer exist.
Many Americans feel the urgency and this has led them for a “strong man” who promises that he will fix the problem. The problem is that this also results in end of the government of the people, by the people, for the people.
Wise leaders have helped America stay on the course set by her founders. Leaders serve their people.
“Strong men” are not leaders but opportunists, there to serve themselves. We see examples of this around the world and throughout history: Putin, Saddam Hussein and Mussolini, just to name a few. These men fan the flames of hate, anger and fear, knowing that hate makes people weak and easier to control. We are seeing this in America today as well…
With great power comes great responsibility. The people of America have a responsibility, to themselves and to the world.
This is no game.
Although many are acting like it is, it’s not a reality tv show either. Responsibility cannot be relegated to one man to swoop in and save the nation. No one man can fix all the problems or “make America great again.” It is the choice of each individual that will make the difference and it is enough individuals uniting with firm adherence to guiding principles that will sway the balance.
The message of the monuments on the Washington Mall, is plain to see. The lessons of history speak through them for all willing to listen:
Anger does not win. Love does.
America’s greatness came from her honor.
America’s honor came, not from any one man but from vastly different individuals who united with courage and with malice towards none, to create a land of liberty.
America’s government exists to preserve that liberty, not to empower itself. And it is the duty of the people to make sure that this is so.
Loyalty must not be to any one man but to these guiding principles.
This is what made America great. If people of America choose this course they can restore her honor and make her great again.
I don’t even want to consider the alternative.