When the slavery question, finally, became a sword to which the republic no longer could avert its eyes, Abraham Lincoln turned to Stephen Douglas and said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Lincoln was quoting the words of Jesus (Mark 3:25), but he did not have to invoke Jesus’ name to an audience that fully comprehended who first spoke those words.
The slavery issue had reached a tipping point in the young republic, less than a century after its founding as a beacon of personal and religious freedom (for everyone, of course, except those from Africa who were shipped to these teeming shores, chained in cargo holds).
Would slavery be allowed in the territories?
Could a nation stand, half-slave and half-free?
Or would expanding slavery into the territories – “slavery agitation,” as Lincoln called it – not cease “until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed.”
It is easy, but intellectually lazy, to view the current divisions within America with eyes planted firmly on the apocalypse.
The slavery economy triggered a Civil War that in four years claimed 620,000 lives, nearly half the total number of American casualties in all other conflicts. That number represented 2 percent of the U.S. population. Those figures today would equate to 6.5 million deaths.
No one except perhaps those in Donald Trump’s inner circle could have predicted the most astonishing upset in American political history on Nov. 8. One veteran pollster, whose job hinges on using surveys and inscrutable algorithms to make educated predictions, called Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton “the death of data.”
Not many saw this coming. However, unmistakable and exposed for all to see in the election of 2016 were the wide fault lines within our American house. We are a house divided over the humanity of the unborn, health care, immigration, the economy, corporate tax breaks, education, the Supreme Court, terrorism, trade policy, nuclear armaments, government entitlements, foreign policy, gun rights, the environment and religious freedom.
There’s a lot to be divided about because as heirs to this remarkable experiment in representative democracy – a messy and painful way of relating to each other – we have the “inalienable” right, granted by our Creator and affirmed by the Constitution, to raise our voices to our elected representatives.
The American experiment withstood an ocean of bloodshed spilled on the fields of Gettysburg and Antietam.
It will survive 2016.
It is difficult in the midst of our intense divisions to see a way out of the forest. Sadly, it sometimes takes an attack against America, such as 9/11, to force us see the deeper reality that we are blessed to live in a country with unsurpassed freedoms. We don’t truly see our common DNA until something cataclysmic happens – the Twin Towers collapsing in a satanic cloud or Hurricane Katrina submerging 200,000 homes – to flush the cataracts from our eyes.
Our accident of birth – being born in a country that cherishes industriousness and charity, family and faith – carries with it a responsibility for each of us to promote the common good and to lift up those who need help. Our nation is great when it soars to realize those loftiest of principles and protect the defenseless, but our wings so often are clipped by what Pope Francis calls “the globalization of indifference.”
Many are worried, confused and even angered by the election. No one likes unpredictability. While President-elect Trump has given voice to and energized millions who have felt abandoned by government, his full-throated, ad hominem attacks on adversaries and even the disabled force any fair person to wonder: Who, exactly, is in there? Where are we headed?
President-elect Trump needs our prayers, just as every person has who has ever sat behind Lincoln’s desk.
Our country needs healing, in the best way. We can start that healing process by looking honestly at ourselves, at the many times we fail by loosely gossiping about a coworker or failing to see and relieve a burden we could lighten – if only we could see.
We need to pray for civility and respect. We need, concretely, to become more civil in our personal relationships. We need to listen to the other side of the room. We need to listen to each other.
We have some house-cleaning to do.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.