Lincoln and Philemon

*Posted by Kirk Spencer

Lincoln and Philemon
2012 is over and the world didn’t end.  So I got a chance to see Lincoln.  Don’t ask me what I thought because it seems I’m the only one that thinks there was a too much overacted “chip-on-shoulder” sermonizing, and the villains seemed a little overly melodramatic (I kept waiting for one of them to twirl his mustache); and the distracting smoke and lighting effects made the think the film crew was a bunch of chain-smoking toddlers playing with flashlights.  And that one pesky long gray hair that kept appearing and disappearing between Lincolns eyes kept me from completely enjoying another Daniel Day Lewis “disappearing into his performance” performance.   So don’t ask me what I thought—at least until I watch it again because everyone keeps telling me it’s going to be a “classic.”

But in retrospect, from just one viewing, the thing that has really stuck with me is how the movie emphasizes how easily and naturally the end justifies so many questionable means—questionable means which never seemed to be questioned.  “Convictions” are bought and sold along with votes.  A necessary morality was legislated in an unnecessarily immoral way and no one seems to notice or care.  Rather there was a certain pride taken in playing the political game of “soul” selling.  (Even as I write this I can sense everyone saying to me “so what” “it is what it is.”)   I suspect that we are entering a relative twilight world where we relish the ideal of what is good and right but accept any bad means of achieving that good end.  I also suspect that eventually we will find it difficult to explain why something good is good (other than an appeal to an emotional state or a democratic vote).  I know that subjectivity and relativism and utilitarianism have been around for a long time, but this may be the first generation that has actually fashioned a whole culture which is comfortable with such resignation to relativism.  It is even beginning to enter our idioms.  My kids have a way of ending our conversations with a word of relativistic resignation—just one word in fact—the word “Whatever.”   The subtext being, “that’s what you believe—fine—just leave me alone and let me believe what I want to believe.”  It is part of a cultural tsunami that seems to be cresting in 2012.   A generation is coming to power that accepts “what is” as “what it is” and lets societal evolution take its course into “whatever”… and that without recourse to such passé notions as giving objective standards or even reasons why “what should be” should be.  To put it another way: The world of “It Ought To Be What It Should Be” has ended and the world of “It Is What It Is” has begun.  It may very well be that in 2012, the long conversation about universal objective truths finally ended with the dismissive word… “whatever.”

In the old world, Lincoln, the real Lincoln, had his objective standards and his reasons (or reason).  Not just because he felt like it was right or because of a democratic mandate, not for economics expediencies or political one-upmanship or saving-face (and legacy).  In a famous letter to Horace Greeley dated August 22, 1862 he gave his reason.

…As to the policy I “seem to be pursuing” as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt.  I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution.  The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that…

Lincoln—nor any other president—nor the congress, nor the government itself is our savior and true liberator.  The law only changes the outside.  Changing the inside requires something more than Law.  Paul recognized this when he wrote his letter to the slave owner Philemon.  The Apostle Paul did not use his authority and order Philemon to do what was proper.  Paul wanted Philemon’s goodness to be of his own free will and not out by compulsion.  And in this way the slave would not only cease to be a slave, but the slave would become even more; the slave would become a brother.  This can happen in the transforming power of Jesus Christ.  Even if we as slaves are freed from slavery we are still enslaved to ourselves and our own propensity to hatred and prejudice.  But in Christ the heart can be changed from the inside.  The law working from the outside only makes the heart harder.

Lincoln ended the institution of slavery by the force of law.  And that was certainly a good and necessary thing.  Paul attempted to end prejudice (and also deconstruct slavery) by making everyone a slave to the Lord Jesus.   And that would be an even better thing.  There is a clear dividing line between the matters of the law and matters of the heart.  The law entices us to play the political games of “what we can get” and “what we can get away with”… it’s all so relative… what we do on the outside.  The non-relative Truth, on the other hand, is about who we are on the inside—to be good even when no one is looking, even when we could get away with being bad.   And to seek not only good ends, but good means of getting there.  Lincoln gave us the 13th amendment, yet prejudice and hatred are still with us.  Martin Luther King Jr. opened the door to civil rights and equality, but prejudice and hatred are still with us.  I was reminded of this at the end of 2012.  Not just with the Hollywood’s Thanksgiving premier of a movie that glorified the justice of freeing the slaves from institutionalized prejudice and hatred, but then, a month later, on Christmas, Hollywood premiered, a “JohnBrownesque” exploitation work about a slave administering his own justice by allowing free reign of his bloody hatred and prejudice against the hatred and prejudice against him.

The law might control the outer man and his institutions by amending the nation’s constitution but it will not, nor can it, transform the inner man and his inadequate constitution.   Only the Lord Jesus Christ can do that.  Which reminds me… there is another movie that premiered on Christmas at the end of 2012— Les Misérables.  It’s about true redemption and transformation from the inside out that occurs when we give our lives to God and how this goodness can conquer hatred and prejudice and free us from the prison-house of the Law. And that one scene—you’ll remember it, if you have ever seen Les Mis—where the old priest gives away his silver candle stands to buy Jean Valjean’s soul for God.  It’s an interesting choice we had (and still have) at the end of 2012… to sell our souls to get “what we can get away with” or to give away our lives to buy souls for God.   At the “end of the world,” on Christmas Day 2012, we had two clear choices for our viewing pleasure—hateful revenge or loving redemption.  I bet hate and revenge will win at the box-office.  “It is what it is.”  (But it can be different.)

As I was writing this post, my teenage daughter was telling her siblings about how a friend of hers just got a job at Whataburger, so now she (my daughter) was going to get all the free food she wants.  “What?!”   So I stopped writing to explain to her that I’m sure “giving friends free food” is not part of her friend’s job benefits.  “She doesn’t get to give free food to all her friends.  It’s just wrong!” I said, “Not only that but when she is caught she will be fired and you will be partially responsible for her losing her job and destroying any reference she had to get another job.”  My daughter just looks at me like “Chillax… what’s the big deal.”  Later in the day, I took my nine year old son to Whataburger to get lunch for everybody and from the back seat he said, “My teacher got free food at Whataburger from one of her students.”  I said, “It is still wrong, even if a teacher does it.”  After several more attempt to justify the receiving of free food, my son said, “Maybe she just gives free food the first time she sees her friends and that’s all.”  I said, “Doesn’t matter how many times, it always wrong.”  Then I heard the cultural tsunami cresting in the back seat with my son’s one word retort…  “Whatever.”

Maybe the Mayans were right and the world did end in 2012…  We just didn’t notice.

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