When I graduated from high school my church gave me the “College Devotional Bible,” which is a TNIV translation with devotionals spread throughout, including short thoughts written by people in college. The added content doesn’t really seem to have anything that has to do with college specifically; I think it could be renamed and no one would be the wiser.
Anyway, they have a devotional regarding Jeremiah 24, where those in exile from Judah and in Babylon were compared to two baskets of figs. One basket is good and one is bad. Likewise, some of the exiles were good, some were bad. And so the devotional says that “We are not to conclude that those who suffer do so simply because God is unhappy with them. Here we see God accomplish with one act of judgment at least two purposes: Some are drawn to him by prayer, while others receive their just due.”
Interestingly enough, the writers compare this to the story of Abraham Lincoln and the American War Between the States. First of all, they seem to have an elementary school understanding of the situation, as detailed by their first paragraph:
Despite his popularity in American history, Abraham Lincoln did not win the presidency by a national landslide. When he was first elected in 1860, his name did not even appear on the ballots of nine Southern state. Despite this lack of political support, the electoral votes he secured in the North were enough to give him the presidency.
I suppose one may be confused, given what he or she is told in public school, when confronted with the fact that Lincoln wasn’t an American icon in his day. What? Not everyone loved him? And yet it’s presented here as if Lincoln’s presidency is some underdog story, rather than an absolutely broken electoral system where nearly half the country gets a president they don’t want.
Even as he took office, the Civil War loomed as an inevitable reality, and the Southern states were planning their secession. As was predicted, a bitter war erupted, a conflict that took the lives of almost one million people.
If we live in a fantasy land where war-making isn’t a conscious decision made by those in control of governments, then I suppose that war was inevitable. But that is not reality (indeed, it seems to deny the idea that individuals have a free will, without which Christianity would make little sense). Lincoln made the conscious decision to prevent the seceding states from peacefully leaving the Union. These deaths would not have happened but for his actions.
Before the war was over, Lincoln had won his presidential reelection. With his second term secured, military victory seemed inevitable, and slavery was finally abolished. As he gave his second inaugural address, Lincoln acknowledged that God providentially uses one terrible event and applies it to each person individually according to their need. To some, it is bitter punishment. To others, it is the means he uses to draw people back to himself.
It is interesting to note that in the book of Jeremiah, God uses the Babylonians to punish the people of Judah for their wickedness. However, it also goes on to state that the Babylonians were punished in turn for their aggression against the people of Judah. It wasn’t as if the Babylonians were on some righteous mission from God; he simply used what they were inclined to do anyway to punish Judah. In the same turn, it shouldn’t be that we automatically assume the Union was acting justly.
It was during that speech that Lincoln called people back to the God who directs the paths of history: “Fondly do we hope – fervently do we pray – that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God will that it continue…so still it must be said the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”
I’m not sure what to make of this. Lincoln could have chosen to end the war at the time he gave this speech. The Confederate States weren’t trying to take over the Union, the Union was trying to take over the Confederates. Stated otherwise, as the aggressor, Lincoln could have ended it. But since his goal was to break the South into submission, the war went on. It almost seems blasphemous that he would attribute his acts to God.
Lincoln’s response to war was to turn to God, seeing it as the loving rebuke of a just and sovereign God rather than simply as a punishment without purpose. One month later he became the first president to be assassinated. His words are a lens through which to understand his death. God’s promise remains: “They will be my people, and I will be their God.”
The first sentence of this paragraph is absolutely ridiculous. But, as alluded to above, I wasn’t taught in school how Lincoln jailed those who would criticize his war, suspend habeas corpus, and institute an income tax (which alone would seem to make the argument that he was fighting against slavery lose its legitimacy). Perhaps without the knowledge of his tyranny and having the inculcated idea that this war was just (an idea that should be defeated through simple logic), maybe one could come to their conclusion. But it’s still hard to stomach.
Needless to say, I am very disappointed with this devotional (though I can’t put myself above my own criticism here; I know that I read through all of these devotionals before and didn’t give this one much thought. It was during my pre-Enlightenment). It somewhat reflects my partial disillusionment with the American church at large in that the members of it mostly seem unaware or uninterested in the murderous actions of their government abroad and domestically. Often, when I bring this point up, I am pointed towards Romans 13 (which Gerard Casey writes masterfully about here) and told that we are to obey the State. And yet, we see that it is often the same church people who are ardently opposed to abortion and believe that the government’s funding and approval of it as illegitimate. Political speech seems acceptable on this subject and on few others. Why the double-speak?