vendredi, avril 14, 2006

A Christ-like leader?

In my last post, two days ago, I blew off some steam about the fact that this country is not a Christian nation, and that those who expect a Christ figure for President need to repent of idolatry. Yet the fact is that America has had some great leaders who showed Christ-like qualities. What are we to make, for example, of a man like Abraham Lincoln?

What makes someone holy is an enduring mystery known only to God himself. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, holy men and women have been former murderers, young maidens, tax-collectors, the sons of wealthy merchants and the daughters of kings. Sometimes the supernatural graces which make someone an example of godly life are revealed to others during their lifetimes, and sometimes they are only known after death. Some of our saints are recognized across cultures and centuries, some die in obscurity, known only to the people who loved them.

President Abraham Lincoln was not a man who abstained from all worldly pleasures. Apparently it troubled some Americans that he was attending Ford's Theater on Good Friday in April 14, 1865, when John Wilkes Booth fatally shot him. Yet Richard Wrightman Fox comments in his essay "The President Who Died for Us" that many Americans interpreted Lincoln's death on that day as a sign that God had chosen him for supernatural service to his country.

Black and white Protestants, Catholics and Jews found common cause in celebrating Lincoln's uncommon virtues, wrote Fox: "forgiveness, mercy, defense of the poor and the oppressed." Although some were unhappy that he had spent the day on which Christ was crucified at the theater, many Americans loved Lincoln. He was, said Fox, almost like a member of the family.

Elevating a leader because she or he makes a public display of piety is as dangerous as it is wrong-headed. But looking back at the life of a complex, passionate, and idealistic man like Abraham Lincoln, one cannot but wonder about the mystery of what makes someone great and what makes someone holy. Certainly he was not a conventionally religious man, but then, so few of our saints are. Did Lincoln grow spiritually as he was forced to take on greater spiritual burdens? Did God give him the grace to become the leader America needed for those difficult times? Why did he succeed when, in their own times, so many of our Presidents have failed?

These are questions that touch at the ineffable mystery of the human soul. We can only be grateful for the leadership of a man who inspired such respect, love and devotion in the hearts of those who followed him. I'm sure that many Southerners, looking at their devastated cities and charred fields, did not see Lincoln as saint. Yet his vision of a union knit together in our differences, the hope of a lasting peace and the possibility of national renewal, turned out to be a lasting one. When we acknowledge our love for this country and it that it still can become, we honor the man who gave it such a selfless measure of devotion, and finally, his life.

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