Presidents Day is a bit overshadowed by the marketing hype showered on St. Valentine, but it is a good time to reflect gratefully on those who have served in that office.
Sure, they enjoy power, prestige, perks and an obvious place in history. But there is also stress, responsibility and the burden of decisions that have consequences beyond those of the rest of us.
Presidents are not above the need for criticism, and they receive their share of it. Still, they are the people’s choice to pilot the ship of state for a period of our journey. For their willingness to do that, they deserve our respect and appreciation.
Presidents Day (Feb. 21 this year) prompted a look at Lincoln’s second inaugural address, delivered as the country suffered from the brutal war that had left so many families without fathers, husbands, brothers, sons.
After a somber review of both the rationale and the irony of that bitter conflict, Lincoln concluded with the now famous words:
“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 for us 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.”
This appeal to care for the widow and the orphan who would continue to suffer from the conflict of civil war brought to mind Isaiah’s words to Jerusalem, after a stern rebuke for their corruption and superficial religion:
“…even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:15-17).
It was good to see such a similarity between a prophetic word from so long ago and a word from one of the most eloquent voices of the American vision – both in the midst of extreme national distress. Embrace a new direction, quit doing things that harm people, defend the powerless, take care of the vulnerable. A pretty good recipe for a just restoration, it would seem.
Then there was the report last week from the House Republicans of proposed steps to deal with our financial deficits: cuts in education, transportation, health, the EPA, housing, job training and other support services. But not a word about adjusting tax advantages for our wealthiest or subsidies for oil, gas and ethanol.
There is little doubt that House leadership wants to get things going again and reduce the crippling deficit, but its budget-cutting proposals make it pretty clear whose welfare is being looked after and who will be “left behind” when the kingdom they envision comes to pass.
When Lincoln addressed those assembled at the beginning of his short-lived second term, he reminded his listeners that the conflict of their time was to restore the union from an economic system that supported the wealth of the few on the backs of a multitude of people forced to serve and perpetuate that system. Isaiah and his prophetic colleagues offered the same reminder to those suffering from distortions of their covenant faith.
A common thread through the biblical witness and our American experience calls our attention to the necessity to focus our concern on those of the human family whose lives are most at risk if we are to be the communities of covenant faith God has called us to be.
Negotiations will of course continue, and much work will be done by well-meaning public servants on our behalf. Maybe it is not too much to hope that the spirit of an Isaiah and a Lincoln and their call to support the vulnerable will get a serious hearing.
A little encouragement from us along those lines couldn’t hurt.
Colin Harris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.