There is risk, as there should be, in saying anything that smacks of the political in a Christmas greetings post. Readers in LU Nation know that I tend to be meditative and focus on the meaning of Christmas itself, rather than making political points.
But to bring in the “political” here is more to place us in time and space at this Christmas season of 2018 – because we’re in the grip of something so extraordinary, it really has to be done. Although Christians have the grace to live in their spirits out of time, we are manifestly in time, and our time has a unique meaning.
The purpose is not to be partisan here, but to illuminate our time. So I want to commend to you something the political philosopher and commentator Michael Novak wrote 12 years ago for National Review. He wrote about Abraham Lincoln’s “long, dark year” from the fall of 1863 to the fall of 1864. The sense of rounding off and filing away a year that we have at Christmas, as the Gregorian year draws to a close, seemed to animate Novak’s piece. His connection in 2006 was to the winter of discontent facing George W. Bush, who had just lost Congress to the Democrats and was under heavy criticism for his prosecution of the war in Iraq.
In 2018, it seems almost laughable to think of the Bush years as a time of intemperate criticism and national angst. But that only makes Novak’s outline of Lincoln’s “dark year” more resonant today.
Consider – without running everything through a check-your-brain-at-the-door “Trump!” filter, if you can help it – the gut-punching resonance of this:
Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was received by many as a sign of Puritan moral arrogance and clumsy overreach — bound to make the South fight harder, while not really inspiring the Union forces. On all sides, journalists regarded Lincoln as a failure, a country bumpkin, an unsophisticated jokester, a homespun weaver of fantasies, outside his depth. What had his experience been, after all? A four-term member of the Illinois Assembly, then a one-term congressman from Illinois, a man of no education, save what little he gleaned by firelight sitting on a log (all this said in derision).
World-changing ideas are always out of proper time and order, for a lot people. There’s this:
Many great newspapers mocked Lincoln, and hoped soon to be rid of him. Even publishers who supported the Union had come to believe that Lincoln was a simpleton who could not win the war. Key political leaders were talking withdrawal from the fight, and urging negotiations with the South, in the hope that the unrealistic dream of Union might be traded away for peace. Compared to Lincoln, they thought themselves realists.
Meanwhile, at Christmas 1863, and in the months thereafter, Lincoln was silently deciding — there was almost no one he could talk to about such things — to take more and more direct control of his army. He began to fire failing generals, and to cast around for real fighters. He prayed for even one or two generals who shared his fire, and his determination to secure nothing less than victory. Lincoln wanted the total surrender of the South, the abolition of slavery, but most of all the preservation of the Union. His dream was shared by few and derided by very many, dismissed as outside reasonable possibility.
Am I saying “Trump is Lincoln”? You know I’m not. Seriously, snap out of it. I’m saying the divisions in 2018 are real and profound: the divisions that set factions in the United States, one of them led by Trump, on different sides.
Many people out there today don’t realize that they would have been right there with those great newspapers mocking Lincoln, saying the war was unwinnable, operating from assumptions whose validity it didn’t occur to them to test.
Others don’t realize that it isn’t “blindingly obvious” that we should choose Trump’s course, any more than it was blindingly obvious that we should have chosen Lincoln’s.
The reductionism and triumphalism on both sides of the argument today are pretty much what these human patterns in times of great stress have always been. Both presidents come in for vicious, vituperative criticism because the stakes are so high, and the people are more worried and unsettled than they have ever been in their lives.
Different men wouldn’t come under as much biting, personal criticism as Lincoln and Trump. But something to remember about Lincoln is that when he was called a simpleton and a bumpkin, his critics meant to deride Lincoln’s voting base – every bit as much as Trump’s critics mean to deride his today. Lincoln and Trump don’t have to have the same personal character for either of them to be vilified in the same political dynamic. The political dynamic – polarized by existential questions for the future of our nation – is the key to the time we find ourselves in.
It’s in such times that presidents are shrieked at and called names, and factions throw punches at each other through the media and the arcane mechanisms of Congress. Lincoln didn’t have Twitter, and probably wouldn’t have used it much if he had. Trump would have made five-minute speeches from a handy balcony every two or three days, and printed off tracts with a catchy slogan on them once a week, if he’d had only the technology of 1863 to work with. The telegraph would have gotten the jolt of a thousand lifetimes, and probably ended up being dubbed the Trumpograph.
But what they have in common is the nature of the times they took office in, and the vision they have that doesn’t simply replicate what an intellectually satisfied class has in mind.
Top advisers – and generals – rotate out when they aren’t on board with the president’s vision. That always looks messy and alarming. But we were in messy and alarming times before Trump took office, just as we were before Lincoln took office. And that wasn’t all the fault of their immediate predecessors either.
Having a vision that isn’t just an incremental attempt to stretch the status quo a little bit longer, or accept the slow knell of defeat instead of fighting the big battles now, is a rare thing. Even rarer, from what I can tell, is having such a vision and being a pretty man, with pretty ways and a clamor of gratifying, conventional acclaim.
We can get over “Trump!” and focus our brainpower on what we think the stakes are, and what we really want going forward. Or not. That’s up to us. Meanwhile, we can also remember from history that some great questions are bigger than our assumptions. Slavery was one, and thank God for that. Before slavery, fighting over religious liberty nearly destroyed the Christian world. But thank God, again, that we fought through to answer the question as a civilization.
National sovereignty is another of those big questions, from its meaning to its importance, and the question, as the Apostle Paul put it, of “how we shall then live.” As hard as it is to believe, we all of us look just as unpretty as Trump – and Lincoln – wrestling with things this big.
That brings us full circle to Christmas. We love Christmas, and rightly so. We love its ideas of promise, and fulfillment, and light, and peace. We love that it is about birth and hope, and a lit flame that cannot fade from our hearts.
But Jesus didn’t come here to lose. Winning didn’t look like anything we thought it would. Yet win he did. In 2,000 short years, the ways the world has changed are incalculable. It hasn’t always been pretty. Understanding it can take centuries of hindsight. But still being here, so many of us in comparative charity with each other, and with the leisure and latitude for hindsight, is the victory of the little baby boy born to a Jewish couple some 2,000-odd years ago, who were on their way to be taxed – because that’s what empires do – by the Roman Empire in Bethlehem of Judea.
The whole historical context of that time, with its irresistible forces and immovable objects, its brutality and inequity, its short lifespans and long view of war and servitude – all of it was real, and none of it could be wished away as a fairy tale, in Jesus’ lifetime or the years and centuries that came after it. A whole lot of top advisers and generals have had to be fired over the years. Now and then, the vision of an unpretty man turns the course.
Yet here we are. It’s Christmas in 2018. We have a great deal to be thankful for, and it’s OK if some among us are less or more inclined to celebrate than others. In this remarkable time, I believe God is visiting each heart. He’s not waiting for us to assemble and dance together. That’s not the project at this hour.
Perhaps Michael Novak’s final paragraph puts the right thoughtful coda on it, even if the substance of the politics is not identical:
Wars are often darkest just before the light. In our day, we must pray for military leadership committed to making Baghdad secure, and Iran and Syria quite afraid. Even conceived of in these limited terms, we need top generals committed, as in 1864, to victory. Many Americans will not believe it can be done. That’s the way it was in 1777, when historians estimate that as many as two-thirds of all Americans in New York and New Jersey had come to support the British. During the meandering carnage of 1863 and 1864, many Americans also gave up hope. Americans ought never to forget Abraham Lincoln’s dark year, just before the sun of victory surprisingly broke through. Contemplating the sacrifices that so many hundreds of thousands had made to keep the Union whole, Lincoln did not believe that the God who gave us liberty when he gave us life, could in the end disregard the sacrifices of so many. That is how Lincoln held on in 1864. As did Washington (and even Tom Paine) before him in the darkest days of winter 1777. Those prayers of Washington and Lincoln would not be bad for Christmas 2006, either.
For a musical selection that’s a little different this year, I’m embedding the hymn “Watchman, Tell Us of the Night” (set to Aberystwyth), sung by many liturgical congregations during Advent. Here are the lyrics, by John Bowring, courtesy of Hymnary.org.
1 Watchman, tell us of the night,
what its signs of promise are.
Traveler, what a wondrous sight:
see that glory-beaming star.
Watchman, does its beauteous ray
news of joy or hope foretell?
Traveler, yes; it brings the day,
promised day of Israel.
2 Watchman, tell us of the night;
higher yet that star ascends.
Traveler, blessedness and light,
peace and truth its course portends.
Watchman, will its beams alone
gild the spot that gave them birth?
Traveler, ages are its own;
see, it bursts o’er all the earth.
3 Watchman, tell us of the night,
for the morning seems to dawn.
Traveler, shadows take their flight;
doubt and terror are withdrawn.
Watchman, you may go your way;
hasten to your quiet home.
Traveler, we rejoice today,
for Emmanuel has come!
For those who love more traditional, familiar carols, see this older Christmas post as well as 2017.
A Merry and Blessed Christmas to you all.