Saturday, January 22, 2011

January 22

Today is the 38th anniversary of the US Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade. In recognition of this tragic anniversary, in all the dioceses of the United States of America, January 22 is observed every year “as a particular day of penance for violations to the dignity of the human person committed through acts of abortion, and of prayer for the full restoration of the legal guarantee of the right to life.”

More than just an occasion to wear violet vestments midway between Advent and Lent, this annual National Day of Penance is an opportunity to reflect on a wrong turn taken by our country in 1973. January 22 challenges us to speak truth to power – the truth of the inviolable dignity of every individual human being from the moment of conception. That we do this is essential to who we are. How we do it is also critical to our witness, for how we witness also expresses who we really are.

This anniversary always reminds me of another judicial decision with comparably catastrophic consequences for our nation’s history. I refer, of course, to the 1857 Supreme Court decision, Dred Scott v. Sanford, which ruled which ruled that no person of African ancestry could claim US citizenship. (It was to overturn that decision that in 1868 the 14th Amendment guaranteed US citizenship to “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof” – a guarantee now being challenged in some circles!)

The Dred Scott analogy easily comes to my mind – as it immediately did to one of my classmates on this day 38 years ago at dinner in Princeton’s Proctor Hall. Reflecting on that, I recently re-read President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Delivered March 4, 1865, as the American Civil War was winding down and barely 6 weeks before his own assassination, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural articulated his attempt to reflect upon the tragic circumstances of the Civil War and to situate it morally in relation to the national sin of slavery.

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. ... Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. …

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

It is always problematic to pronounce in moral terms about political events - and even more so to suggest a causal connection between bad things that happen in the Body Politic and some sort of divine judgment. All too often has that mistake too easily been made. It is perhaps a perennial temptation - if one takes seriously the fact that we do indeed all stand under divine judgment for our sins - to claim perhaps too much knowledge of the mind and judgment of God.

That said, there is something compelling about Lincoln’s analysis of God’s judgment on the sin of slavery – and something equally compelling about his appreciation of the complexity of the human predicament. In Lincoln’s analysis, consciousness of God’s judgment was coupled with a humble empathy not just for those most sinned against but for the perpetrators and indeed all parties caught up in the conflict. So Lincoln famously concluded:

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, 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.

January 22 indeed challenges us to speak truth to power – the truth of the inviolable dignity of every individual human being from the moment of conception – and at the same time, like Lincoln, to strive to maintain the fragile human bond that unites us all, despite our disagreements.

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