It is no particular secret that I have long been inspired by the thought and example of Abraham Lincoln . Among the many Lincoln speeches and addresses that I appreciate, I often find that his Cooper Union address  has been of particular personal relevance to me, seeing as it comes as a statement of principle and purpose before the threatened crisis breaks upon the American Republic. The speech represents the efforts of an impassioned and just logic in overturning the sophistries of the wicked, and though the effort failed in preventing the conflict between the two, it was written in such a way as to immensely strengthen the efforts of those who sought to live justly, and to marshal a large enough coalition to defeat the wickedness of slavery in our nation, even if justice has taken much longer to achieve. Within the Cooper Union Speech, it is the closing sentences that hold the most power and relevance and inspiration for the way in which I govern my life: “Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.” Today I would like to talk about the faith that right makes might in a world where the contrary position, that might makes right, is all too often espoused and enforced by the wicked rulers of our age.
In many ways, the call to have faith that right makes might itself is a similar message to the rousing call of Hebrews 11, and can be considered a distillation of that longer address, one which ought to have been familiar to the biblically literate people of Lincoln’s time and to many of my own readers today. In particular, let us look at the first six verses of Hebrews 11: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good testimony. By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible. By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts; and through it he being dead still speaks. By faith Enoch was taken away so that he did not see death, “and was not found, because God had taken him”; for before he was taken he had this testimony, that he pleased God. But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.” Here we see the necessity of faith in the justice and reward of God. As Lincoln’s faith in right making might, it was not a belief that he might not suffer dungeons or even death as a result of a brave stand against evil, but there was a confidence that God would (at least eventually) reward those who behave justly, a confidence that is necessary to endure the slanders and oppression of the wicked in this present evil age.
That this faith gave strength to many is the subject of Hebrews 11 as a whole , and it is little wonder that this passage gave encouragement to Abraham Lincoln and still gives encouragement to us today. As the author of Hebrews writes in Hebrews 11:32-40: “And what more shall I say? For the time would fail to tell me of Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah, also of David and Samuel and the prophets: who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again. Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, of and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.” Here again we see the source of the moral strength of Abraham Lincoln, in his firm confidence that God would refine and perfect our nation and the people in it, and that it was only through a faith in God that the weak could be made strong and that sufferings of the righteous might enrich the soil of godliness for their families, communities, and for humanity as a whole. This confidence allows us to endure the trials and torments of our lives, and to overcome the schemes of the wicked.
It is all too commonly believed and practiced that might makes right. This is the political doctrine of the tyrant, the military dictator who overthrows the civilian governments they have sworn to protect and serve, the rapist enforcing his or her will with violence and threats, of the seducer trading sexuality for the intoxicating rush of power, or of the abuser taking advantage of his or her position in authority to gratify wicked lusts. It takes little effort or skill to seek domination through some kind of power, whether it is the power of intellect, the power of strength or beauty, or the power of knowledge or position. When we seek to enforce our will without respect or concern for the wills or wishes of other people, we subscribe to this wicked political philosophy, the way of the heathen, whether we do so formally or merely practically. The fact that this has been the dominant political worldview of most leaders of the world and of its institutions does not in any way make it right or legitimate, but we must rather face the fact that whatever the political ideology we possess, the tendency to wish to use the power at hand to enforce that worldview is a temptation that we are strong enough to resist, especially when one considers that this power is not merely coercion, but the use of lawsuits or the corrupt use of culture and education to educate others into wickedness.
It is a far more difficult matter to let the ways of God inside oneself enough to stoke the undying fires of justice to steel one’s resolve so that right makes might. It is no easy matter for someone to live in such a way that their sense of moral decency and justice gives them strength in such a way that does not oppress others or seek to enforce wickedness. Such a strength must be strong enough to overcome our own doubts, while acknowledging the limits of our own reach of intellectual or physical grasp. Such a strength must be gentle to the oppressed, and seek their justice, but must be firm against the spirit of rebellion or domination that we all must struggle with in some fashion. It must be courageous enough to spur us on to do our duties, no matter what threats we suffer, or no matter what wicked slander we must endure along the way. We must accept that this slander will not cease when we last draw breathe, and that our deeds and words may be twisted and mocked by others when we are no longer able to defend ourselves. Such was the case, after all, with Abraham Lincoln , and we can expect no better fate for ourselves. Yet, even if we are aware of these difficulties, or of the possibility that we will perish or suffer imprisonment for our defense of justice against evil authorities, even while we accept the legitimacy of their offices so that we may preserve some honor for future more worthy officeholders, we must remain faithful anyway that in the firm conviction of justice that we will have a strength that can overcome either the subtle violence of libel and slander or the more blunt instruments of violence like the weapons of warfare.
Our faith must not be in men, no matter how great, for all of us are flawed in some fashion. No pockmarked face or imperfect mind or foolish heart or damaged soul can comfortably rest in marble as an unceasing and perfect model for others to follow. No matter how noble our deeds, in some ways we must concede that we will urge others to do what we say and not as we do because our example will not live up to the greatness of our ideals. Yet this thought ought not to discourage us. We have a merciful judge, one far less cruel than our own tormented imagination or the cutting harshness of false friends or unworthy family members or open enemies. Let us live the best life we can, and stand firmly against what is evil whether in ourselves or in the world outside, and so in the faith that right makes might, let us like Abraham Lincoln dare to do our duty as we best understand it. For we cannot depend on anyone else doing their duty if we cannot do our own as best as we are able.
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