Lincoln: Honest Abe or Lincoln the Liar?

Posted: November 27, 2012 by Josh Kwasny in Drama, True Story
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I recently went to see Steven Spielberg’s new film, Lincoln. As we have come to expect, Spielberg delivers another solid film. From the superb acting to the stunning cinematography, Lincoln is a great movie.

I wish I had paid more attention in history class. Although I am ill equipped to comment, I have learned that there is some debate on the precise historicity of Spielberg’s version of Abraham Lincoln’s life (You can Google it if you are interested in the debate.). Whatever the historical truth, the film presents Lincoln as a struggling man. I think few will debate that being president during the Civil War would be difficult.

In the film, Lincoln wrestles to accomplish two things…1) end the long and bloody Civil War and 2) abolish slavery in the United States. Lincoln has argued that passing the 13th Amendment (freeing all slaves in the US) will help to end the war. Despite the growing chance of being able to finish the war without ending slavery, Lincoln presses to the amend to the US Constitution in the House of Representatives (it had already passed the Senate). He refuses to allow the slave trade to survive on his watch – even if it means that the horrors of war must continue for a time. He is not flippant in this resolve, however. His consternation reeks havoc on his heath and his relationships.

It is interesting to see how Spielberg depicts the strategies and tactics of “Honest Abe.” Locked in a political battle over the 13th Amendment, Lincoln employs some shady characters to secure the needed votes from the “lame-duck democrats.” In classic political form, Lincoln and his Secretary of State, William Seward, offer positions in the administration in exchange for their vote for the new amendment. In the final hours before the vote in the House, Lincoln shows his emotion when he declares to his Cabinet, “I am the President of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure those votes!”

I am glad that Spielberg shows the reality of the moral turmoil that President Lincoln endured. History books often present raw data and miss the human struggle involved. As a result, historical figures are flattened out and caricatured. The film Lincoln will make you think…and feel…the ethical dilemma of the Civil War. Maybe “Honest Abe” was not so honest after all?

So what are we to think about this? Is the cessation of the slave trade the “greater good” in this situation? Does the end (the 13th Amendment) justify the means (shady deals and “back room bargaining”)? How would have you dealt with this moral dilemma? Is there a Christian response for this?

The Christian life is far too often presented as “follow Christ, and life will get easier.” Anyone who has followed Christ for some time will tell you that this is simply not true. The Christian life is full of joy, but it is not easy. Jesus said that those who follow him will be persecuted as he was (John 15:20). This warning of persecution comes right after Jesus says that those who “abide” in him keep his commandments (John 15:1-10). In other words, Christians will be persecuted because they follow Christ – obeying him in all things – including moral and ethical decisions.

Following Christ is hard – especially when the situation includes no clear way forward. Consider Lincoln again. It may safe to say that slavery is ethically wrong. But isn’t lying and manipulation wrong as well? What about when lying can free an entire race of people? Now add the fact that the longer you wait to act, the more people will die in warfare. What do you do??

Let me offer a “Reel Thinking” challenge: Watch Lincoln with family and friends. After the film, take some time to discuss the ethical dilemmas in the film as well as any others of interest. Here are some questions to get you thinking:

  1. Should there be a distinctively “Christian” way of doing politics? What does it look like?
  2. How should Christians respond when faced with difficult decisions? How do you prioritize what is most important?
  3. What are some ethical dilemmas you face at school or work?
  4. Are you wresting to follow Christ’s commands or are you simply ruled by pragmatism?
  5. Where have you faced or are you facing persecution for doing what is right? Your response to persecution?

Although the Christian life is hard, we need not fear. God has not left us alone. Our sovereign Father in Heaven has given us prayer, his Word, his Spirit, and his people. We are well equipped to wrestle through life and face the difficult decisions that come our way – even when the way is not clear.

  1. Meade says:

    Abe Lincoln was a tyrant. And he was certainly no man of God. He basically destroyed and annihilated the South by force.

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