taking the words of Jesus seriously

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” 

– Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, 1861


Today I spoke at a gathering all too rare in America today: a non-compulsory meeting of Republicans and Democrats who are not related.


It was all the more rare because this multi-partisan gathering happened in a church, among the most stratified of American institutions.


It was a fragile peace: the progressives and the conservatives coexisting uneasily, guiltily wondering if their political leaders would be angry at them for fraternizing with “the enemy, ” even in a church.


We’ve forgotten how to be both partisans and friends; to be Christians first and Republicans or Democrats second.


One-hundred-fifty-five years ago, President Abraham Lincoln uttered these words at his First Inaugural Address, while seven Southern states had already seceded from the union.


We are not enemies, but friends.


His appeal, while beautiful, went unheard for four long years of Civil War: brother fought brother and blood split the nation, destroying a generation and crippling the South for generations to come.


Lincoln was not a religious man, and yet even he appealed to our “better angels.” It is an appeal American Christians would do well to hear again this week, as Republicans and Democrats jockey for position in the 2016 Presidential Race.


“Our better angels” in America have always believed in the impossible: hope instead of fear, unity instead of division, justice instead of favor, life instead of death. We have clung to “our better angels” when faced with Ellis Island, segregation, women’s voting rights, gay marriage. There have always been fearful and angry voices: jealous, bitter men and women who cannot imagine what it is to be free, but “our better angels” have always prevailed.


We want to be a people of hope and not of anger, don’t we?


We have always been a country of hope. Where the rest of the world toiled and scraped, America was a shining beacon of Hollywood and hot dogs. You could make it here. You could be free here. We always had room for one more.


Until we didn’t.


The first time I saw Donald Trump debate I liked him in spite of myself. He was confident, bold; he said the things I sometimes thought: when I was afraid, when I was mean, when I was cornered.


Trump kept talking. He pushed further. I didn’t like him anymore but the polls kept going up. The more protesters he shoved and scorned; the more minority groups he destined for deportation; the more hatred he spewed … our better angels’ wings were clipped. We could no longer fly. The Dream and the Dreamers woke up in a nightmare.


He said he’d make us great again but what he’d made us was ashamed at night when we admitted what we liked about him after all. He brought us back, not forward. We saw his money and his bravado and wanted it for ourselves; he promised us the world if we’d only sell America’s soul.


He said Muslims and Mexicans and women – though some of them were his dear friends – these are not America’s friends. He spoke of everyone else as “the other” and in the darkness of our homes on cold January nights,  our better angels’ white light went out and the blue glow of the TV screen lit sterile living rooms. We didn’t know our neighbors. They weren’t our friends. We became afraid and we got up and locked the door to our house and the door to our heart.


Into the void, which was left unfilled by Bernie’s turn to Scandinavia, or Hillary’s pledge to make rational plans, or a chorus of Republican wannabes too self-centered to come together for good – a still small voice whispered Lincoln’s words as a blizzard shut down D.C.:


“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”


Will it take four years this time – for our better angels to remind us that we are not enemies but friends?


Or will America assert itself once more as a Christian nation?


We may not have been founded as such. We may be populated by people of all religions, and it may be our pride that religious freedom is assured in the Constitution.


No, it has always been our hope and not our policies that has made America Christian: a belief that we are not enemies but friends. That Republicans and Democrats play for the same team: an American team with black and white faces, that speaks Spanish and English where it once spoke German and English, a team that invites in the Muslim refugee to stand on the same shores that welcomed the Mayflower.


We were a Christian nation because we had faith that good would beat evil with good; that to win did not mean losing our goodness.


A nation who trusts in a Savior who died and rose again cannot be fooled by a would-be savior whose only prayer is a people without resurrection hope.


Christians who seek a Christ-centered government would do well to look elsewhere.


A preening parody of faux-strength does not impress a Risen Lord who told us the meek will inherit the earth.


Our better angels remind us that we are not enemies but friends. The enemy is the one who tells us otherwise.


About The Author


Angela Denker is a Lutheran pastor and veteran journalist. She's written for many publications, including Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and Sojourners. She is the author of "Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump" (Fortress Press).

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