Can Biden do a Lincoln in his resolve to heal?


Listening to the all-embracing tenor of the new US president-elect Joe Biden’s acceptance speech, one was reminded of the stirring speech of the second inaugural address of Abraham Lincoln. The simple, soulful, opening line of his address, ‘With malice towards none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right…’that seemed to define Lincoln’s spiritual dimension as much as his political vision for America. Emulating Lincoln in spirit, would be a tough act indeed. Lincoln’s words resonate beyond the ages, beyond historical and political contexts, for here was a President empathising with all, in the finest spiritual and humanist outreach to a war-torn America of the 1860s.
In exhorting all to replace enmity and retribution with forgiveness and charity, Lincoln reaches out to all ages and nations with his vision of the good life. In underscoring that America’s greatness will depend on how it responds to moral challenges of his time, Lincoln went beyond political context.
Deliberating all his life on issues of slavery and inequality, Lincoln responded to challenges by asserting the humanistic ideal of every man being born free and equal, an ideal forged by his own working class background and trials.
His personal spiritual faith became the trigger for his political purpose as well, a role in which he began to see himself as a catalyst, as an instrument of God and destiny, whose role was to attempt to erase slavery and inequality. He similarly envisioned this role for his country as well, wanting America to reestablish itself in the league of nations, on its moral character. It was a tortuous spiritual and political journey, kept alive by his faith and endeavor: “..It is not a question that God is on our side but it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation are on God’s side.”
It is this same mix of moral clarity and grounded pragmatism which is seen in his oft-quoted letter to his son’s headmaster. He says to the teacher, “…(teach him that) all men are not just, all men are not true, but teach him also that for every scoundrel there is a hero; for every selfish politician, there is a dedicated leader…” It is a realistic view of life. At the same time, Lincoln holds up the high moral ideal. He goes on to instruct the headmaster to “…teach him to sell his brawn and brain to the highest bidder, but to never put a price tag on his heart and soul”, almost an exhortation to himself, caught as he was in the maelstrom of politics.
It is this aspirational idealism of Lincoln’s, despite the odds, that defines him most. Despite grappling with issues of faith and spirit which gave him no easy answers, he saw himself as an ‘active’instrument of Providence, and this imbued him with a tremendous sense of spiritual resolve towards his duty, a dispassionate determination to do the right thing in public office. Modern leadership has much to learn from Lincoln’s sense of duty and destiny, both. One wonders if Biden can do a Lincoln, in these turbulent times, both for America and the world.
By Pranav Khullar


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