On Prayer, God’s Will and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural

What’s the use of praying?

On March 4, 1865, forty-one days before he was assassinated, Abraham Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural Address in Washington, DC. The speech is dense, and documents, in the 16th President’s own words, terrible truths about how the North and South regarded the inhabitants of the country Lincoln refers to as a “peculiar and powerful interest.” 

Beyond the topic of war and slavery, the speech is concerned with religious questions on prayer and God’s will. In referring to both sides in the war, Lincoln notes that: 

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.

Of course, this quote’s second sentence refers to the pure evil of slavery: “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…” 

The first and third sentences evoke a question that those of us who pray have probably asked ourselves, and that, in many cases, makes us doubt our religious beliefs and the existence of God: What’s the use of praying?

“Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes his aid against the other.”

Each side seeks victory for itself and defeat for the other. How can we reconcile two individuals, or two groups, praying just as fervently for two opposite outcomes, outcomes that entail the defeat, harm, even death of the other? 

In the case of war, the “other” may be an entity whose ideas we abhor -which, in a way, legitimizes our prayers. There are cases though, when our prayers being answered necessarily involves the death and suffering of people we are neutral about, or even know to be innocent and good. 

It’s tormenting and terrifying even, when you think about it, to pray to God: Please God, don’t let it be my son one of the unnamed casualties from this shooting. Or, Please, God, let my sister be one of the survivors in the crash. We know there are others invoking the same God for the same reason. Whose prayer will God answer? If not mine, why?

“The prayers of both could not be answered.”

It’s clearly impossible, then, for God, to answer conflicting prayers from his various children – even if he wanted to, even if there’s no evil involved.

And this is where God’s divine plan -God’s will- comes in. I don’t know if God or a divine plan exist. Nobody does. Most of the time, I doubt that they do. Yet I do pray a lot. I see it as a habit and a practice instilled by my Catholic upbringing.

I’ll be the first to admit that my prayer practice isn’t rational. When no crisis besets me -which is most of the time- I prefer to think that, if God exists, His plan is having no plan.

However, when I’m on an airplane (I have a serious fear of flying), I pray like crazy and I know that He’ll protect me. When my son fell and suffered a traumatic brain injury, as I prayed non-stop, I knew that God would help him heal. Or at least I felt, with my whole being, as if I knew.

For a while in my adult life, because I tend to rationalize everything, I felt a bit silly and hypocritical about praying. Lately especially, I’ve come to embrace prayer for what it gives me, whether or not it makes any sense.

Prayer is community, hope, positive energy, being in the moment, instant inner peace. I’ll take it and let others theologize.

Link to the full speech: Lincoln’s Second Inaugural.

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Jesus’s Greatest Legacy: The Sermon on the Mount

Jesus’ guidelines for attaining the ideal of universal love

Sermon on the Mount Speech Facts The Sermon on the Mount, delivered by Jesus of Nazareth, is one of my favorite speeches by anyone alive or dead. Of course, born 2,021 years ago, the Christian Jesus lives, even if the historical one does not.

As far as I’m concerned, Christianity could do away with large portions of the New and Old Testaments, and focus more on the Sermon on the Mount -the whole Sermon, not just the part that Christians know as “The Lord’s Prayer.”

The writing is powerful, direct and accessible. I don’t agree with every single sentence, but the message of universal love is clear and, as as we’d say today, actionable.

Here are my favorite excerpts from the Sermon, with a bit of commentary to follow. The bold font is mine: 

Blessed are the pure in heart; for they shall see God. 

Ye have heard that it hath been said, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy.” But I say unto you, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye?

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also

Judge not, that ye not be judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure you mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

Cross on hilltop
Photo by Hugo Fergusson on Unsplash

The Sermon is an ideal to strive for. In other words, it is impossible for any human to follow all of it precepts. Yet, as New York University professor Michael Shenefelt notes, “The existence of an ideal has nothing to do with whether anyone actually lives up to it.” (The Questions of Moral Philosophy)

Overall, how well have Christians done in their pursuit of this ideal over the nearly 2,000 years since Jesus lived on Earth?  At the institutional level, the record is atrocious: slavery, the Crusades, genocides, burnings at the stake, colonialism.

At the individual level, I’m sure many Christians try really really hard to “bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you.” But then there are also those who, while emphasizing their Christian beliefs, embrace the division strategy, the tactic of us vs. them, of demonizing the other.

Of course, Christianity is not the only religion with a message of universal love. Nor are Christians the only humans who commit barbaric acts. There’s no monopoly on the human capacity for both good and evil.

It’s a good thing that speeches like the Sermon on the Mount have an appeal beyond the Christian faith. In fact, the best take I’ve come across on the Sermon comes from writer Kurt Vonnegut, who was an atheist, in his Commencement address at Agnes Scott College (Decatur, Georgia, 1999):

“If what Jesus said was good, and so much of it was beautiful, what does it matter if he was God or not? If Christ hadn’t delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn’t want to be a human being. I would just as soon be a rattlesnake.”

Disclaimer: I was raised Roman Catholic. Therefore, even if I’m currently more of a cultural than a devout Catholic, I know I’m still biased. 

Here’s a link to the complete Sermon Sermon.

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