Reflections . . .
“With Malice Toward None”
The schoolchild in you knows that the Pilgrims first observed Thanksgiving Day in 1621. President Abraham Lincoln made it a national holiday in 1863 at the urging of Sarah Joseph Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book. Our country was at the time deeply divided, and Yankee and Reb soldiers, many of them mere boys, lay dying on battlefields with names like Chickamauga and Gettysburg. Skeptics might be forgiven a bit of mockery on the last Thursday of November as Old Abe called the nation to remember God’s gracious dealings with the Republic fourscore and seven years old. Presidential proclamations could not blanket the agony of soul felt in thousands of households where an empty chair at the Thanksgiving table signaled the loss of life wrought by miniballs and battlefield diseases.
When our on Matthew turned 21 in 1997, he was already older than the typical combat soldier in the Civil War or, as far as I know, America’s conflicts since then. Compulsory military service has ended, making those Selective Service cards my high school classmates and I carried around for years artifacts of history. Talk to young males now of the Draft and you get quizzical looks, nothing like the trepidation boys and their families experienced not that long ago. I escaped the Draft when on August 21, 1968, Mary Judy of Franklin County L.B. 13-35, signed and stamped my Selective Service card and classified me as 5-A. Some of my friends were not so fortunate. While I struggled with Greek and Hebrew in divinity school, they fought far more costly battles in places far from home. None of my classmates died in Southeast Asia, but the fifty thousand plus names on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., are eloquent and moving testimonials to the personal tragedy of war.
I was moved to contemplate all of this while visiting our nation’s capital some years back. I paid my respects to soldiers of my generation who died in Vietnam, and then went round the tidal basin to see the memorial to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the Korean conflict. Life-like full body sculptures of soldiers, outfitted in heavy winter gear, slog up a simulated Korean battlefield. Words cannot convey the emotional impact of the moment. I had entered the cathedral of time. The only proper response was prayerful silence.
I am not sure why the memorial to the men and women who died when General Douglas MacArthur tried to force the North Korean army back across the 38th parallel cut to the quick. Perhaps it was because I remember a cousin who was called up from the farm and sent half way round the world to pull dying fighter pilots from their burning planes. He came back to the hog lots and hay fields of the Midwest without serious injury, but something dark lurked within. When flashbacks loosed the demons of memory, my cousin drank to drive them away. In the end the bottle won.
On the forth Thursday of this month, our nation will observe another day of Thanksgiving. Yet we have military personnel stationed beyond our borders. Some of them are in harm’s way. Can we reasonably hope that American youth born in 2013 will reach maturity and start families of their own without having to fire a gun in defense of our national interests? Abraham Lincoln understood how terrible war is, even a war fought to preserve the peace, or as he hoped, these United States of America.
Lincoln was a deeply religious man, though not in the conventional sense. He belonged to no Christian church, having been put off by denominational dogma and empty rituals. Wife Mary said of our 16th President--he was “not a technical Christian.” Yet Lincoln understood the deeper meaning of the struggle for national unity and the necessity of a national day of Thanksgiving. His Second Inaugural Address gives voice to how precious a gift peace is and how strongly we must hold on to it by choosing love over hatred.
With malice toward none; With charity for all;
With firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right,
Let us strive on to finish the work we are in;
To bind up the nation’s wounds;
To care for him who shall have borne the battle,
And for his widow, And his orphan--
To do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves,
And with all nations.
Abraham Lincoln, March 4, 1865
Dr. Milton C. Sernett