Words to Live For
Five score and fifty years ago, this month, our father Abraham stood before a public assembly on the fields of Gettysburg and spoke a vision of the American nation. He was moved by the scene of great sacrifice, in the midst of a war of still uncertain outcome, and with the future of our grand, national experiment in peril. And he spoke from his heart.
An uneducated Kentuckian, reading by the fire after a day’s chores –from the Bible, the works of Shakespeare, the great poets – he had conceived a love of language from his youth. He proved, in his career, the power of the word -- as an advocate, a debater, a storyteller – using that power to move from the frontier courthouse to the White House. He lived the democratizing dream to its high-point, yet his humility never left him. After 150 years, we must concur with Senator Charles Sumner’s contemporary assessment of Lincoln’s speech: “The world noted at once what he said, and will never cease to remember it.”
What is our “unfinished work” that Abe asked us to resolve highly to complete? Is it to make equality the norm of American citizenship, beyond racial and sexual difference, beyond wealth and poverty? What is the “great task remaining before us” to which we can dedicate ourselves with a lasting, “full measure of devotion?” Is it to be good global citizens and peacemakers among warring factions, tribes and nations? Or to leave a legacy of environmental stewardship to our next generations? The Gettysburg Address asks us, not what we will give our lives for, but for what shall we live them?
Jeffrey P. Brandt