Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Lincoln Bible and Obama's Inauguration

Andrew Sullivan is reporting today that Barack Obama will use Abraham Lincoln’s 1861 inaugural bible at his 2009 inauguration (http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2008/12/hell-use-the-li.html). This is the first time the bible will have been used since Lincoln’s inauguration. Sullivan links to a story about this at Politico (www.politico.com/news/stories/1208/16813.html).

If memory serves me, the bibles used in presidential inaugurations are typically closed. I’d be interested in seeing the new president set a precedent and open the Lincoln bible as he puts his hand on it.

As he does so, I’d suggest several passages to which the Lincoln bible might be opened, ones that I suspect inspired the president who first used this bible, as he fought for human rights for those unjustly deprived of rights by the majority. Two passages that come to mind immediately are Isaiah 58 and Luke 4.

In the first passage, the prophet addresses the nation—a nation concerned that its fasts and religious observances never seemed to reach the notice of God. Isaiah’s advice to the nation? Stop fasting and start loosing the bonds of those unjustly bound. Then God might hear you, since breaking yokes and loosing the chains of injustice are the fast God desires:

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke? (Isaiah 58: 6)

The passage from Luke is Luke’s account of what happened as Jesus began his ministry following his forty-day fast in the desert. In Luke’s telling of the story, Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth, stands in synagogue to read from the scroll of Isaiah, and makes an astonishing announcement.

He announces that in his life and ministry, the Jubilee is at hand, permanently. The Jubilee was an ancient motif of Jewish culture and religion, a year in which debts were to be forgiven and slaves set free. Needless to say, for making such an announcement, Jesus was hounded out of town:

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read (Luke 4:16). 17The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18"The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
19to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

Powerful passages that drive to the very heart of Lincoln’s presidency, and to the heart of our democratic society, in which there is a foundational commitment to break the chains of any people we see unjustly enchained. And are there such people in our society today? People whose bondage is not recognized by the majority, and is even approved by the religious worthies of the day—as slavery was at the time of Lincoln?

Christie Keith thinks so (www.afterelton.com/blog/michaeljensen/special-commentary-barack-obama-rick-warren-supposed-straight-allies). And she is perplexed by the apparent inability of millions of her fellow citizens to see the effects of this bondage on the lives of millions of their brothers and sisters.