Lincoln is a superb film, Spielberg’s historical masterpiece. And Daniel Day-Lewis proves, if more proof was needed, that he is one of the greatest actors of our time. But is Lincoln just a finely crafted work of entertainment? I think rather that, like the very best art, it contains principles which resonate with us today.
As Abraham Lincoln sits with the vice President of the Confederacy, the VP complains about the 13th amendment, crying that “all our traditions
will be obliterated. We won't know ourselves anymore.” Nowadays it is de
rigeur to claim that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery much at all,
but about states’ rights. But this obscures the fact that those states’
rights under discussion included the right to enslave others.
Spielberg’s film cuts to the heart of this matter. For many at the time,
the ability of white people to oppress and enslave black people was not
only tradition, law, and economic necessity, but a natural law
instituted by God, a fundamental human right, and constitutionally
Nowadays we can see the fallacy of their arguments
but at the time, as Lincoln said, “If you can look into the seeds of
time, and say which grain will grow and which will not, speak then to
me”. At the time, intelligent, well-meaning people argued that
emancipation would be a disaster; for America, for white society, even
for the black people themselves. They argued that emancipation was an
act of tyranny by the ruling liberal majority over the people’s
traditions, enshrined in custom and law for centuries as a way of life.
Lincoln’s opponents argued that emancipation would curtail the rights
of white people everywhere. They argued that freedom would be restrained
rather than increased. Breaking the chains of black people would chain
the limbs of all white people. And, of course they were right. For a
person to be free, it is necessary to restrain the attempts of others to
remove that freedom.
Freedom is not absolute, since all rights
in a society are in balance. Often our freedom to act infringes on
another’s freedom to live. When this happens our freedom must be
restrained by law. But Lincoln explained: “If we submit ourselves to
law, even submit to losing freedoms, the freedom to oppress, for
instance, we may discover other freedoms previously unknown to us.”
Some principles can be universal, and in questions of ethics, they
often are. How do we balance one person’s freedom of conscience with
another person’s freedom not to be discriminated against for who they
Strasbourg recently debated this question in a series of
cases that had been referred to them. In one case they explained that:
“On one side of the scales was Ms Eweida's desire to manifest her
religious belief… On the other side of the scales was the employer's
wish to project a certain corporate image.” They decided that in this
case there was “no evidence of any real encroachment on the interests of
others” and found in favour of Ms Ewieda.
this with another case where: “The reason for asking [Ms Chaplin] to
remove the cross, namely the protection of health and safety on a
hospital ward, was inherently of a greater magnitude than that which
applied in respect of Ms Eweida”, and they found in favour of the
Strasbourg showed their working, their decisions were
based on what rights were important enough to overrule others. And,
where one person’s infringed another’s, whose should take precedence.
It is a complicated question, these cases having been debated in
multiple courts over many years now.
As in secular society,
Christians do not find this an easy question either. In judicial matters
Christians are given only very broad ethical guidelines in scripture
and largely left to work it out for ourselves. Jesus tells us only to
‘treat others as we would be treated’, setting up the basis for this
balancing act. For a modern example: if we want the right to dictate to a
homosexual couple whether or not they can get married, would we give
them the same right to obstruct our own marriages? How should we apply
our ethical principles in this case, and in others?
with another quote from Lincoln as he expounds on Euclid: “There it is,
even in that two- thousand year old book of mechanical law. It is a
self-evident truth that things which are equal to the same thing are
equal to each other. We begin with equality. That's the origin, isn't
it? That balance, that's...that's fairness, that's justice.”