President’s Day is Monday. Far more than a shopping holiday, the day was created to honor George Washington. Later the day was expanded to include Abraham Lincoln and more recently a general recognition of Presidents. Here are three justice lessons you need to know from President’s Day.
Lesson 1: “Moderate the fury of party spirit” (Washington)
George Washington’s farewell address is being read in the Senate as it is every year. The humility, faith and service of Washington is evident as he prophetically provides “disinterested warnings from a parting friend.” Released on September 17, 1796 it could not be more relevant.
Washington warned against political parties polarizing people. He feared they would put power over people and create paralyzing factions.
“(D)esigning men may endeavor to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interest and views… to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community.”
The same Senate reading these remarks lived them out this past week. With 79% of the nation supporting Dreamer’s, the Senate could not pass legislation to protect them. There should be no mistake that one party has a greater interest in creating divisions between people than in coming together to create what Washington called, “wholesome plans digested by common counsels, and modified by mutual interest.”
The danger of party factions
Washington predicted the problem we would create in failing to pursue common ground.
“The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.”
If you think that sounds something like our current President Washington went on to say this happens because he “agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another… opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions.”
With the indictment this week of 13 Russian operatives who meddled in our elections by fomenting division and hatred, you would think George Washington was a commentator on this week’s news circuit.
The danger of party power
Abraham Lincoln identified this same challenge in his famous 1858 “House Divided” speech. Lincoln warned of a powerful political force consolidating power to suppress people under the guise of liberty and state’s rights. Lincoln believed slavery to be a moral sin that could not stand. His strong position lost him that Senate election but propelled him onto a national stage.
Washington also addressed this spirit of selfishness, “This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind… and is truly their worst enemy.”
Lesson 2: “to warn against the mischiefs of foreign influence.” (Washington)
Washington warned against selfish interest that would result in consolidated power and oppression through “pride, ambition, and other sinister and pernicious motives.” As Washington wrote, “Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake.”
Washington and Lincoln understood that to prevent this we must not turn on one another. Rather we must exercise “malice toward none and charity toward all” (Lincoln). As Washington wrote,
“It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and, at no distant period, a great Nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence.”
Washington and Lincoln would grieve the influence of Russia through our social media. Exploiting malice toward neighbors, Washington warned a foreign power would “stimulate and embitter.” We must not stand for the denigration of others. Doing so creates a new form of slavery. All people are created equal, endowed by their creator with inalienable rights. Black, white, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, refugee, immigrant, poor – all have inherent dignity as image bearers of God.
Lesson 3: “guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism” (Washington)
Washington and Lincoln both spoke against a pretended patriotism that elevated some at the expense of others. As Christians, both fell to their knees in recognition they were God’s servants first, and public servants second. As Washington wrote,
“Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports… Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion.”
Lincoln would certainly point to the challenge of a false understanding of religion or morality which could be twisted to support the slave trade. Pretended patriotism can be cloaked in pretended religion. This is true today for those who put power and position ahead of people.
“Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.” Jms. 1:27
Faith requires action
Both Washington and Lincoln called for an educated and active citizenry. Washington called on people of faith to be guardians of the republic. “Who, that is a sincere friend to it, can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?” Lincoln strongly said,
Lincoln would give his life to see the immorality of slavery ended. He eloquently called us to arms then, and now, in the cause of justice in his second inaugural address,
“until the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
George Washington said, “The firmest pillar of government is the administration of justice”. Today justice is lacking in our Courtrooms and Congress. The pillar’s foundation is cracked when every second in America someone cannot receive legal help. We rank 94th in the world for providing affordable access to justice.
The issues are far bigger than any individual or single organization can address. But as the people of God, our God is bigger. Together we can see justice roll on like mighty waters. We cannot do this alone, but we can do this together. Don’t sit on the sidelines. Don’t walk by your neighbor on the Jericho road. Dare to humbly do justice and love mercy. Visit gji.org to get started.