Memorial Day in the twilight of a great republic

052916_2029_1.pngFour months after the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, President Lincoln dedicated a national cemetery where many of the fallen Union soldiers were buried. At the dedication, Lincoln gave a speech for the ages, the one we now know as the Gettysburg Address. The speech is short, but the conclusion is one worth revisiting this Memorial Day weekend:

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

I read this speech with heaviness of heart this year. It seems like the nation that Lincoln describes is slipping away. It seems less a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” than it is a people of the government, by the government, for the government. As the people decrease, the state increases. And the people have decreased in virtue, historical awareness, and commitment to ordered liberty “under God.”

The 2016 race for the presidency is a direct reflection of our current malaise. As a nation, we seem to have embarked on a Commodus-like decline. Out of all the people who campaigned for president this year, the two major parties have selected candidates that are not qualified for the office they seek. Both of them have disqualified themselves on moral grounds. As such, neither of them represents the best of our traditions, but they do seem to reflect what the nation has become. And this is much more distressing than the candidates themselves.

It is the conceit of great nations to think that things will always be as they have been–that national greatness is automatic and assured. But this is alas only a conceit. As God warned Edom of old,

The arrogance of your heart has deceived you,
You who live in the clefts of the rock,
In the loftiness of your dwelling place,
Who say in your heart, ‘Who will bring me down to earth?’
Though you build high like the eagle,
Though you set your nest among the stars,
From there I will bring you down,” declares the LORD.
-Obadiah 1:3-4

God raises, and God brings down. We have nothing but what we have been given. And we are closing our eyes to providence and history to pretend otherwise. If you think national greatness can never be undone, remember that Assyria, Babylon, Greece, Rome, and countless others all indulged the same conceit. We will be great as long as God wants us to be. As Lincoln himself acknowledged in his Second Inaugural Address, “The Almighty has His own purposes.”

A Christian citizen’s duty is not to predict the secret movements of providence but to pledge himself to the welfare of the nation (Jeremiah 29:7). For us, it means first and foremost Great Commission witness at home and abroad. But it also means that we understand that “Righteousness exalts a nation, But sin is a disgrace to any people” (Proverbs 14:34). And so we pledge ourselves to the good, the right, and the true even if we are the only ones doing it–even if our countrymen despise us for it. And we do so because we love our neighbor and our nation. And in doing so, we bear witness to the fact that here we have no lasting city, but seek a city which is to come (Hebrews 13:14).

So on this Memorial Day, I am remembering the words of Lincoln, but even more the words of scripture. I don’t want those dead to have died in vain. I want this great experiment in ordered liberty to survive. Perhaps we are in the twilight of a great Republic, but perhaps not yet. But if it is, I won’t let it go without a fight. I hope and pray you won’t either.

—————

13 Responses to Memorial Day in the twilight of a great republic

  1. Brian Holland May 29, 2016 at 7:49 pm #

    Beautifully put Denny! I think you nailed it, and you captured my mood perfectly as well. I’ve taken you to task in the past for your failure to endorse an alternative to Trump (namely Ted Cruz), but in reality (and it pains me to say this) America in 2016 is not worthy of a man like Ted Cruz. Dare I say that the American church in 2016 is not even worthy of a man like Ted Cruz, since our churches have become so filled with unbelievers. The true orthodox church is certainly worthy of such a candidate, but who knows what percentage of the church, let alone the country that number is actually comprised of.

  2. Christiane Smith May 30, 2016 at 3:06 am #

    A memorial hymn for fallen soldiers:

    “I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
    Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
    The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
    That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
    The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
    The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

    And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
    Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
    We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
    Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
    And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
    And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.”

    I think of my cousin, Jack, who was barely nineteen when he was killed in Viet Nam. I think of him when I hear this hymn. I remember him and mourn him again on Memorial Day. He was a good boy. He was a good man.

  3. buddyglass May 30, 2016 at 10:00 am #

    Babylon, Persia and Assyria were conquered, if I’m not mistaken. We live in an age of nuclear weapons, and the U.S. has more than anybody. That’s a pretty big bulwark against conquest. Currently the U.S. has the world’s largest economy and the world’s most powerful military, nuclear weapons notwithstanding. It also enjoys a sort of cultural hegemony, where consumers world-wide watch Hollywood movies, wear Nike shoes and eat Big Macs.

    There is some rot at its core, to be sure, but if the U.S. is to lose its perch at the top then who projects to take its place? China? India? The E.U.? Are these nations, or groups of nations, paragons of virtue and absent corruption in a way the U.S. isn’t? Hardly. China and India are vastly more corrupt, whereas the E.U. is vastly more socially liberal.

    Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot “wrong” with the United States. And I sense a profound un-seriousness (from both sides) about addressing its important issues. I’m just not sure I buy that the sky is falling.

    When the U.S. starts to suffer “brain drain” (instead of the reverse brain-drain we now enjoy) I’ll start to worry. When our best and brightest leave the country to do their research, and start their companies, elsewhere. Then we’ll be cooked.

    • Denny Burk May 30, 2016 at 10:54 am #

      I couldn’t disagree more, Buddy. Having said that, I’m not predicting that the “sky is falling” tomorrow, next week, or even next decade. The timing of the rise and fall of PAX AMERICANA is a secret known only to God. I’m simply saying that we are over the hill at this point. We are done with things that made America great, and we are now living out the premises of secularism. It is killing us.

      For an example of what I mean here, go read Lincoln’s second inaugural address. I don’t think Lincoln was born again, but his expression had the humility of Nebuchandnezzar after his stint in the wilderness. That kind of humble statemanship–that view of America as “under God”–is no longer regnant in the popular consciousness. Instead, we are a nation without God and without moorings.

      This cannot and will not end well, whenever that is. And I don’t pretend to know when it will be. But it is clear that absent some Josiah-like revival, our best days are not ahead of us.

      • Ike Lentz May 30, 2016 at 11:27 am #

        Denny, are you really suggesting that America was better off during the Civil War than now?

        I’d much rather live in America in 2016 than an America that was tearing at the seams over the right to own black people as slaves.

        I get that this election has you down, I’m right there with you. But what specific glory days of American virtue are you referring to? I hope you aren’t suggesting we need to “Make America Great Again.”

        • Rob Wells June 8, 2016 at 1:51 pm #

          I forgot a critical point. Notice there are no soup lines this time? Actually there are. You just can’t see them. And they are MASSIVE. To see them is easy if you know how to look for them. Just go to the grocery store and watch how many people use government assistance of some sort. That is the modern soup line, and it is well over 40,000,000 Americans.

      • buddyglass May 30, 2016 at 2:50 pm #

        I suppose its worth quantifying what we mean by national “greatness” then. If it’s “devotion to god, humility, etc.” then that probably went out the window a long time ago. Maybe during the gilded age. Or the roaring 20s. Consider that after Lincoln gave that speech we were still looking at another 100 years of Jim Crow in the South. Was that submitting to God’s will and living in humility?

        If that’s the metric we’re choosing to use for “greatness” then are there any great nations left in the world? It would seem not.

        When you use phrases like “Twilight of the Empire” and explicitly invoke comparisons to Babylon and Rome (which were conquered and ceased to exist) it seems like you’re predicting the same thing for the U.S. That would entail more than mere moral collapse; it would involve a complete economic / military collapse and eventual conquest by a foreign power. Or, potentially, disintegration into multiple constituent states.

        The apex of American “greatness” in terms of military / economy was probably right after WW2. What if we merely recede back to where we were prior to WW2? Or, back to when Lincoln was in office? Recall that in Lincoln’s day the U.S. was neither a major world economic *nor* military force. In 1870 China, India, and the combined nations of France+Germany+UK each had greater GDPs than the United States.

  4. Christiane Smith May 30, 2016 at 7:39 pm #

    for me, the mark of a country’s greatness is how its children fare . . . and we have some work to do here in the ‘richest country in the world’, yes

    we have no excuse for what our nation’s children are being exposed to, not just morally, but physically . . . . and it’s not just a money-fix either

    I hope for some solidarity soon where the ‘common good’ well be a phrase that refers to the air quality, the water quality, the safety of the food supply, rather than some political term to despise and reject as ‘socialist’;
    and I hope that when this solidarity does begin to arise in the nation’s conscience, it will be coming FROM a Christian people who have been formed according to the mind of Christ, with compassion for the suffering of many of our little ones.

    • Brian Holland May 31, 2016 at 7:52 pm #

      Should we strive for equal opportunity, or equal results? We never going to have either in a fallen world, but I opt for the former. The track record of the latter has been disastrous throughout recorded history.

  5. 0772mickMickey May 31, 2016 at 12:56 pm #

    God of our fathers, known of old,
    Lord of our far flung battle line,
    Beneath whose awful hand we hold
    Dominion over palm and pine—
    Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
    Lest we forget—lest we forget!
    First verse of “God of Our Fathers” by Rudyard Kipling

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