From the pages of The Atlantic to the comments of Facebook, I have been reading with much interest the debates rekindled by the movie Lincoln. As a romantic, I took my wife to finally see the movie on our anniversary. Standing in the concession line, I noticed a man in front of me wearing a t-shirt with the image of an American flag intertwined with a Confederate flag. Boldly printed on the back were the words “American by Birth, Southern by the Grace of God.” As the shock of what I just paid for a large Diet Coke began to wear off, I wondered if this was some kind of premonition.
There are two things regarding the Civil War I have known since childhood. First, my paternal great-grandfather (four times removed) fought and died for the Confederacy in the Battle of Atlanta. Second, on my mother’s side, our long-forgotten relatives once owned slaves. In fact, the house where I grew up is only a 15-minute ride from where these poor imprisoned souls worked, slept, and lived a life I cannot fathom. Truthfully and unfortunately, I’ve never really thought about this too much. It seemed like ancient history to me; however, the past was about to catch up with me.
As the much-anticipated movie unfurled before my eyes, I could not fully concentrate on the masterful performance of Daniel Day Lewis as the Great Emancipator. Instead, I kept wondering what the African American man sitting in front of me was thinking as slavery, racism, and hatred took center stage. When the credits rolled and the lights gradually appeared, my first inclination was to tap him on the shoulder and apologize profusely. Instead, I quietly exited the theater angry that chattel slavery was ever legal in this county and saddened that anyone ever raised a gun in support of this institution.
I am not a film critic or historian, even though I like to pretend at times. I understand that movies of this particular genre cannot present the multifaceted nature of the subjects they seek to capture. I also realize that directors are often prone to over characterization and simplicity. Historically speaking, I know the Civil War is a complicated mess with roots that reach beyond the American Revolution and deep into European history. However, as a descendant of the Old South, two scenes spoke deeply to my vexed soul.
The first is when Lincoln visits a military hospital. While inside greeting patients, his son remains outside and follows two soldiers pushing a wheelbarrow, which is leaving a trail of blood. This ultimately leads him to a pit full of dismembered body parts. It is a gruesome scene that epitomized for me the brokenness of man. Throughout the film, director Steven Spielberg presents the depravity of mankind as a central character. From the unethical political deals to the horrific battle scenes to Honest Abe himself, we see the hideous stain that sin has left on every human heart. I understand it is impossible to fully grasp the motives and beliefs of those who came before me. However, I do know the only hope for the very real sin of the father as well as the ever-present sin of the son. It is the trail of blood that leads to a place of death outside the walls of Jerusalem.
The other scene takes place in the White House after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. Lincoln moves closer to a window because he hears a commotion. As he opens it, the light and thundering sound of church bells proclaiming justice and victory invade the room. For a moment, my heart jumped with excitement. It was such a poignant reminder that one glorious day our King will return bringing justice and peace and ultimate victory for every tribe, tongue, and nation. On that day, the rebellion will come to an end, and God’s people by his grace shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.