As we explore the work of liberation in American and throughout the world, it is only right that we start with one of the earliest American liberators: President Abraham Lincoln. In this thoughtful post, friend and theologian Walter Brueggemann looks to the accomplishments of Lincoln to illuminate Psalm 72:1-4 and 12-14 and this important question: what is the role of the government?
The Role of Government
By Walter Brueggemann
Give the king our justice, O God,
and righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor…
For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
and precious is their blood in his sight (Psalm 72:1-4, 12-14).
If you, dear reader, skipped over the biblical text cited above in order to get to this exposition, please go back and pay close attention to those verses. These remarkable verses are a part of a Psalm that was likely read (or performed) at high occasions of royal liturgy. It is an articulation of the deepest claims of neighborly covenant to which the king (the government!) was answerable. If we notice the other verses of this Psalm, it becomes clear that the prosperity, abundance, and wellbeing of the regime depended upon attentiveness to the most vulnerable neighbors. This claim intends to contradict any illusion the king might entertain that his prosperity and wellbeing depended otherwise upon the amassing of wealth, power, arms, or wisdom.
The point of the Psalm is all the more poignant when it is recognized that the superscription to this Psalm, tersely enough, is “of Solomon.” This deliberate connection of Solomon to this Psalm is an ironic acknowledgment that Solomon, of all the kings of ancient Israel, is the one who most counted on wealth, power, arms, and wisdom to sustain and assure his throne. Thus Solomon is narrated in the Bible as the most aggressively predatory of all of Israel’s kings. And now, in the cadence of this liturgy, the king and his government are reminded that his rule is based on an unsubstantiated illusion.
This intersection between this stark liturgic claim and political reality poses sharply for us, “What is the role of government?” The matter was of course in dispute in ancient Israel (see Deuteronomy 17:14-20, I Samuel 8:11-18); it continues among us to be in dispute.
Is America renowned because of its capacity for wealth, power, and wisdom (of which we have plenty), or is its greatness deeply linked to its attentiveness to our most vulnerable neighbors?
This either/or is very deep in biblical faith, and is front and center in our current political economy.
I was led to think again about Psalm 72 because I have been reading The Broken Constitution: Lincoln, Slavery, and the Refounding of America by Noah Feldman. The book concerns the complex ambiguous relationship Abraham Lincoln had with the U.S. Constitution as he slowly worked his way toward the Emancipation Proclamation. In short, Feldman’s thesis is this:
§ The original U.S. Constitution was a compromised constitution, a compromise made with the South in order to voice an explicit sanction for the maintenance and continuation of slavery. The constitution was compromised in that it lacked any moral sense about the matter. Lincoln initially judged that it was a binding legal agreement deserving “reverence” only insofar as it was based solely on “reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason” (316).
§ Lincoln judged that the South, by its “rebellion” (secession) had broken that constitution. In response Lincoln felt ready to violate the constitution in open and willing ways both by violating the right of habeas corpus and by suppression of newspapers. He judged such actions legitimate in light of the action of the South in breaking the Constitution.
§ Slowly Lincoln worked his way to moral passion concerning slavery. His rhetoric built in the direction of moral passion culminating in the Gettysburg Address wherein he could speak of a “new birth of freedom.” That “new birth of freedom” came with the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution that resulted in a new moral, redeemed constitution. Thus concerning the “better angels” about which Lincoln spoke: “Put in terms of Lincoln’s own political theology, the angels could easily be understood as the messengers who carried with them the truth of the new moral Constitution that followed from breaking the original Constitution of slavery” (318).
Feldman’s final statement is filled with both realism and hope:
Yet persistent inequality still exists in the United States, including inequality before the law, of the kind the moral Constitution prohibits. The reality is that the moral Constitution, like all constitutions, is not an end state but a promise of ongoing effort. Through the Constitution, we define our national project. But we never fully achieve it. Lincoln’s legacy, then, is not the accomplishment of a genuinely moral Constitution. It is the breaking of the compromise Constitution — and the hope and promise of moral Constitution that will always be in the process of being redeemed (327).
It is sobering and hope-filled to read about the evolution of Lincoln’s thought and action in light of the royal mandate of Psalm 72. That Psalm assigns to the government responsibility for redress of injustice, exactly the kind of redress that Lincoln finally undertook.
It is no wonder that Lincoln’s presidential actions are freighted with sobriety and solemnity, because the redress of injustice is difficult and dangerous work. The Psalm leaves us in no doubt about the urgency of the matter. As Doris Kearns Goodwin has seen, Lincoln knew with remarkable awareness the combination of transformative vision and transactional shrewdness that was indispensable to good governance. His work brings about the redress of a shame-filled compromise. Feldman is surely correct that that hard work remains for us unfinished.
For all of his deliberate slowness, Lincoln caught the main claim of the Psalm; he made the government over which he presided an agent of redress.
For good reason Feldman has concluded that the Constitution is still “in process of being redeemed.” It is settled lore among us that those who have the most prefer a minimal government, whereas those in deep need inescapably hope for an activist government of effective redress. For good reason, against the massive force of money, power, and wisdom, the Psalm reminds us of the non-negotiable condition of communal prosperity and abundance.
In his speech, “How Long, not Long” in Montgomery on March 25, 1965, Martin Luther King concluded with this ringing affirmation:
I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?” Somebody’s asking “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?” Somebody’s asking, “When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?” … “How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it?” I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because “truth crushed to earth will rise again.” How long? Not long, because “no lie can live forever.” How long? Not long, because “you shall reap what you sow.”
King’s question persists along with Feldman’s verdict about being in the process of being redeemed. The question is “How long?” Not long indeed before the Constitution of Compromise becomes the Redeemed Restored Constitution of American justice. It is “not long” indeed before the moral reality of the poor, the needy, and the oppressed is fully recognized among us. It will not be long after the courage and imagination of moral urgency are mobilized among us.
This blog post was originally published on Church Anew