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I didn’t know until this morning, when I read an essay by Dahlia Lithwick in Newsweek, that the Bible used in President Obama’s inauguration had additional significance. Yes, it was the Bible used in President Lincoln’s inauguration. But who was the other party involved in that inauguration ceremony (and did he get the words of the oath right)?
Chief Justice Roger Taney presided over Lincoln’s swearing in. As far as I know, he got the oath right. But one thing he didn’t get right was the Dred Scott decision. Taney wrote the opinion on that historic decision, which said that Scott, a slave from Missouri, could not automatically become a free man by traveling to a free state. In his opinion, Taney said that such African-Americans
had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect, and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.
(Taney, Roger Brooke, C.J., “Opinion of the Court,” Scott v. Sandford)
Things have changed more than a bit since then. One might say that it’s justice, poetic or otherwise, to have an African-American man take the presidential oath of office on a Bible previously used by Justice Taney.
Justice is related to the word justify. If you work with type, or if you use word processing a lot, you might have heard the terms left-justified and right-justified before (or simply justified). In this case, justified means the type lines up evenly on one or both sides of the text. The text you’re reading here is left-justified; it all lines up on the left side.
So, justice can also refer to making things line up evenly, or making them line up correctly, the way they are supposed to be. That’s the way I like to see it.
Justice does not just mean making people pay for what they’ve done, and it definitely does not mean taking revenge.
It’s about making things right. So how do we do that?
Justice is also God’s business. God is interested in making things right between us and God, and between all of us here on Earth. And as I said above, this can’t involve revenge. According to Jesus, it has to include forgiveness; continual forgiveness. For instance, Matthew 18:
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
(Matthew 18:21-22, NIV)
It’s also essential to be reconciled with our brethren in order to be right with God:
Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.
(Matthew 5: 23-24, NIV)
Does President Obama’s inauguration Bible, perhaps, signal the beginning of an era of reconciliation and justice?
Did you know that it was Jesus who originally said “a house divided against itself cannot stand?” (Mark 3:24, paraphrased by Abraham Lincoln) Many people think that’s an Abe Lincoln original — but Abe was, like many people, just taking the Bible and applying it to modern times.
This was Lincoln’s acceptance speech for the Republican nomination for Senator from Illinois in 1858 — three years before the Civil War began. Lincoln predicted that the United States could not permanently remain half slave and half free, with half of the states legally allowing slavery and half of the states abolishing it. The country would have to come around to either abolition or legal slavery as a national policy — and he pointed out that it was entirely possible that all of the states would eventually agree to legalize slavery. It still stands as a radical speech and a strong warning.
Jesus, on the other hand, was responding to a charge by the Pharisees. He’d been driving out demons (probably healing the mentally ill, in modern terms), and the Pharisees said, “He is possessed by Beelzebub! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.” (Mark 3:22 NIV)
Jesus then responded:
So Jesus called them and spoke to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.
So…Jesus was basically using logic to defend himself, which doesn’t really have much to do with what Lincoln was talking about. I think it’s still true in both contexts, though.
About.com blogger Robert Longley noted in 2007 that Barack Obama announced his candidacy for President at Illinois’ Old State Capitol building — the same place where Lincoln made the “House Divided” speech.