Daniel Geretz

Revisiting the Civil War

This impeachment ought to be a deep, soul-searching test for us all as to how well we as a nation continue to live up to our national ideals

Several weeks ago, as I was driving, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address popped into my mind. I can’t remember what I had been thinking that led to that random thought. In the intervening weeks, I have continued to think about Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and have come to a gradual realization why it arose in my consciousness.

President Trump is fond of comparing himself to President Lincoln, and, in a sense, the comparison is apt. Lincoln presided over a Civil War which was, in his words, a test of whether a “nation conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal […] can long endure.” President Trump stands now at a similar climax of a civil war no less damaging, no less harrowing, and no less staggering in its human cost, than the war we fought over 150 years ago.

This civil war is not a military conflict. Rather, it is a virtual one. It has no organized front, and has pervaded our entire country. Its battles are fought by hackers in dark corners of the Internet, on social media like Facebook and Twitter, and by members of the progressive and conservative press. This civil war is fought in our homes, on TV news and talk radio, and in the halls of Congress. And it is fought in our schools, houses of worship, nightclubs, and malls — sacred spaces where people gather to build community — as vigilantes take up arms against their fellows.

The civil war’s victims are the innocent humans around us who we no longer treat as our equals. Its victims are undocumented immigrants, children separated from parents, at our borders. Its victims are those who suffer at the hands of tyrannical governments, unable to find haven within our land or their own. Its victims are indigent people and not-so-indigent people who suffer because physical and mental health care is unaffordable. Its victims are a younger generation no longer able to look to a bright future, being a little better off than their parents. Its victims are those displaced or made homeless by freak weather events. And its victims are those unemployed or underemployed people in the “rust belt” of our country, who hold on in vain hope to jobs which have gone and will not likely ever come back.

Like British generals, dramatized in the 1981 movie “Gallipoli,” sending Australians to die in battle on their behalf as they blithely sat and drank tea on the beach, our leaders are absent. They do not lead. They sit back and distract themselves with political maneuvering in the halls of Congress, or rallying the faithful, or playing golf, or hobnobbing with the rich and famous, contenting themselves to send the “little, expendable, people” into battle to do their will and win them points in the polls or the latest primary or election. They merely rationalize that they lead.

Make no mistake – our “leaders” continue to claim that they lead as they deflect blame to the “little people” for being the cause of their own suffering. The funny thing about blame is that is has never, ever solved a problem. The blame that goes with the avoidance of shame is the original human sin, because it is an abdication of our fundamental, moral responsibility to treat all people with respect and human dignity. The time has come for our leaders to stop blaming and face up to their own shameful complicity in prosecuting this civil war.

The next battle of our current civil war has begun this week as the next act of the great impeachment drama unfolds in the Senate. Putatively, this battle is being prosecuted in the interest of our nation. It takes very little effort to see that really, Democrats and Republicans alike are managing this impeachment in a way to gain the best advantage in the next elections, and for the good of their own partisan political parties, rather than the good of the nation. In truth, this impeachment, regardless of final outcome, ought to be a deep, soul-searching test for our leaders, as well as for us, as to how well we as a nation continue to live up to our national ideals — the self-evident truths our Founding Fathers envisioned as they established this great nation.

President Lincoln was a reluctant warrior, and seized on numerous opportunities to extend an olive branch to his opponents and begin national healing. As evident in his Gettysburg Address, he truly mourned the loss of every single life in the Civil War, Union soldier or Confederate. I imagine that Lincoln wept on his pillow each night as he went to sleep at the enormous human cost of ensuring equal treatment under the law for each and every person living within the borders of our great nation. One hopes that President Trump and our Senators follow Lincoln’s lead, and enter this next phase of the impeachment with the reluctance, humility, and empathy called for by the gravity of this moment in our history.

I conclude with the words of Lincoln’s second inaugural address, and pray that our leaders take these words to heart and find a way to bring and end to our current civil war: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds.”

May God bless this nation, and help us begin to bind up our wounds.

About the Author
Daniel Geretz grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is the founding rabbi of Maayan in West Orange, New Jersey. Daniel was awarded semikha by YCT Rabbinical School, and besides continuing to serve as the rabbi of Maayan, he works for the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest NJ as a chaplain at Morristown Medical Center in Morristown, New Jersey.
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