The Year of 2018 ended fittingly with a stock market influx. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, founded in the 19th century, experienced the worst Christmas Eve in its history. Across the globe, major economies signaled weakness. Europe, Japan, and China retreated. The U.S. economy sobered up from the cheap high of easy credit and corporate tax cuts. Brexit shifted from divorce to suicide pact. Wars – of trade, of words, of blood, of men – exposed the waning structure underlying our modern globalized reality. Good faith and goodwill are tragically most noticed in their absence.
With upheaval in the White House and a shutdown of the federal government, even a family trip to the National Christmas Tree was cut short. The National Park Service was placed on leave and unable to oversee the annual spectacle. A passer-by snickered: “Thank the Democrats!” Another responded: “It’s Trump’s fault.” On the eve of Christmas, the president was left to ruminate via tweet: “I am all alone (poor me) in the White House.”
Before the break, I had taken a run on the National Mall – one of the few perks left of working in the District – to visit Abraham Lincoln. It’s a pilgrimage I have regularly made since college. In the pre-9-11 days, we would climb up to his open lap. I am always drawn to Lincoln’s measured words, etched into the civic temple, woven in the fabric of our nation. On the northern wall is his second inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1865, after four years of civil war. Lincoln treated each side with his characteristic blend of magnanimity and empathy: “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us not judge that we be not judged.”
Lincoln, however, held himself to strict scrutiny. In his first political speech, at age 23, when running for the state house, he observed: “Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition…I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem.” True honor was to be achieved through the act of actually being honorable. By this account, Lincoln is the lonely figure in Washington today.
Lincoln was, of course, born into poverty. His story, he said, could be “condensed into a single sentence: The short and simple annals of the poor.” During his first campaign in 1832 he did not hide his station. “I was born and have ever remained in the most humble walks of life.” During the Christmas season, Lincoln’s words reminded me of the meagre birth of Jesus, as described by Luke: “And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” There were no million-dollar loans, no silver spoons for this true king, this genuine leader.
While poverty is not necessary for humility, humility is necessary for leadership. It was a lesson our Methodist minister in Bethesda offered on Sunday when describing the plight of migrants along our nation’s southern border. Surely, you would not doubt that if a Lincoln or Christ were born this Christmas, this baby would more likely be found in a hovel along the Rio Grande than in the charmed beds of the Beltway? And as children continue to die in the custody of federal enforcement officers, where does that leave the soul of our nation? How many walls are necessary to fill the mangers of society?
Lincoln warned that if the people lost faith – “attachment” – in their government, then our democracy – our “undecided experiment” – would be threatened. When addressing the Springfield Lyceum in 1838, he predicted that the danger would not come from abroad. “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.” In his age of disruption, Lincoln particularly feared the rise of a “Caesar” or “Bonaparte” whose “ambition” would appeal to our “passion” and exceed Constitutional restraints. He explained that the nation required a united people, with fidelity to forbearance and reason, to meet this challenge, to “frustrate his designs” and “perpetuate” our country’s political institutions.
We, as a people, have lost our attachment to each other and, by extension, to our government. In our age of disruption, we are a divided lot. A house divided cannot stand. Will our home collapse below the ambitions of a mercurial demagogue?
To find a temporary escape, we took a holiday trip to the movies. Mary Poppins returns this winter to save the Banks’ home once again. In the original, Father Banks is reminded that life’s best investment is not “tuppenance” in the bank, but in love for his family. In this iteration, the Banks children, now older, but not necessarily wiser, face the foreclosure of their familial home following a devastating tragedy. Set in the 1930s, a global economic slump casts gloom in London’s sky. With the aid of a lamp lighter named Jack, Lin-Manual Miranda of Hamilton fame, Mary Poppins sheds new light on the situation. The Banks family must search for something, a piece of their heart that they know, living inside them, “hiding in the place, where the lost things go.”
Where do lost things, like our national unity, go? In his “House Divided” speech, on June 16, 1858, Lincoln posited: “If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.” We are now almost four years into a political movement offering an illusory promise of greatness. It is set within a world beset by transition and uncertainty. Fear and prejudice have become currencies that compound with each trade. In America, the foundation of our undecided experiment is under stress. There is a void in national leadership that can only be filled by us, the people. Like the challenge at Gettysburg, we must be “dedicated to the great task remaining before us” to ensure that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”
In engaging in this great task, we must have humility and faith in each other, in a stranger and in those that we know. We may take inspiration from a birth long ago. A baby was born, away in a manger – a place where the lost things go.