Charity in debate is something I long for. I’m not a good one to champion it, of course. I often find after a heated discussion with someone on some topic mattering to the two of us the need to go to that person and ask his forgiveness for my tone or for words carelessly spoken.

But this pot would still like to address the kettle so that we all might step away from our blackness, listen to how we sound, and ameliorate our rhetoric in such a way that we might be heard and be effective in our persuasion.

The concern for civility has entered the national debate recently as a result of the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. I’m not persuaded that this shooting was the result of uncivil discourse. My hope is not that Rush Limbaugh would tone down his rhetoric. He won’t, nor will others whose shrillness is a part of their entertainment schtick. My hope is that those of us concerned for persuasion and not entertainment would stop letting those voices be the ones which inform our content and style. My concern is ultimately that the church, first, would become a place where variant views can be heard, discussed, and even strongly disagreed with, in a context of mutual respect and understanding.

With this background, I am intrigued, therefore, to read how Abraham Lincoln framed his rhetoric regarding slavery prior to his election to the presidency. There is no question that Lincoln opposed slavery. He was realistic enough to know, though, that the most to be hoped for politically at the time was containment, not abolition. He pursued what was politically viable and for that, he is skewered. But should he be?

It is easy to embrace and speak moral absolutes. But to be politically persuasive is far more difficult. And being persuasive was Lincoln’s goal.

Lincoln knew that in any debate there are several groups. There are hardened partisans on both sides of the issue. In his case, these were the abolitionists on the one end and the defenders of slavery on the other. He could not hope to take ardent defenders of the Southern practice of enslavement and move them to the abolitionists’ side no matter how skilled his tongue or passionate his desire. What he could hope to do was to persuade a third group, those uncertain, those whose opinions were not yet hardened. And so at these he aimed his message.

Doris Kearns Goodwin provides a fascinating account of his approach in her Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, a book that I cannot recommend highly enough.

Lincoln appealed to the principles of the Declaration of Independence, arguing that these principles alone forbid the right of one man to govern another without his consent. What was he trying to accomplish by so doing?

“By appealing to the moral and philosophical foundation work of the nation, Lincoln hoped to provide common ground on which good men in both the North and the South could stand.”

He knew that that common ground would not be embraced if he simply shouted angry slogans across the divide. His goal was not to shout and to alienate, but to reason and to draw together. His approach was radical for its time, and radical in our own. This observation is key:

“Unlike the majority of antislavery orators, who denounced the South and castigated slaveowners as corrupt and un-Christian, Lincoln pointedly denied fundamental differences between Northerners and Southerners. He argued that they ‘are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up…. When it is said that the institution exists; and that it is very difficult to get rid of it, in any satisfactory way, I can understand and appreciate the saying. I surely will not blame them for not doing what I should not know how to do myself.'”

He models for us something that our more passionate anti-abortion allies, and at times I, find very hard to comprehend:

“Rather than upbraid slaveowners, Lincoln sought to comprehend their position through empathy.” (page page 167)

This is hard, and it seems pragmatic. And yes, it did not persuade the hardened. The country still went to war; Lincoln was still assassinated. But there is something fundamentally right in his approach, right and important for all our personal discussions, whether it be political or religious.

Everything said in these pages (I have quoted from pages 167-168) is helpful. The whole book is helpful. But I leave you with this:

“Though the cause be ‘naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel,’ the sanctimonious reformer could no more pierce the heart of the drinker or the slaveowner than ‘penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw. Such is man, and so must he be understood by those who would lead him.’ In order ‘to win a man to your causes,’ Lincoln explained, you must first reach his heart, ‘the great high road to his reason.’ This, he concluded, was the only road to victory — to that glorious day ‘when there shall be neither a slave nor a drunkard on the earth.'”

May God give us ears to hear.