As a kid, in order to avoid attending “Superchurch,” the children’s programming our congregation offered, I would sit in the front pew and leaf through the Old Testament while my father preached. It was full of all kinds of drama. Story after story featured people doing something sneaky and/or overly dramatic: “lying with” someone they shouldn’t, deceiving their family members, and getting into all kinds of messes.
So it would always strike me as strange when many of these characters were held up as heroes of the faith. For example, Abraham not once, but twice pretended that his wife was his sister (He later rationalized his deception by explaining that while Sarah was his wife, she was also his half-sister.) He also fathered a child with an enslaved woman and then lets his wife abuse her. And yet, God considers Abraham a friend — not because he’s a great guy, but because he trusts God.
I had this Abraham in mind as I screened a docuseries about another Abraham. Lincoln’s Dilemma, released this month on Apple TV+, presents a complicated version of the 16th president. The four-part series portrays Lincoln as a man of his time and place, wrestling with the culture war of his day: slavery. The docuseries is based on historian David S. Reynolds’ book Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times and is narrated by Jeffrey Wright, with voiceovers by Bill Camp and Leslie Odom Jr.
Through a creative mix of archival footage, animation, and expert commentary, Lincoln’s Dilemma paints a picture of Lincoln that cuts through the mists of mythology to present a flawed human being who sought justice and came to a sort of repentance regarding his own prejudices and sins of omission.
This perspective of Lincoln is a complicated one. Second only to Jesus Christ with regards to the number of books written about him, Abraham Lincoln looms large in our national imagination as a kind of American saint.
“I think we shouldn't idolize Abraham Lincoln,” Reynolds said to me in a recent conversation. “He had certain flaws that were characteristic of his time and he does gain a certain halo from having been assassinated and that gives a certain amount of hagiography around him too. But I think that the film and my book do a good job of framing him within his times and showing him warts and all.”
These warts, rather than detracting from Lincoln, allow what he did to shine forth more brightly. Instead of a superhero, we see a canny politician who was opposed to slavery, but who understandably didn’t want to see the union dissolved under his watch. Instead of a saint, we see a human being wrestling with justice and more moral dilemmas than most of his predecessors. If the Abraham of Genesis is understood through the lens of his faith in God, Abraham Lincoln likewise should be understood through the lens of his willingness to repent.
Though Lincoln had promised not to expand slavery into the West, he was more hesitant about abolishing it in the South. He accepted a civil war not in order to free enslaved people, but to preserve the union. He becomes open to emancipation because it suits his military and political agenda, but doesn’t see a future in which the newly freed can become full citizens.
It’s only through seeing the valor and dignity of Black soldiers fighting for freedom and the Union that he begins to repent — to change his mind about what the United States means and who should be a part of it.
“He’s thinking about repentance from a spiritual perspective,” historian Kellie Carter Jackson tells us in episode three. “How as a country do we repent of the sins of slavery? How do we make sense of this? How do we become righteous again?” The Gettysburg Address is perhaps the clearest example of this repentance.
[W]e here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. (emphasis added)
These words are the language of repentance and renewal, indicating a shift in the way America will define itself here on out. The soldiers who died at Gettysburg were both white and Black, paying “the last full measure of devotion” for the hope of “a new birth of freedom” — not the nation as it was before the war, but something more perfect.
The United States is still doing that work of repentance.
“The movement toward human justice and civil rights has been a slow halting one. And sometimes it retreats as it did during Jim Crow,” Reynolds pointed out. In Lincoln, we see a person who internalized many of the racist sins of his time, yet allowed himself to grow, and eventually, push back against his ignorance and prejudice.
“We can’t know or understand Lincoln at the same time that we have an emotional investment in preserving him as a savior,” writer and academic Jelani Cobb tells us, in the penultimate episode. “But it is in understanding the trial and error and the failures and the shortcomings and the contradictions that he becomes the most useful to us. And really by understanding the things he got wrong can we really grasp the magnitude and importance of the things he got right.”