On Wednesday, we witnessed a dark moment in the history of our nation, as a seditious mob mounted a direct assault on the very institution of American government. Other than an isolated shooting incident at the United States Capitol in 1954, you’d have to turn to the British burning of Washington during the War of 1812 to find any parallel in the history of our republic. Some of yesterday’s perpetrators literally marched under the banner of traitors, parading a Confederate flag through the halls of Congress—a feat not matched even by Southern troops during the Civil War itself.
This may seem to so many of us like a very grim moment, and in many ways it is. But observed from a historic perspective, yesterday’s mayhem may very well represent a bright turning point—the sort that appears every century or so and propels America further toward a more perfect Union.
If you find this statement audacious, think back to a crisp afternoon 158 years ago, just outside the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. In just a few short lines, President Abraham Lincoln delivered not only the peak of American oration but, more importantly, a reconsecration of our national project—a reminder that America was great not because it was mighty, but because it was good and because it was committed to pursuing its mandate, rooted in the rich moral soil of the Hebrew Bible. Like Abraham and Moses before him, Lincoln, too, reminded his listeners of what it means to be in a covenant with God, an arrangement that demands constant vigilance, eternal self-scrutiny and perpetual movement toward justice and peace.
He was far from the first or the last American to speak in such lofty terms. Whereas the European architects of the Enlightenment spoke of the “social contract”—a civic agreement between human beings interested in protecting their individual interests—our Founding Fathers saw the nation they helped build in very different terms. When George Washington raised his sword, he did so inspired by the prophet Micah’s promise of individual liberty. When Frederick Douglass thundered about human dignity, he was speaking the language of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. When Martin Luther King Jr. shared his famous dream and urged us to let justice roll on like a river, he was quoting Amos. When these great men faced colossal difficulties, or terrible injustice, they responded not with despair but with a promise to renew our collective covenant with the Almighty and make America good again.
Now, it’s our turn to do the same.
First, rather than succumb to the sound and fury of our social media, we should reacquaint ourselves with the same blueprint that guided our predecessors to ever-greater heights at every historical crossroad. We should eschew the idolatries of our own day, the rabid ideologies of zealots Left and Right, and instead recommit ourselves to the Bible’s timeless reminder that it shall forever be the content of one’s character—not the color of one’s skin or one’s political opinion or one’s financial prowess—that determines a person’s worth.
Second, we need to remind ourselves of America’s higher purpose. Ours is not just another nation, a random collection of strangers huddled together. If we no longer believe in the transcendence of the American project, then America as we’ve known it from Washington to very recently is truly over. To heal, we must turn first to the difficult but essential biblical idea of divine election. This doesn’t mean, as some hot-headed politicians sometimes suggest, believing that America has a God-given right to do as it pleases—or that God meekly sanctions everything America does. Quite the opposite: It means that we have a divinely mandated responsibility to hold ourselves to ever-higher standards, to strive for excellence and to put aside all the petty and noxious resentments that stand in the way of our goal.
Will we succeed? History, to say nothing of Providence, has much to say on that matter. As Lincoln delivered his soliloquy, his listeners, still mired in America’s bloodiest war, could’ve been forgiven for thinking that their commander-in-chief was just talking pretty. Instead, his words proved prophetic, and America, reconsecrated to its divine mission, was soon reborn in a far better state than before. Let us here and now roll up our sleeves and put in the civic and spiritual work, so that historians will look back on the beginning of 2021 not as a time of destruction, but as a moment of reconsecration, hope and growth.
Rabbi Dr. Ari Lamm is the founder of The Joshua Project and host of Good Faith Effort. He is chief executive of Bnai Zion, which has supported educational and humanitarian projects in the United States and Israel for over 112 years. Rabbi Lamm is a Princeton-trained historian of religion.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.