Abraham Lincoln’s Absolution

The night is dark and the battle rages — yet there is always hope.

I recently stood in awe before Horace Pippin’s rough 1942 painting “Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, Pardons the Sentry” which hangs in New York in the Museum of Modern Art’s gallery of works by self-taught outsider artists. Pippin (1888-1946), who served in an all-Black regiment in WWI, was part of the Harlem Renaissance. He thrived despite a war injury that paralyzed his right arm, and at his death the New York Times called him “the most important [African-American] painter in American history.”

Pippin’s painting of Lincoln shows a night-time scene of the president standing in a white canvas camp tent flanked by a general on his right and two guards on his left. Lincoln is typically portrayed with enslaved Black people in a posture of supplication. But the African American Pippin depicts him with a white soldier who had been found sleeping on sentry duty, kneeling before him with a plea for clemency.

The story behind the scene is one of a Civil War Lazarus, who was given new life but still would die. The “Sleeping Sentry” was the Vermonter William Scott, who in August 1861 was court-martialed and sentenced to be executed. President Lincoln learned of Scott’s case from another Vermonter and passed on his recommendation for a pardon to General George McClellan.

On September 9, the date Scott was to be executed, the death sentence was read to him at his court martial, detailing the truth: he was guilty of an infraction of military law and the just punishment for it was death. Then the twenty-two-year-old Vermonter heard the words of Lincoln’s pardon: in spite of his guilt, he was now the recipient of the United States Army’s mercy, and his life was restored. He was free to continue serving in what Lincoln later called “the last full measure of devotion,” the just cause to which Scott had been called.

Scott’s story bears all the marks of Christian mercy. In John’s gospel, Jesus says “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (8:32). There is no mercy for Scott short of the truth being declared. He did indeed commit a dereliction of duty. His falling asleep while on guard, though completely understandable for a weary soldier living under untenable camp conditions, endangered the lives of his fellow troops. If, “for want of a nail” a war could be lost, the drowsiness of the private had the same potential.

The Law, embodied in military regulations, existed both for the safety and good order of those serving in the Army and for the success of the greater cause. Nodding off holds no danger for me on an evening watching The Great Pottery Throw-Down (or in a pew on Sunday morning). But the danger of Scott’s fatigue was real. Lives were at stake.

So, too, when I breach the Law. God gives the Law for the sake of safety, security, and good order in a creation now come under the sway of sin. It protects me from the often dubious and occasionally dangerous actions of others, allowing me to live in peace. More importantly, the Law restrains the old sinner in me and protects others from my own works of the flesh. Galatians 5 will give you an idea of my dark capabilities.

William Scott heard the penalty of his infraction: death. In spite of the serpent’s lie that “you will not die,” it’s a sentence we human creatures have had set before us from the moment we were cast east of Eden. The wages of sin are not a mere five-yard gridiron penalty from the line of scrimmage. The just recompense is death, and I feel the sentence daily in the constancy of the world’s judgment. I’m not enough. I can’t get it all done. Gravity pulls me down. My flesh sags. Even on the brightest days there is no escape from my flesh withering like grass. The other shoe will always drop.

Scott had no razor-honed sword of Damocles hanging over his head, because it had come down. His death was imminent. I so rarely hear judgment so explicitly, but when it happens it’s a painful thrust of the knife. Nathan’s words to David — “You are the man” — ring true for me. I broke the law. Another was hurt. It was “by my fault, my own fault, my own most grievous fault.” I don’t need to ask, as the disciples did, “Is it I?” I know I’m the dead man walking.

Pippin’s painting, though he dramatized the scene, depicts the moment of truth. Scott confesses and is placed on a new trajectory.

Standing in the art gallery, a casual viewer wouldn’t know they’ve encountered an eschatological breaking-in of the Resurrection, but any preacher worth their salt ought to be able to spot it. Mercy, forgiveness, pardon, clemency, absolution: this litany is a list of appearances of Easter horning in on the territory where previously the Law, judgment, and death held sway. This is the gist of the church’s proclamation, the reason for its existence.

Scott received at what was to be his moment of execution what awaits us on the youngest day, the day of resurrection. In the moment of mercy, the future judgment of the crucified and risen one breaks the strong spine of history. The hard truth can no longer point an icy finger his way. Christ, who is risen embodying grace, is the end of the Law.

It will not do for the church to be the equivalent of the military regulation manual, doling out the duties of the enlisted and holding layabouts and scofflaws to account. The world has enough stand-ins for Moses who are capable of drawing up orders and handing down commendations for services rendered and sentences for dereliction of duty. What I need at the moment of truth is a word that bestows freedom and sets a new direction for me.

Lincoln could only give Scott a short reprieve through McClellan’s clemency. The Vermont private went back to his company to continue in the fighting and was killed in battle seven months later. But Christ who pardons me delivers far more. He is the resurrection and the life. He who gave the four-day-dead Lazarus a newly beating heart had something even greater in store.

It’s a promise of life beyond the battlefield, beyond the hard scrabble fight for millimeters of territory, beyond demand after demand after demand. It’s a declaration in the face of death that a new creation of life, unsullied by weeping and morning, reality TV, spin doctors, and every other bit of ugly is at hand before my eyes.

I hope that when the dead are at last raised William Scott will see his supplication and release was always of a piece with Jesus’ death and resurrection. If it’s true for a drowsy private in the Civil War, the Lord will also say to me and you, “Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you!” (Eph 5:14).

The night is dark, the battle rages, and the dead lie strewn about, yet there is always hope for the supplicant at God’s mercy seat. The presider over heaven and earth has commanded his officers, including this one, to declare that mercy is yours at this very moment. You’re free. Your sentence is over. Kneel no more. Walk out into the light of day.

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2 responses to “Abraham Lincoln’s Absolution”

  1. Timothy Anderson says:

    Excellent post, it would make a good sermon, but I will only borrow parts of it, since it is yours and not mine. I like this line: “Gravity pulls me down. My flesh sags.” That seems to be a common theme today for many and especially many who have no faith. I will steal the last two paragraphs as the answer that we all need to hear. I hope that will meet with your approval.

  2. Ken Jones says:

    Oh, for crying in my beer! Go ahead. Steal this with impunity.

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