Mr. Walker is Minister of the First Presbyterian Church, Evanston, Illinois. This article first appeared in the Chicago Tribune.
When we celebrate the birthdays of men like Abraham Lincoln, it is well to be reminded of what we owe to yesterday. America the Beautiful, as we know it, was purchased by the courage and dedication of men and women who assumed responsibility in days of crisis. We may wisely profit by their understanding of both the nature and the hazards of freedom.
"At what point shall we Americans expect the approach of danger?" Mr. Lincoln wondered in an address to a young men’s lyceum in Springfield, Illinois, on January 27, 1837. "By what means," he asked, "shall we fortify against it? Shall we expect some trans-Atlantic military giant to step the ocean and crush us at a blow?"
Thoughtfully, Lincoln answered his own question: "All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth… in their military chest… could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years."
What, then, is the danger Lincoln foresaw in 1837? The danger, "if it ever reach us… must spring from amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men, we must live thru all time or die by suicide."
Lincoln, of course, knew nothing of rockets or sputniks or jet planes. He lived in a different age, and yet what he said in 1837 remains true today. The crisis in our day, as in Lincoln‘s day, is far more internal than external. It is in the softness of our self-indulgence; in the prejudices of our minds that masquerade as truth; in the failure to discover for ourselves and for our nation centers of meaning and value to under gird creative struggle.
We will not "live thru all time" with nothing to live for except full dinner pails, two cars in every garage, and color TV in every room. The good life of free men involves something more than a standard of living. If we want nothing more than extravagant reward for minimum productivity, we are asking for the danger Mr. Lincoln foresaw. If we wish to be indulged by a paternalistic government, assuming the role of Dodo in Alice in Wonderland, saying pontifically, "Everybody has won and all must have prizes," we are inviting our own destruction.
The Responsibility Is Personal
No nation can bear the burden of the self-indulgent revolt of its people against personal responsibility. To be sure, we live in a complex society, in a crowded world, but in it individuals are no less significant than in the days of the pioneers. Persons who think and serve and assume responsibility for society are the clew to triumph or disaster.
Individuals, assuming responsibility in thousands a communities, will determine what happens to our schools and colleges. Persons, getting under the load, will say whether we have honest or dishonest government in villages and cities and in Washington. Citizens everywhere can work in precincts and wards and preach from street corners if they are willing to think their way to convictions worth preaching about and working to accomplish.
The ultimate question is whether we care most for our comforts or most for our convictions. Do we believe enough in the truth that shall make us free to serve it? Do we care enough for integrity to risk popular scorn for it? Do we cherish freedom enough to turn from our self-indulgence to the altars of self-discipline?
Ours is a day demanding greatness in individual men and women, greatness in thinking, greatness in sacrifice, and greatness in disciplined service of the highest. As Lincoln noted, "If destruction be our lot, we ourselves must be its author…."