Tag Archives: Gettysburg Address

Selective Memory and Finishing the Work We are In

Selective Memory and Finishing the Work We Are In  —by Jinny Batterson

I can remember parts of events that happened when I was much younger. On Friday, November 22, 1963, I was a Maryland high school student. I remember hearing our school principal start an announcement over the school intercom that day at an unusual time for announcements. I remember coming down the stairwell between the two floors of our building along with many other students changing classes. 

I don’t remember whether the announcement I heard while going downstairs was the first—that President Kennedy had been shot—or the second—that he had shortly afterward been pronounced dead at a Dallas hospital. I don’t remember whether school that day was dismissed early or whether school was canceled the following Monday for his funeral. I don’t remember much about that year’s Thanksgiving the following Thursday. 

Earlier in 1963, there had been a tense standoff between the nuclear-armed U.S.A. under Kennedy’s leadership, and the nuclear-armed U.S.S.R. under Nikita Khrushchev about the positioning of nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba, then led by Communist revolutionary Fidel Castro. I don’t remember whether my dad built a nuclear fallout shelter in our front yard before or after Kennedy was shot.  

Parts of our education when I was a student involved memorizing famous poems and speeches. I can recite most of a short Abraham Lincoln speech from a century earlier, first spoken in November, 1863 at a dedication ceremony for a military cemetery at the site of one of the U.S. Civil War’s deadliest battles:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are …testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and dedicated, can long endure.…The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. …It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us … that we 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.

In the tragic days after Lincoln’s 1865 assassination, his Gettysburg speech was nearly forgotten. Later, the contents of the speech took on more importance. When the current Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C. in 1922, the Gettysburg Address was inscribed on one of the monument’s inside walls.  

We are now experiencing another test of the viability of our democratic institutions. Each of us brings different memories to an ongoing impeachment inquiry. Witnesses and questioners interpret incidents differently, partly based on their training and point of view. Our current President ran for office touting the belief that our nation could return to a time when the U.S. was preeminent in global affairs. As an astute businessman, he could “fix things.” Some seem to think his position grants him nearly unlimited license to promote his own interests. Attempts to remove him from office are “character assassination.” Others less charitable to the President point out that our political system is based on checks and balances designed to restrict any one person or political entity from rigging the system to his own benefit, from “fixing things.” 

Absent from the immediate debates and questioning are considerations of the impacts of global over-dependence on fossil fuels to human and planetary health. Scientists tell us that both the United States of America and the rest of the world’s nations have only a decade or so to drastically curb our output of the climate-warming gasses produced by burning fossil fuels if we are to maintain a planet capable of supporting human life as we know it.

On another wall of the Lincoln Memorial is his second inaugural, delivered in March, 1865, just over a month before his assassination. We might be wise to remember its conclusion:  

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle… to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. 

Regardless of the outcome of our immediate political crises, climate change requires all of us to strive on, using whatever tools of intellect, wealth, compassion, and ingenuity are at our disposal, to finish the work we are in.