“[L]et us judge not that we be not judged,” Abraham Lincoln enjoined the nation in his Second Inaugural Address, quoting Jesus. “Judge not, that ye be not judged,” Jesus said in Matthew. “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”
It was an interesting injunction.
Moments earlier, Lincoln had blamed the entire Civil War and hundreds of thousands of American casualties on Southern insurrection and slavery. “To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend [slavery] was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war,” he stated. And yet he urged the North not to judge; he extended “malice toward none.” Renunciation had its place, he knew. But now the nation must heal, and any air of superiority must cease. That is what Lincoln meant when he said “judge not.”
Lincoln’s words transcend the precise historical moment in which they were spoken. He was speaking—to borrow a phrase from his First Inaugural—to “the better angels of our nature,” well aware that the natural human response to conquered foes is to condemn them, renounce them, and flatter ourselves that we are better than them. It was that last step in particular that Lincoln was warning about.
“Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained,” he said. “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces,” he quipped about the South, again quoting Scripture. But anyone who would stop there and assume Lincoln was gloating must disregard the subsequent caveat: “but let us judge not that we be not judged.”
These words are especially relevant in the 2020s where we have become embroiled in a heated national debate about where to draw the line between disavowing certain bad aspects of our ancestors’ lives and defacing every monument erected in their remembrance. Is it possible to do the first without the second?
Recently, a 1917 statue of Robert E. Lee, relocated from a park in Charlottesville, Virginia, to a museum in 2021, was melted down at a foundryman’s hands, sparking anew the debate over the appropriate response to divisive public monuments. Erin Thomson, author of “Smashing Statues,” aptly responded: “The way our communities dispose of these artifacts may influence America’s racial dynamic over the next century, just as erecting them did for the hundred-year period now ending. Three years after George Floyd’s death… and 158 years after the end of the Civil War, it’s high time we start figuring this out.”
Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee statue has met its end, in a 2,250-degree furnace.— The Washington Post (@washingtonpost) October 26, 2023
The divisive Confederate monument, the focus of the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in 2017, was secretly melted down and will become a new piece of public art.
More on the process:… pic.twitter.com/XatZUfvku3
But the topic of historical forgiveness is a thorny one. Just because Lincoln said “judge not,” in this case, the Confederates, “that ye be not judged,” does not mean we should give them a pass, either. Not even Lincoln did that. To look back on the evils of slavery and say, simply, “judge not,” is cold, calloused, and problematic. It certainly was not what Jesus had in mind when he said those words.
But the rest of Jesus’ words are enlightening.
“[W]hy beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye,” he asked. “Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.”
The teaching was not so much, then, about not making moral judgments but about examining oneself before doing so, pertinent wisdom when it comes to toppling statues. Lincoln could say slavery and insurrection were wrong, but he better be sure he himself stood on the right side of history before wasting his breath. Likewise, we ought to take a holistic view of history, probing the good, bad, and ugly, and judging each in turn. But we ought to remove the beams from our own eyes first.
We often forget that every generation in history has flattered itself with the illusion of being slightly more advanced than the one before it, and we are no exception. Yes, we have advanced past the barbarism of slavery—thank God. But that does not mean we are nearly as enlightened as we think. And the eagerness with which we judge century-old monuments may eventually be held against us when posterity looks back on the evils we allowed to subsist, the glaring beams in our own eyes.
Perhaps Lincoln’s greatest achievement came in that he could do two things at once: he could see the world with moral clarity—denouncing evil unhesitatingly—and still avoid the common pitfalls of hypocrisy and sanctimony. Somehow, we must strike that same balance, too.
And what does that look like in a nation bickering over Robert E. Lee statues? Admittedly, the presence of monuments to the commander of the Confederate States Army is a bit more complicated than, say, memorials to George Washington or Theodore Roosevelt. Unequivocally, effigies of these men should stand. But the tear-down-the-statues mob never intended to stop with Lee. They’re coming for Washington and Roosevelt, too. And they’re doing so because guilt-ridden, college-educated pacifists let them take Lee first.
Much like pro-choice advocates who hide behind the “exception” of rape (the one percent) but, in actuality, support abortion under virtually any circumstance, those who would tear down all statues almost always begin with the dirtiest, most complicated figures. “It is Robert E. Lee,” we reason, not wanting to be accused of defending a Confederate. So we let them win—we let them tear him down. But it never was about Robert E. Lee.
Personally, I wouldn’t usually be so persnickety about preserving Confederate monuments. But context matters. In this day and age, Lee’s face melting in a foundry is symptomatic of a broader cultural sickness, one that permeates our institutions and deprecates all history, all ancestors, and all monuments to the past. Don’t be fooled: Washington, Roosevelt, and even Lincoln statues are being removed for precisely the same reason that Charlottesville's Robert E. Lee statue met its end in a furnace. That is what happens when a nation forgets Lincoln’s and Jesus’ words—when a generation with beams in its eyes makes itself the judge of yesterday’s heroes.