Last summer I found myself in Washington, D.C., on the National Mall, that magnificent two miles of parkland stretching from the Lincoln Memorial to the U.S. Capitol. The weather was glorious, and the mall was filled with people – people of all ages and races, reflecting the full diversity of our great nation.
There were no formal activities on this early summer afternoon, but the atmosphere was festive. People were enjoying the day in a setting surrounded by monuments to our shared history, with all of its pain and glory, all of its courage and sacrifice.
I walked toward the Lincoln Memorial and ultimately up the steps to the statue of Mr. Lincoln. From that vantage point, one can see the entire length of the mall. Ahead just to the left is the Vietnam Memorial. Farther ahead is the World War II Memorial, then the Washington Monument, and in the distance the Capitol.
I thought about all that has happened in this space. Crowds have gathered for the inaugurations of presidents. And in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered one of the most memorable speeches of all time.
“I say to you today, my friends … even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”
Etched on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial are the words of two of Mr. Lincoln’s most memorable speeches, the Gettysburg Address and the second Inaugural Address. The closing words of the Second Inaugural always ring clear for me.
“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 and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
We live today in a time of deep division and polarization. Some fear that the foundations of our civil society are shaking. The values of our democracy are under assault. Hatred finds expression and ready acceptance.
As always, words matter, because words affirm our values, and words inspire action. The words of Dr. King named the evil to be conquered and the national creed that was violated by that evil. The words of Mr. Lincoln called a broken nation to the important and difficult work of healing.
In this month when we celebrate our presidents and honor Black History, it seems especially important to hear again the words of these latter-day prophets. It also seems important to listen to those among us whose words call us to embrace love rather than hate, unity rather than discord, diversity rather than uniformity, healing rather than fracture, peace rather than war.
For people of faith, it also is important to return to the words of our sacred texts. Standing at the Lincoln Memorial, I thought of these words.
“For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility; he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; so then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God…” (Ephesians 2:14, 17, 19).
What if we committed ourselves to living with malice toward none, to the work of breaking down walls, preaching peace, and embracing strangers and sojourners? Might we respond to Dr. King’s dream?
Words matter. Actions matter more.
Rock Jones is president of Ohio Wesleyan University and an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church.