Choosing to Lead

By Jon Ruiz, City Manager of Eugene, OR

Inscribed on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC are these words from Lincoln’s second inaugural address:  

“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.”

President Abraham Lincoln spoke these words on Saturday, March 4, 1865 to a nation who had lived through decades of anger, hostility, separation and tragedy, culminating in the Civil War - four years of vicious fighting resulting in 620,000 battlefield deaths. Thirty-six days later on April 9, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. Five days after that President Lincoln was assassinated.

Out of this calamity, before his death, Lincoln spoke of the possibility of a just and lasting peace. His call to heal the deepest rifts in the nation and to bind up the personal wounds of the families that had borne the battle was courageous. But perhaps what was most remarkable was his humble petition to eschew hatred and embrace compassion and kindness in the aftermath of such devastation. He urged the nation to choose charity over malice to foster that lasting peace.

The 2018 Harwood Summit agenda with discussion questions surrounding President Lincoln's second inaugural address.

The 2018 Harwood Summit agenda with discussion questions surrounding President Lincoln's second inaugural address.

Are Lincoln’s words still relevant today after 154 years?

Lincoln's words were the topic of discussion at the 2018 Harwood Summit. After participating in that discussion, I decided to bring this conversation home to Eugene. I posed this question to over 40 community members in two separate settings over the past few months. In our city, the question is relevant because the FBI tagged Eugene as leading Oregon in reported hate crimes in 2017.  The widespread display of antagonistic “strength” in today’s public square is palpable throughout the nation.

Today, strength is often a synonym for power – a seemingly inexhaustible craving to bend others to our will.  At times such strength may be needed or expected. But power is inherently neutral, influenced for better or worse by the character of the person seeking or exercising it. Today, the display of strength is often divisive: assigning fault and blame; marketing fear and worshiping self-interest; judging and emphasizing rules, regulations, laws and oversight; bartering in scarcity, fears, and retribution. And, in finding ways to say “no.”

But history also brings us examples of those who rooted their strength in positive intentions. Dr. Martin Luther King said “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Dr. King encouraged us to choose love over hate – despite the long train of injustices he saw and felt imposed by one people on another.

In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl writes about his physical and spiritual experiences in four different Nazi death camps during WW II.  Even in the darkest setting imaginable, Frankl found purpose and strength in work, love and courage. One of his quotes seems particularly relevant:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” In the end he found strength, meaning and purpose in exercising his choice.

What is true for individuals is true for communities. We can choose a strength that barters in possibilities, generosity and restoration rather than problems, fear and retribution. We can choose a strength that shares commitment and accountability rather than assigning fault. We can choose a strength that sees abundance rather than scarcity. We can choose a strength that pursues resilience and gifts and best outcomes, “us” and “yes.” And, we can choose strength and humility rather than power and control.  It is our choice.

As a Baptist minister, Dr. King would have been familiar with the story about the teachers of religious law who brought an adulterous woman before Jesus. They asked him whether the punishment for someone like her should be stoning. Rather than answering immediately, Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger.  When the woman’s accusers continue their challenge, he states that the one who is without sin is the one who should throw the first stone. The accusers drop their stones and depart, leaving Jesus alone with the woman. Jesus asks her if anyone has condemned her. She answers no. Jesus says that he too does not condemn her and tells her to go and sin no more. The strength of those circled with stones was overpowered by Jesus’ choice to forgive and give hope

We can too easily find ourselves standing in the circle with stones to throw. But what people need to hear, see and most of all experience is hope, grace and love.  

Leadership is a choice. Not only do we choose to be a leader in any given circumstance or time, but as important, we choose the narrative and story which people will follow. Lincoln chose charity over malice. Dr. King chose love over hate. Frankl choose meaning over power. And Jesus chose hope and forgiveness over condemnation.  

In Eugene, the community members gathered around tables to discuss Lincoln’s words. They compared the complexities of today with those of 150 years ago. We talked about charity as a gift and about kindness and love freely given - unearned and unencumbered.  We explored how it feels to receive charity, and the complexities and societal costs of extending grace rather than malice. We listened to different perspectives of individual kindness and the possibility of community charity, and the impact of our words. In the end, we concluded that Lincoln’s words are relevant today.

I believe that the wisdom and leadership choices of Lincoln, King, Frankl and Jesus are all needed.  All four paid dearly for their choices and not everyone followed gladly. But in the sometimes-ruthless furnace of community, we can still choose kindness, grace and love. And in doing so, we can inspire each other. And we can inspire the world.

Jon Ruiz is the City Manager of Eugene, OR and attended the Harwood  Summit in October 2018 where Lincoln's second inaugural address was a cornerstone of our discussions.