The 1860 presidential race between Lincoln, Douglass, and Breckenridge was one of the most bitter in U.S. history. The tall, lanky Lincoln, and the short, doughty Douglas had been rivals since they both sat in the parlor of Mary Todd, vying for her hand - round 1 to Lincoln. Then they fought bitterly over the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) which Douglas sponsored. It set aside the Missouri Compromise, and made it possible for slavery to spread west. Lincoln’s best early speech is his address given in opposition to this act. It is uncharacteristically seasoned with anger and sarcasm. The act became law – round 2 to Douglas. The men famously opposed each other for the seat of junior senator from Illinois in 1856. Douglas won the election, when the majority democrats voted early and often, but because of their highly publicized debates Lincoln became a national figure – round three was a draw.
During the presidential race of 1860 Lincoln didn’t campaign in the Deep South. He wasn’t even on the ballot there. The democrats were split between Douglass and Breckenridge. Douglas was the biggest racist of the two, and the more virulent advocate of slavery – but he was pro-union. Brackenridge was a garden-variety racist, but he was pro-secession. When Douglas campaigned in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina he was so reviled that he often could not leave his train. He was cursed, spat upon, and pelted with rotten vegetables wherever he went. Breckenridge split the ticket, Lincoln won the election, and South Carolina seceded before the inauguration – round 4 goes to war.
As Lincoln rose to give his first inaugural address (a masterpiece), he removed his iconic stove-pipe hat, holding it with one hand while fumbling his notes with his other. Stephen Douglas, who was sitting just an arm’s length away, offered to hold his hat. Lincoln gratefully handed it to him, and began his plea that we listen to our “better angels.”
In my mind, I have kept Stephen Douglas in that subset of history’s villains which includes Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, and the Jenner/Kardashian clan. But this unexpected gesture of kindness makes me reconsider. Why was he so quick to show this kindness? I don’t know. Maybe he had a new perspective on the whole issue of slavery and union after his campaign experience. Maybe one can be polite and a racist at the same time. Maybe the gesture was a reflex, and has no meaning at all – but it gives me pause.
Random acts of kindness do that. They make us notice, re-compute, reconsider, appreciate. Why else would Jesus remind us of the value of a single cup of water given in His name? This comment about the cup of water, found in Matthew 10.40-42 provides the two key moments from Lew Wallace’s grand novel, Ben Hur. Wallace, incidentally, was a Union General in the Civil War. The key moment early in his book is the offering of a cup of water to Judah Ben Hur by Jesus. In the climax of the book, he returns the kindness as Jesus struggles towards Golgotha. The scenes are powerful, in the book, the 1925 silent film, and the 1959 Oscar-winning blockbuster. The scenes are powerful because the truth is powerful. A single cup of water can make things better.
Jesus reminds us that in the end we will be judged based upon our record of kindness (Matthew 25.31-46). Tending to the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the distressed, the sick will be the difference which separates sheep from goats. Most of us will never be president of anything. Few of us will achieve anything historic. All of us can be kind – moment to moment, one person at a time – and Jesus says this makes all the difference.