04/28/2011 12:05 am ET Updated Jun 27, 2011

Myth, Martyrdom And The American Civil War

By John Farmer Jr.
Religion News Service

(RNS) "Are you a Yankee or a rebel?"

That question, asked of me at recess by a ring of third- and fourth-grade boys on my first day of school in Fairfax, Va., was my introduction to the Civil War's lasting imprint on modern America.

"I'm from New Jersey," I said, to many puzzled looks.

"Well, you're gonna have to choose sides."

Northern Virginia today is an artifact of urban sprawl, but in the mid-1960s, a century after the defining struggle, it was very much an old Southern province, with lingering, sometimes defiant Southern sympathies.

My family lived in an all-white development named for a Confederate guerilla war hero, Col. John Singleton Mosby. My sisters and I attended a school named in Mosby's honor, and Mosby's birthday was a school holiday.

Not surprisingly, the version of the "War Between the States" we were taught in Virginia public schools differed radically from the conflict described by my parents. In the Virginia version, the war was not about the effort to free slaves; the war was about the right of states to secede from the Union. Slavery was a regrettable but essentially benign "peculiar institution." Nothing more.

The Civil War became my youthful obsession. The Southern account was romantic, seductive, almost persuasive. And based on what was going on in cities such as Newark and Detroit, it was hard to believe the Union forces had been fighting to free African-Americans.

Yet it was also hard to believe so many people would be slaughtered in order to keep the Southern states from leaving the Union. So what was the Civil War about?

The Civil War, I decided then and still believe, was about the martyrdom of Abraham Lincoln on Good Friday in 1865. The Civil War was about original sin.

The concept of original sin -- of a kernel of evil present at birth that haunts one's entire life -- also was introduced to me in Northern Virginia in the form of Saturday morning CCD lessons at St. Leo's Catholic Church.

I don't recall whether I ever accepted the idea that infants are born sinful, but my obsession with the Civil War left me little doubt nations can be born with original sin -- and our nation was.

Where the evil is as profound as slavery and the racism upon which it built, moreover, its expiation may require, as ours did, a baptism of unspeakable bloodshed.

Lincoln's sacrifice became linked, in my mind, to that of Jesus Christ. Both preached a gospel of reconciliation against the corruption, intolerance and violence in which they were immersed. Both shied from the inevitable and awful fate that awaited them; Jesus asked God to "take this cup from me," while Lincoln spent the first two years of the war denying that it was about slavery at all.

But Jesus accepted that the only way to expiate evil was to allow it to take his life. I believe Lincoln saw that the bitterness of the fighting and the sheer immensity of the suffering and had to be ennobled by a higher cause than coercing states to remain in the Union.

For Lincoln, the war had to be about what America was supposed to be about: the principles espoused in the Declaration of Independence. And in the end, it was. In the end, John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln because, as he told an acquaintance, honoring those principles "means nigger citizenship."

Above all, in dying, both were considered "saviors" in the service of rebirth. Jesus called for a rebirth of spirit ("the Kingdom is within you"), and a commitment to love and compassion. Lincoln called for "a rebirth of freedom," and a commitment to the ideals that were espoused but neglected at our nation's founding.

Whether either martyr succeeded is an open question. Humanity over the past 2,000 years has hardly been a model of love and fellowship. And traces of our national shame have lingered long after Lincoln.

Nonetheless, it is worth commemorating the passions together during this Easter season and the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. Both Jesus and Lincoln pointed to the need to reach a deeper, almost biological evolution of the human moral sense, and both were willing to die in order to show us the need and the path.

If we see that need, if we walk that path, we cannot help but rise.

John Farmer Jr. is dean of Rutgers School of Law in Newark, N.J. A version of this column originally appeared in The Star-Ledger of Newark.