In 1858, in what is now known as his “House Divided” speech, Abraham Lincoln uttered the words, “A house divided against itself, cannot stand,” and in that instance, delivered one of the most important addresses in U.S. history. The speech marked his entrance into national politics at a time when the nation was profoundly at odds over slavery. Lincoln’s speech still offers timely lessons about the costs of deep-seated political polarization. The “House divided” phrase has forever been closely attributed to President Lincoln ever since that day.
However, there are in fact multiple uses of that phrase, or some close derivation of it, that go back much further than Lincoln, such as where the expression “a house divided against itself” appears twice in the Bible. Jesus Christ Himself said, “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.”
In the Gospel of Mark 3:25, Jesus states, “And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” That is in response to the scribes’ claim that “by the prince of the devils casteth he out devils.” In the Gospel of Matthew 12:25, “Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto him, every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.” Then, Saint Augustine, in his Confessions (Book 8, Chapter 8) describes his conversion experience as being “a house divided against itself.”
It also appears in the works of widely read English writers such as Thomas Hobbes in his 1651 Leviathan, Chapter 18, where he states that “a kingdom divided in itself cannot stand.” It is also found in Thomas Paine’s 1776 Common Sense, where he describes the composition of the English constitution “hath all the distinctions of a house divided against itself… “
During the War of 1812, in a letter from Abigail Adams to Mercy Otis Warren, she says. “… A house divided upon itself – and upon that foundation do our enemies build their hopes of subduing us.” Famously, eight years before Lincoln’s speech, during the Senate debate on the Compromise of 1850, Sam Houston proclaimed, “A nation divided against itself cannot stand.” And then Felix Walker, in his speech on the Missouri Compromise said, “And we have the word of truth for it, that a house divided against itself cannot stand. “Then, as if to foreshadow his eventual rise, Lincoln himself used the phrase in another context as early as 1843.
So, why do I dig into this phrase today when the imagery and even the very headline of this message is an homage to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his brilliant, but simple phrase, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools”? Well, precisely for that reason. Dr. King’s simple, straightforward messages were always for the ears of plain, every day, real people… People with a longing to be free and live as they had been promised, with the God-given right to “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” When Dr. King spoke these words, he more than summed up what everyone from St. Mark to Abraham Lincoln all struggled to say in his simple but profound words: “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”
The sentiment of Dr. King’s quote – this simple thought – most ably, simply expresses the totality of humanity. While it was spoken specifically about the racial divide then present in the United States of America, it more than applies to all of us today — for those very same reasons plus so many new ways we have discovered to divide our house.
But what better way to recognize this simple wisdom as to invoke it on the very day set aside to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and just three days before we will struggle to peacefully transfer power to a new incoming Chief Executive and his administration, while we are in fact a nation so badly divided. Let’s think on all those who spoke truth of the consequences of a house divided and then punctuate that with the simple brilliance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and try…try…try to not be the fools.
May the words of Dr. King ring in all our ears this week. And may the warm breath of The Divine blow peacefully across our land this week and for all time. Have a wonderful day and remember…