The political climate in America these days is decidedly not good. Leading Republicans and Democrats can barely be civil toward one another, let alone work together for the common good of the country. Are there major ideological differences between the two parties? Absolutely. But such stark differences have pretty much always marked American politics. What’s changed is that hostility has replaced civility on both sides of the aisle. That’s why I thought it would do us good to revisit a story from the life of William McKinley.
McKinley was the 25th President of the United States and is generally considered by historians to have done an above-average job in office. Although America won The Spanish-American War during his time as President, he is more famously remembered for being assassinated early into his second term. On September 6, 1901, he was shot twice in the abdomen by an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz and died on September 14, 1901. As McKinley lay dying, his wife Ida said to him, “I want to go, too. I want to go, too.” In reply, McKinley, who was a Christian, put his arm around her and said, “We are all going. We are all going. God’s will be done, not ours.”
The story I have in mind takes place on a cold evening in the late fall of the year. McKinley was scheduled to deliver a campaign address in a neighboring town and had hired a hansom cab to take him there. This type of cab was a two-wheeled, partially enclosed carriage that was pulled by one horse. The enclosed section was located at the front of the carriage and featured a seat that was big enough to accommodate two people. The carriage was piloted by a driver who sat on an elevated seat that was stationed on an open platform at the rear of the carriage. The passenger could speak to the driver by way of a door at the top of the enclosed section.
McKinley was riding along inside the cab, going over his written speech, when suddenly he heard a rasping cough coming from the driver’s seat behind him. It was a cough that McKinley recognized as being one of the distinctive features of a certain reporter who was one of his most vocal critics. The reporter suffered from tuberculosis. Evidently, the reporter had paid the cab driver to let him sit beside the driver in the elevated seat at the rear of the carriage.
While there was nothing illegal about what the reporter was doing, it was at best audacious and at worst unethical because he was obviously making his way to McKinley’s speech for the purpose of hearing it and writing a critical assessment of it for a newspaper article. This placed McKinley in an awkward predicament. Should he leave the tubercular reporter up there in the cold or should he allow the man to join him inside the somewhat cramped quarters of the coach?
McKinley didn’t have to think long before making his decision. He reached up and pulled back the door to get the driver’s attention, told the driver to stop the cab, and then stepped down out of the carriage in order to see both the driver and the reporter. Then, in an authoritative tone, he said to the reporter, “Get down off the seat!” This threw a real scare into the reporter as he figured that he was about to be left alongside the road as the carriage rolled on toward its destination. Once the reporter had climbed down, though, McKinley told him, “You shouldn’t be riding outside on such a cold night. Get inside the cab with me.”
McKinley’s act of kindness brought genuine shame upon the reporter, and he said to McKinley, “Mr. McKinley, you don’t understand. I am going to the next town to tear your speech to pieces.” But that didn’t matter to McKinley. He answered by offering the reporter his overcoat and saying, “Here, put my overcoat on and get warm so you can do a good job.”
As we live the Christian life, there will be times when the Lord will burden us to speak a strong word of rebuke to someone who has it coming. For example, John the Baptist rebuked Herod Antipas for Herod’s marriage to Herodias, who was the wife of Herod’s brother Philip (Matthew 14:1-4). Jesus, in the final days of His ministry, absolutely unloaded on the Scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:1-39). Stephen rebuked the Jewish Sanhedrin Council enough to cause them to stone him (Acts 7:1-60). Paul even once rebuked Peter to his face (Galatians 2:11-21). What we must understand, though, is that such times are the exception in the Christian life, not the rule. The rule is to love our enemies, bless those who curse us, do good to those who hate us, pray for those who persecute us, and turn the other cheek to those who strike us on one cheek (Matthew 5:38-48).
Is such behavior easy to carry out? I think you know the answer to that. If we have any grit to us at all, we’d rather live out the Old Testament standard, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21). But as someone has said, that approach only results in a lot of eyeless, toothless people. So, whether it’s the political realm or any other type of realm, the Christian is called to embody a different standard. That’s the standard that William McKinley employed that cold night so long ago, and it’s one to which God is still calling His people to today.