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The Gettysburg address lives on [Commentary]

Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address 150 years ago Tuesday. 

At 272 words, it is a model of brevity and a testament to Lincoln's political wisdom. He shows us that words can clarify, challenge, inspire. Perhaps most of all, they can stop us in the muck of our political selfishness and prompt us to imagine a country greater than the silly procedural games and hate-filled diatribes that pass for civic discourse these days.

Last April, I visited Gettysburg National Military Cemetery on a field trip with my college students. As we walked the grounds, astounded by the horror and the valor of the three-day battle, we read Lincoln's speech aloud and wondered, to each other and ourselves, what difference words could make when war and inequality and hate and bitterness seem intertwined with the history of our country, with the nature of who we have always been, and what we might always be.

We do not read speeches any more. Even the 10 sentences of the Gettysburg Address seem too long for our eyes accustomed to headlines, text messages and 140-character Tweets. But if we did, we might see the address, Lincoln, and even ourselves in a different light.

If you take up the challenge, here are four ways to partake in one of history's most celebrated moments:

•As a window: Lincoln's address provides a view into how different our forebears were from us. Consider his reflections on the futility of the dedication ceremony itself — "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here." In an age of ceaseless self-promotion and viral celebrations of everything, Lincoln's words sting with the fundamental tonic of moral courage, fortitude displayed in battle, yes, and also in thinking hard about things that truly matter.

•As a platform: The address builds informed understandings of important ideas. Lincoln reminds us that at its creation, the United States was to be a country in which "all men are created equal." Lincoln called on his contemporaries to remember an older, deeper, more resolute equality and, in so doing, strive to realize the "better angels of their natures," as he said in another speech. That proposition, as he called it, was not realized in his day, and we well may wonder if it is evident today.

•As a mirror: Through the speech we realize that our work — of sustaining a nation of unfettered laws and realizing a country of humane and just values — really has just begun. "It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain." From the battlefield of Gettysburg to the battlefields of Europe and Japan and Korea and Vietnam to the battlefields of Selma and Stonewall and Iraq and Afghanistan, our dead are with us always. Their memories should inspire us to great tasks.

•As an invitation: Lincoln's address presents two invitations. "We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this." The invocation of "we" reminds us that we have profound responsibilities to one another and for each other.

The second invitation is just as resonant. Sit with Lincoln's prose and reflect on why we've lost the capacity to speak humanely in defense of our principles and give voice to our most deep-seated convictions in ways that challenge but do not sow hate.

In my office is a photograph from that April field trip. In the photograph are women and men of varying ages, black and white, Latino and Asian. They come from a variety of socio-economic circumstances and life experiences.

The photograph and Lincoln's address awaken a realization: Our democracy is blessedly, beautifully unfinished. Now, more than ever, our country is inflected by gifts of diversity, difference and possibility. These gifts abound in my students. They will make this country more beautiful because they will make it better. I think Lincoln might smile at this.

Make time to really read the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln knew that the dead were counting on us. So too are the living.

Jeffrey Kurtz is an associate professor of communication at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. His email is kurtz@denison.edu.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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