American political speech has long drawn on the Bible and Christian theology. President Barack Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of the nine people killed in a church shooting June 17, continued in that tradition. Obama drew on the depth of Christian experience primarily to make sense of a terrible event, but also to stir us to action.
I’ve argued in my academic work that when speakers evoke Christianity, they don’t merely name-check God or identify with other Christians. They also call up the long history of beliefs and practices that come with that tradition. This often functions ideologically (our sense of justice or human dignity, for instance), but it can also be experiential. The president’s eulogy was steeped in talk about God’s gift of grace and the amazing testimony to God’s love that has come out of these horrible killings. But the moment that caught most people’s attention was when Obama enacted the Christian tradition right then and there. Toward the end of his speech, after speaking about grace and referencing the hymn, Obama led the gathered throng in singing “Amazing Grace.”
This moment was touching, I believe, because of how deeply it resonated with so much of the meaning and action of the Christian tradition. The history of the song itself is relevant in many ways to the events that led to this moment. “Amazing Grace” was written by former slave trader John Newton, who meant to express his wonder at God’s forgiveness after Newton had repented. Earlier in his eulogy, Obama noted that God works in mysterious ways and had a different plan than that of accused killer Dylann Storm Roof. That “he didn’t know he was being used by God.”
God uses long traditions of struggle and unity and gratitude and love to bring us together and support each other.
We often talk here at TC about God’s truth being shown in unlikely places, or through the actions and words of those who don’t know Him. Obama pointing to God’s character as shown in the forgiveness expressed by the victims and their family members and the love shown by the surrounding community makes the mysterious work of God even starker. Just as Barabbas was the first freed by Jesus’ death on the cross.
The sound of all those gathered joining together to sing a familiar hymn reminds us of the love, beauty and unity of the church. Like many, I can remember singing “Amazing Grace” alongside brothers and sisters in Christ in every Christian community I’ve been part of throughout my life. God uses unlikely people and actions to show His character. God uses long traditions of struggle and unity and gratitude and love to bring us together and support each other, even in moments of darkness where we might feel hopeless.
When Obama started signing, he reminded us not only of how cherished Christian traditions contain great truths - in this case about God’s grace, which saves each of us even though we don’t merit it - but he also invoked God’s goodness throughout our individual lives and throughout the church’s history. He detailed both the remarkable history of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and its connection to the church universal. Thanks be to God.