Obama sings

Bloomberg has the whole text of Obama’s eulogy. I watched it all over again on CNN last night.

Friends of his remarked this week that when Clementa Pinckney entered a room, it was like the future arrived, that even from a young age, folks knew he was special, anointed. He was the progeny of a long line of the faithful, a family of preachers who spread God’s words, a family of protesters who [worked to] expand voting rights and desegregate the South.

Clem heard their instruction, and he did not forsake their teaching. He was in the pulpit by 13, pastor by 18, public servant by 23. He did not exhibit any of the cockiness of youth nor youth’s insecurities. Instead, he set an example worthy of his position, wise beyond his years in his speech, in his conduct, in his love, faith, and purity.

As a senator, he represented a sprawling swath of lowcountry, a place that has long been one of the most neglected in America, a place still racked by poverty and inadequate schools, a place where children can still go hungry and the sick can go without treatment—a place that needed somebody like Clem.

We have a lot of places like that in this country. Shamefully many.

Reverend Pinckney embodied a politics that was neither mean nor small. He conducted himself quietly and kindly and diligently. He encouraged progress not by pushing his ideas alone but by seeking out your ideas, partnering with you to make things happen. He was full of empathy and fellow feeling, able to walk in somebody else’s shoes and see through their eyes.

No wonder one of his Senate colleagues remembered Senator Pinckney as “the most gentle of the 46 of us, the best of the 46 of us.” Clem was often asked why he chose to be a pastor and a public servant. But the person who asked probably didn’t know the history of AME Church.

That last sentence was one of the places where he heated up a little bit – expressed more emotion and energy, and got more response. It was a call to AME Church, and it got a response.

As our brothers and sisters in the AME Church, we don’t make those distinctions. “Our calling,” Clem once said, “is not just within the walls of the congregation but the life and community in which our congregation resides.”

He embodied the idea that our Christian faith demands deeds and not just words, that the sweet hour of prayer actually lasts the whole week long, that to put our faith in action is more than just individual salvation, it’s about our collective salvation, that to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and house the homeless is not just a call for isolated charity, but the imperative of a just society.

If only it didn’t include the god part…

(By which I mean – that’s a beautiful passage, but I can’t fully share it, because to me the concept of god is tyrannical.)

Preacher by 13, pastor by 18, public servant by 23. What a life Clementa Pinckney lived. What an example he set. What a model for his faith.

And then to lose him at 41, slain in his sanctuary with eight wonderful members of his flock, each at different stages in life but bound together by a common commitment to God—Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, DePayne Middleton Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson.

Good people. Decent people. God-fearing people.

I hope not. I hope they didn’t fear god.

I know the phrase doesn’t literally mean that any more, not the way it’s used there – but still, the literal meaning is certainly available.

People so full of life and so full of kindness, people who ran the race, who persevered, people of great faith. To the families of the fallen, the nation shares in your grief. Our pain cuts that much deeper because it happened in a church. The church is and always has been the center of African American life … a place to call our own in a too-often hostile world, a sanctuary from so many hardships.

Over the course of centuries, black churches served as hush harbors, where slaves could worship in safety, praise houses, where their free descendants could gather and shout “Hallelujah,” rest stops for the weary along the Underground Railroad, bunkers for the foot soldiers of the civil-rights movement.

That part made me tear up big time.

They have been and continue to be community centers, where we organize for jobs and justice, places of scholarship and network, places where children are loved and fed and kept out of harm’s way and told that they are beautiful and smart and taught that they matter. That’s what happens in church. That’s what the black church means—our beating heart, the place where our dignity as a people in inviolate.

The line about children is another place where he heated up, and got a response. It was a very emotional line and got an emotional response. His “and taught that they matter” was almost shouted. Yeah.

There’s no better example of this tradition than Mother Emanuel, a church … a church built by blacks seeking liberty, burned to the ground because its founders sought to end slavery only to rise up again, a phoenix from these ashes.

Big response there.

When there were laws banning all-black church gatherers, services happened here anyway in defiance of unjust laws. When there was a righteous movement to dismantle Jim Crow, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached from its pulpit, and marches began from its steps.

A sacred place, this church, not just for blacks, not just for Christians but for every American who cares about the steady expansion of human rights and human dignity in this country, a foundation stone for liberty and justice for all.

That’s what the church meant.

More passion, more response. Moving as hell.

We do not know whether the killer of Reverend Pinckney and eight others knew all of this history, but he surely sensed the meaning of his violent act. It was an act that drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches, not random but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress … an act that he imagined would incite fear and recrimination, violence and suspicion, an act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation’s original sin.

Oh, but God works in mysterious ways. God has different ideas. He didn’t know he was being used by God.

And there was the big peripeteia. That “oh, but” went with a little chuckle. It’s very churchy, evangelical stuff, but moving all the same, even to an atheist. It probably helps that I’d had a secular version of the same thought – that this has gone very badly from the point of view of the racist who did the killings. This isn’t what he had in mind. All this mourning and feeling aren’t what he was aiming for.

Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer would not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group, the light of love that shown as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle. The alleged killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness. He couldn’t imagine that.

The alleged killer could not imagine how the city of Charleston under the good and wise leadership of Mayor Riley, how the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America would respond not merely with revulsion at his evil acts, but with (inaudible) generosity. And more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life.

That. That obviously was not what the killer had in mind.

Obama talks about god’s grace, and how it’s not earned but freely given, and how we don’t deserve it but we got it anyway. And then…

But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.

For too long, we were blind to the pain that the Confederate Flag stirred into many of our citizens. It’s true a flag did not cause these murders. But as people from all walks of life, Republicans and Democrats, now acknowledge, including Governor Haley, whose recent eloquence on the subject is worthy of praise … as we all have to acknowledge, the flag has always represented more than just ancestral pride.

For many, black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression … and racial subjugation.

We see that now.

Removing the flag from this state’s capital would not be an act of political correctness. It would not an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be acknowledgement that the cause for which they fought, the cause of slavery, was wrong. The imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people was wrong.

It would be a step, but only a step.

For too long, we’ve been blind to be way past injustices continue to shape the present. Perhaps we see that now. Perhaps this tragedy causes us to ask some tough questions about how we can permit so many of our children to languish in poverty or attend dilapidated schools or grow up without prospects for a job or for a career. Perhaps it causes us to examine what we’re doing to cause some of our children to hate. Perhaps it softens hearts towards those lost young men, tens and tens of thousands caught up in the criminal justice system and lead us to make sure that that system’s not infected with bias.

That we embrace changes in how we train and equip our police so that the bonds of trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve make us all safer and more secure.

Maybe we now realize the way a racial bias can infect us even when we don’t realize it so that we’re guarding against not just racial slurs but we’re also guarding against the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal. So that we search our hearts when we consider laws to make it harder for some of our fellow citizens to vote. By recognizing our common humanity, by treating every child as important, regardless of the color of their skin. Or the station into which they were born and to do what’s necessary to make opportunity real for every American. By doing that, we express God’s grace.

Lots of responses now. He starts the next bit, about guns, with “For too long” which got another big response, echoing him.

None of us can or should expect a transformation in race relations overnight. Every time something like this happens, somebody says, “We have to have a conversation about race.” We talk a lot about race. There’s no shortcut. We don’t need more talk.

None of us should believe that a handful of gun safety measures will prevent every tragedy. It will not. People of good will will continue to debate the merits of various policies as our democracy requires—the big, raucous place, America is. And there are good people on both sides of these debates.

Whatever solutions we find will necessarily be incomplete. But it would be a betrayal of everything Reverend Pinckney stood for, I believe, if we allow ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again. Once the eulogies have been delivered, once the TV cameras move on, to go back to business as usual. That’s what we so often do to avoid uncomfortable truths about the prejudice that still infects our society.

To settle for symbolic gestures without following up with the hard work of more lasting change, that’s how we lose our way again. It would be a refutation of the forgiveness expressed by those families if we merely slipped into old habits whereby those who disagree with us are not merely wrong, but bad; where we shout instead of listen; where we barricade ourselves behind preconceived notions or well-practiced cynicism.

At the end he did a solo of Amazing Grace.


  1. luzclara says

    I am just about certain that he wrote an outline or some thoughts, and filled in the rest as he went, using his knowledge of African American church discourse and his own strong feelings. Also I just LOVE that he is a kind of normal singer w/a lot of spirit! And he just opened up his mouth and sang it out.

    PS I am also certain that he has an excellent set of speech writers.

    PS again. I am also certain that his daughters think he is just about the biggest dweeb on the planet for singing like that.

  2. says

    I watched the whole thing and was moved by it. Whatever you think of Obama, he puts on a good face for the USA at some points when it’s shown a very bad face. He taught a lesson about the significance of the AME Church in civil rights & black culture which was enriching for those of us ignorant of it. His own oratory style has been shaped by it. And the word and idea of “grace” – is there a secular equivalent?

  3. dmcclean says

    No, I don’t think so. The universe doesn’t love us; it’s for us to love each other.

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