Obama as Theologian of Grace: Comment on Obama’s Eulogy for Reverend Clamenta Pinckney


Obama as a Theologian of Grace

President Obama’s eulogy to Reverend Clementa Pinckney may rank as one of the great addresses of American history, alongside Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, his Gettysburg Address, and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech

As an oratorical work, the speech is sublime. With those other great American addresses it will probably enter into the liturgy of what sociologist Robert Bellah has called “America’s civil religion.” But it is profound, as well, in its ethical, theological, and political insight, drawing on some of the deepest themes of biblical religion.

The first section of the speech is eulogy, remembering and honoring the Reverend Pinckney and those who died with him. Here Mr. Obama paints a vivid portrait of the fallen pastor and state senator, ranging from mention of his graciousness to his “deceptive sense of humor.” This section concludes with praise that says more in its simplicity and universality than any list of accomplishments: “What a good man.” The ethical point is clear. Persons and nations are measured not by their possessions or accomplishments but by their moral righteousness.

In the second section of the speech, we are in an African American church. Although the large turnout caused the event to be placed in a municipal arena, the President is speaking to and from an AME congregation. He reminds us of the importance of the black churches from the times of slavery to the Civil Rights movement, when they served as “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.” They continue today, he adds, “As places where children are loved and fed and kept out of harms way and told that they are beautiful and smart and taught that they matter.” It is, he says, “our beating heart, the place where our dignity as a people is inviolate.

Then, amazingly, the President turns theologian and pastor, delivering the body of his text as a meditation or sermon on the meaning of grace. “This whole week,” he says, “I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace.”

This turn is initially surprising, even inappropriate. How can a terrible tragedy like the cold-blooded murder of nine people be seen as an act of grace? Why is grace even mentioned here? True, the families of the victims have expressed their forgiveness of the killer. That forgiveness is an act of grace, as the President observes. But for most of us, the killing evokes anger—anger at the murderer, and anger at a God who can allow such things. Why, then, the theme of grace?

Explaining that “God works in mysterious ways,” using even a killer to his ends, the President then returns to the hymn, “Amazing grace,” reciting its opening words:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,

That saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost, but now I’m found,

Was blind, but now I see.

Here’s the crucial turn. God’s grace, Obama tells us, is not found only, as we think, in blessings, or even in the lifting of merited punishments. Grace, he says, is “the free and benevolent favor of God.” But that favor can also be bestowed through the infliction of tragedy and suffering. Drawing implicitly on the work of the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and others, the President observes that grace arrives when our self-esteem and self-will are broken, when we are forced by suffering to see what we were unable or unwilling to see.

In the deep scrutiny of American society that follows, the President itemizes our many points of blindness and selfishness. Our blindness to the offensive meaning of the Confederate Flag, our blindness to the pervasive poverty and inequality that mar the lives of so many children, our blindness to the gun violence that takes 30 American lives each day, our blindness to the systematic unfairness of the criminal-justice system that dooms so many black youngsters to wasted lives. And our blindness even to the lingering but subtle racial bias that infects the best intentioned of us, and that leads an employer  “to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal.”

Here, the President’s eulogy echoes the conclusion of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, where the devastating bloodshed of the Civil War itself is described as a “true and righteous” judgment of God, and as invitation and opportunity  “to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Tragedy and bloodshed as divine grace. Drawing from the deepest resources of Christian faith, with the crucifixion at its center, both Lincoln and Obama present suffering as God’s blessing. Divine Grace is not only the enjoyment of goods, but also the breaking of our self-will and the opening of our eyes. Amazing grace.

And, then, the President sings the hymn—performs the hymn—moving his body as a worshipper. We are again in the black church, and the President is pastor and leader. He has told us what the black church means, and now he shows it.

The address resumes the character of a eulogy with the President stating the names of the victims. Returning appropriately to the expected meaning of grace as blessing and favor, the President says of each of the fallen, “May grace lead them home,” adding, “May God continue to shed His Grace on the United States of America.”

The address thus ends with words from another civil religion hymn, “America the Beautiful.” This suggests that the nation will only experience the grace of the song’s many promised blessings of abundance and plenitude if, through the grace of this tragedy, we open our eyes and overcome our “original sin” of racial injustice.


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