In 'amazing grace' of Reverend Pinckney, Obama finds his voice

In his eulogy of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was killed in the Charleston church shootings, Barack Obama showed how he is becoming more comfortable with his legacy as the nation's first black president. 

David Goldman/AP
Mourners react after President Obama delivered the eulogy at the funeral service for Rev. Clementa Pinckney Friday in Charleston, S.C.

When President Obama walked to the podium in Selma, Ala., nearly four months ago to commemorate the "Bloody Sunday" civil rights marches, he said it was a "rare honor ... to follow one of your heroes."

That day, he was speaking of Rep. John Lewis, who had walked on the Edmund Pettus Bridge 50 years ago and spoken before Mr. Obama that March day.

On Friday, in Charleston, S.C., Mr. Obama did not follow one of his heroes to the podium. He eulogized him.

The Rev. Clementa Pinckney's place as a hero of civil rights in America has not been nearly as historic as that of Representative Lewis, who was a central figure in the civil rights movement. But during the past week, since a white supremacist quietly entered Mr. Pinckney's sanctuary to kill him and eight other black Americans, the world has gotten a glimpse of the character of the man. Not through stories, though Obama told several. Nor through accountings of his deeds as a reverend and a state senator, though there have been many.

Instead, the world got to see Pinckney through the acts of his congregation – through the amazing grace they showed, speaking directly to the admitted killer and forgiving him. "This whole week, I've been reflecting on this idea of grace," Obama said.

And then he sang it. 

Obama was moved to sing "Amazing Grace" – first in daring a cappella, and then in the swelling embrace of a congregation that needed no hymn book – by the deeds of the man. In his Selma speech, which Obama reportedly sees as the most important of his presidency, the president laid out his model of American exceptionalism:

“What Selma does better than perhaps any other moment in our history is to vindicate the faith of our founders; to vindicate the idea that ordinary folks – not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege or certain religious belief – are able to shape the destiny of their nation,” Obama said.

On Friday, his eulogy was a memorial to just such a man. "You don't have to be of high distinction to be a good man," Obama said of Pinckney.

In the end, Obama's eulogy for Clementa Pinckney was not just a remembrance for the faithful, though there was an element of homecoming in the cadence and content of the address. And it was not just a finger-pointing call for legislative actions, though the president had a comprehensive list.

In the end, it was Obama's vision of the very best that America is, told through the life of one man.

Yes, America needs gun control, and poverty alleviation, and less discrimination, he said. But perhaps even more than that, he said, it needs an "open heart."

"That, more than any particular policy or analysis, is what's called upon right now, I think," said Obama. "It's what a friend of mine, the writer Marilynne Robinson, calls 'that reservoir of goodness beyond and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.' "

He then repeated the words, solemnly: "That reservoir of goodness. If we can find that grace, anything is possible."

To Obama, Pinckney and his church were the proof of that audacious statement.

One of the lines that received the loudest and longest applause was (not surprisingly) about the African Methodist Episcopal church that shooter Dylann Roof entered last Wednesday. The church, sometimes called "Mother Emanuel," has been a light in the darkest times of African-American history. As Monitor reporter Harry Bruinius wrote last week: 

Born within the violence of America’s racist past, “Mother Emanuel,” the longest-standing African Methodist Episcopal congregation in the South and one of the oldest in the country, was an early-19th-century center for the black struggle. Since 1816, the church has witnessed its members hanged for resisting slavery, its first sanctuary burned to the ground by a white mob, its gatherings banned by official laws.

"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," Obama said to applause. "He embodied the idea that our Christian faith demands deeds and not just words,... 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."

This, Obama said, was the measure of a "good man." It is also, Obama stated, the measure of America.

No bill to address poverty or gun violence will solve those problems, he said. "Whatever solutions we find will necessarily be incomplete."

But the lesson of Charleston – the message of Clementa Pinckney's life, he said – was in the quintessentially American value of the struggle. "It would be a betrayal of everything Reverend Pinckney stood for, I believe, if we allow ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again."

For six years, Obama has at times struggled to come to terms with what it has meant to be the first black president of the United States. But on Friday, when one of the nation's most venerable black churches welcomed America into its midst, he continued to turn the tables on that equation, building on what he had begun in Selma.

He was not reconciling white and black America. Through Reverend Pinckney's life, he argued – at times gently, at times with thunder, and at last with song – that the experience of black America is the experience of what he pointedly called the "United States." That it requires no reconciliation, because the two are one.

And that in that uncomfortable struggle – in that amazing grace – a city has found healing and a nation has found greatness.

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