President Obama had the best week of his career last week, with victories on trade, fair housing, healthcare and marriage equality that cemented his legacy. But instead of taking a victory lap, he capped his week with a eulogy in the form of a sermon on grace.
Black churches have figured prominently in my thoughts lately. On Stonewall Sunday, going through my Twitter feed, I found a joint Father’s Day sermon delivered the week before by the Revs. Otis Moss II and III at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. In addition to being LGBT-affirming, Trinity is famous for its tradition of prophetic preaching, thanks to video loops of its previous pastor, Jeremiah Wright, that roiled the 2008 presidential campaign.
Near the close of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s marriage opinion, he gave a nod to Jim Obergefell: “As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death.” Outside the court, Obergefell held a photo of his late husband and took a call from the president. The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” tacitly embracing the words above the court’s entrance: “Equal Justice Under Law.”
The act of domestic terror that took the president to South Carolina later that day was intended by its perpetrator to start a race war. As Obama noted, however, when Dylann Roof murdered pastor and state senator Clementa Pinckney and eight other members of Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church at a Bible study meeting, he did not account for the power of grace.
The Revs. Moss the previous Sunday spoke of prophetic grief, of how inhabiting another’s pain can lead to healing. Understandably, some were not ready for such talk. Before healing, they wanted justice. I think this misreads the forgiveness by the families of the fallen. They were not surrendering, nor calling for the killer’s release. They urged him to repent. He appeared too warped by hate to receive their wisdom; but they refused to give in to hate.
These members of a storied black congregation had welcomed a white stranger because of their faith: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Matthew 25:35) Their grace in the face of terror and grief had the rare effect of shifting the nation’s political ground. Within days, a movement swept the South to remove the banner of treason and slavery from its places of honor. The campaign feels like a long-delayed last battle of the Civil War.
The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified on the heels of the Union victory, provided the basis 150 years later for a landmark ruling for same-sex couples citing its Due Process and Equal Protection clauses. Try as we might to separate our struggles, our history throws us together, as illustrated by Kennedy’s citations of the 1967 decision in Loving v. Virginia ending state bans on interracial marriage. Obama said of Pinckney, “Clem understood that justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other.”
The president began to sing “Amazing Grace,” and the organist and congregation joined in. A few days earlier, state senator Paul Thurmond, son of a segregationist, had said of the rebel flag, “I am not proud of this heritage.” In his eulogy, the president brought up America’s obsession with guns. An issue long untouchable was made approachable by a tragedy’s exposure of the dirty secret that our gun fixation is substantially fueled by white supremacy.
The marriage victory required decades of work by countless people. More work remains, from transgender and immigrant rights to police reform, employment protections, and rebuffing the false pose of victimhood by religious bullies.
Recognizing our kinship in a rancorous era, and summoning the civility to work together, is a challenge. Some will be lulled, despite the narrow 5-4 decision, into a sense of historical inevitability.
Progress, like grace, is not guaranteed to us. Our natural instinct is not to welcome those unlike us, as the martyrs of Mother Emanuel did that Wednesday evening, not far from the docks where their ancestors arrived in chains. We have much to learn from their unconquerable spirit.
Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Copyright © 2015 by Richard J. Rosendall. All rights reserved.