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Thursday, October 27, 2016

“This whole week,” said President Obama, “I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace.”

That was the turning point of Friday’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, the Charleston, South Carolina minister who was, with eight of his congregants, murdered by a racist terrorist two weeks ago. It was the moment a memorable speech became a speech for history.

“According to the Christian tradition,” the president-turned-preacher explained, “grace is not earned, grace is not merited, it’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God.” Grace, in other words, is that which bridges the gap between creation and Creator, the staircase connecting the soil to the celestial.

And it is amazing. So the heart leapt when, moved by some ephemeral thing cameras could not see, Obama launched into a soulful, heartfelt and, yes, off-key rendition of one of the foundational hymns of the church. “Amazing grace,” he sang, 6,000 voices rising to meet him, “how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

“As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy,” the president said, “God has visited grace upon us, for He has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He’s given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves.”

The president named a few of the things to which we’ve been blind, the issues upon which we have been lost. He spoke of gun violence, the hunger of children, the brazen hatred that inspired the alleged shooter, the soft bigotry that gets “Johnny” called back for an interview but leaves “Jamal” job hunting.

Though he didn’t mention it, it seemed not inconsequential that he said these things on the same day the Supreme Court affirmed the right of same-sex couples to marry. It seemed fitting that he returned that night to a White House bathed in colors of the rainbow. One could almost see history making a great, wide turn toward freedom.

And, too, one heard predictable howls of outrage. Sen. Ted Cruz called it one of the darkest days in American history, Rush Limbaugh predicted polygamy, some Southern states, as they did during the civil rights years, declined to be guided by the court’s ruling. But, it all carried a tinny, faraway sound, like a radio station from some distant town, drowned out by the thunder of rejoicing.

This is not to say those doorkeepers of yesterday are without power to interdict change. They are nothing if not stubborn and resilient. It is, however, to say that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. And, moreover, that the genius of the nation founded 239 years ago Saturday by a group of men we would now call sexist, racist and homophobic, was not its perfection as originally conceived, but the fact that it was built for change, built to become better, and continually expands itself to accommodate that long arc.

Are we not tasked with forming “a more perfect union”? It’s the ongoing work of America, work no one speech or court ruling can finish, but which we are all charged with pushing forward. Until one bright day, you look up and are surprised how far you’ve come.

That’s what happened Friday. And it might be the story of John Newton’s life. Newton, who wrote the hymn in which President Obama found solace, was a slave trader who changed by increments over the years until, by the end of his life, he was issuing grief-stricken apologies for his part in that evil business. If the first verse of his hymn is a paean to the redemptive power of grace, its third is a reminder that grace obligates us to push forward toward bright days not yet glimpsed:

“Through many dangers, toils and snares,” he wrote, “I have already come / Tis’ grace has brought me safe thus far / And grace will lead me home.”

(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, FL, 33132. Readers may contact him via email at [email protected]

  • rednekokie

    in time, the entire nation will come to realize just how blessed we all have been for the presidency of Barack Obama. Just as all great people before him, he was considered unlikely for that position. Just as all great people before him, he encountered vast resistance to his ideas. Just as all great people before him, he met the resistance with grace, with caring, and with great love for his fellow Americans.
    Indeed, he has been and continues to be our blessing from God in this turbulent age.

    • Leftout

      Obama caused most of the turbulence, around the med east he drew a chicken red line in the sand and Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Syria took note. Every school boy know when you make a dare you have to be ready to act. Obama is only an actor as it turns out. He left his own Black population in despair by not encouraging the the same type of family life that is required to raise yourself up. ?..but rather he fomented the worse racial strife unseen in modern times with Al Sharpton…..He is a complete failure. Even the ACA he screwed up, and had to lie.

      • rednekokie

        I stand by my original comment. I did not say he was perfect – I cannot think of a single president who was perfect. I only said he was a blessing which this country needed. I stand by that and believe it wholeheartedly.

      • pisces63

        He fomented nothing. I am so sick and tired of bigots accusing him of their own bias’. He IS the race card. If he were white, 100%, that is, we would have none of the blow back from the right wing bigots. He ran, he won, twice as president of the united states and not of black people. Too many black people have said the same stupid thing. Too many think someone is supposed to hold their hand to do anything. My family is not like that. Of my four sisters and our seven children, we have degrees to masters, except the last two of our children. One graduates
        this fall and her sister in two years. We are ALL Cleveland Public school grads, too. Put that ‘failing schools’ to rest, idiot statement that is. We do not learn by osmosis by sitting in a seat. I’ve never seen an inanimate object, such as a school, pass or fail anything. As for the middle east, get real, we have all the problems because of a bogus war in Iraq, period. This comes from all major leaders, there. They onsidered it a continuation of the unholy crusades. Yes, I wrote
        right wing bigots. IF I asked a right winger the weather and it is clear an warm out, I would get a second opinion from Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles and go with their opinion and one is dead. Considering the 7th
        black church has just been burned down(one that the kkk had burned before) and an idiot draped a confederate flag over a black monument and the kkk will march in South Carolina this month, I don’t play the race card, I play the hand I am dealt.

        • Leftout

          You are the model we all should follow,and there are many like you including myself. , Obama had his chance to lift up all, rather than blame racism, divide male from females, gays from non, successful from those still trying, etc……Racism has occurred in the past and there are some pockets left . Black/ white relations have improved tremendously after Martin Luther King. Obama had a chance to be a great role model for everyone but ….pfrom the get go he blamed Boston Police for the prof. Gates incident. And on and on. Obama of all people had a “white privilege ” background as well as having taken advantage of affirmative action assistance. Surely many whites as well, had to vote for him for him to win showing that America has changed,then he started using olde rhetoric to alienate all of us, , it is a political trick known to many…it resulted in distrust , rather than distrust amongst us. Most successful outcomes are from backgrounds as yours.

          • pisces63

            Areyou deliberately delusional or obtuse. He did none of those things. The bigoted right did. THEY played the race card. I want my country back was the cry the day after the 2008 election. He isn’t like us. He isn’t an American. HE never said a word. When he showed his long birth certificate, insult, people like Trump continually called it a lie. They ranted on his protestant minister, Rev. Wright and now call him a Muslim. He NEVER had a chance to do any such thing. He couldn’t even ask kids to stay in school. White bigots walked their children out of school rather than hear the black man. As for the professor Gates incident, I whole heartedly side with the president. WHY? Our oldest is a son. He grew up in an upper middle class family,
            is a college graduate, no record, he is now 42 with ONE 4 year old daughter. He and his wife(a corporate trainer) owned a
            house in a predominantly white area for over 10 years. They are loved and respected by their neighbors. Yet, this white cop would wait for my son to ID him walking out of his house. Driving down the street and after he bought his Camaro, he ramped it up. So yeah, I believe prof. Gates and not you or that cop from direct experience.

          • Leftout

            Not trying to tweak you, I had many stops by cops since I worked evenings nights in hellish , inner city locations. I was always an easy target, ugly , bushy curly hair. Have been told to be respectful and move on , so I did. I dropped off my co workers at a housing complex on summer nights, many people were enjoying the coolness of the evening , milling about outside. When I approached, many of the crowd scattered,thinking that I was a police officer. It was amusing but sad,. Why run, if not doing wrong . It was a part of life for some . Direct experience…it is what you are. Never got me angry.

          • pisces63

            Okay,now tell me how many times the police waited for you at your home to ID you. The home you are paying the
            mortgage and have been for over 10 years.
            Driving down YOUR street to ID you.

          • Leftout

            Never , I was never that ugly or rude . If that happened I would be very very angry and the law person would never be able do it again.

          • 1standlastword

            You demonstrate the truth in the idea that even a dull blade can be useful!

  • The lucky one

    “This whole week,” said President Obama, “I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace.” Hopefully this will also cause him to reflect on the idea of innocence, as in the many innocent lives lost through embrace of drone warfare. Maybe like John Newton he will come around late in life after he has already wreaked all his damage. I don’t believe in a creator god or heaven/hell but for those who do as their personal day of judgement nears it sparks many a conversion.