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The Power of God's Grace: The Eulogy of Barack Obama for Clementa Pinckney
The president lifts up the black church and liberation theology in Charleston, South Carolina, where racism recently resulted in another mass killing. The Confederate flag and slavery are wrong.
By Denise Oliver Velez
Editor's Note: Theology is often rightly thought of as an academic discipline presented through long complicated sentences. But the very best recent example of excellent and uplifting theology has been presented by none other than the president of the United States, Barack Obama. It is extremely sad and unfortunate for the nation that the major media did not broadcast much of this speech thus depriving the nation of the most important cultural substance necessary for any society. The fact that the media filter out the depth of the best theological substance of our traditions in favor of the extremist hostility of the religious right is one of the reasons a troubled young man could believe that killing black people was the right thing to do. Listen to this speech (below), the whole thing, and read this outstanding article by Denise Oliver Velez which places the eulogy in the context of the the black church and theology.
Notice what Ms. Velez says about faith in politics. Everyone should take note: it is completely impossible to understand politics today without taking faith and religion into account. You certainly cannot understand how Republicans are able to win elections without taking abortion into account, and you can't understand the history of debates over social justice and the environment without understanding the role of the Federal Council of Churches, predecessor to the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches. And you can't understand Barack Obama and Democratic politics today without acknowledging the huge role of the black church. Media professionals regularly and "religiously" filter out the significance of faith in politics.
Happily, as this article is published on this site, the Confederate flag no longer flies on the grounds of the South Carolina capitol.
Last week I was caught up in the moment watching President Obama deliver his eulogy for South Carolina state senator and Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the other Charleston martyrs of supremacist terrorism. I watched the entire service, and was deeply moved. I took time during and afterwards to look at the mainstream media coverage, and I was distressed. Several news channels had switched to intense coverage of escaped New York State inmates. Others seemed to only focus on the President's singing a few lines from Amazing Grace.
On the other hand, folks on black Twitter picked up on remarks made after he had finished, with #ReverendPresident, because the President didn't simply give a speech, he preached.
The politics and message he delivered, and the way he delivered them, were shaped as part the long term tradition of liberation theology in the black community. President Obama, though not raised in the black church, has certainly been steeped in its tradition as an adult, and he has a deep scholarly, intellectual and emotional understanding of not only the history, but the day to day importance of those church traditions in many black lives. More importantly he understands the forces at play between the predominantly white "Christian" right in this nation, who have pastors like this man who spews hate from the pulpit, and those persons—black, brown and white—who oppose them, many of whom are also Christian, and/or deeply spiritual members of other faith traditions.
There are some people, on the left, who have expressed extreme discomfort at hearing his message as delivered. Until those of us who are atheist or agnostic can become willing to be open to a deeper understanding of this history and the role of the black church, there will be a disconnect between many mainly white progressives and black, white, and brown progressives of faith. The personal—faith—is also very political for us, and is a key component of our ability to fight, survive and sustain the will to struggle against any and all odds.
Follow me below the fold for some history and more thoughts on this.
I believe that only a black president, familiar with these faith traditions could have made this speech, to this family, to this congregation, and to this nation. I realized that in many ways, in this period of the president's tenure—knowing he does not have to run again seems to have been liberating—he was able to tell some hard political truths that would have been well nigh impossible in his first term.
This is the first segment I had to go back and read over again. Several times.
The church is and always has been the center of African-American life -- (applause) -- 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 -- (applause) -- rest stops for the weary along the Underground Railroad; bunkers for the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement. 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 -- (applause) -- and taught that they matter. (Applause.) That’s what happens in church.There is no coincidence that he was addressing members of a church founded by Denmark Vesey. Vesey rejected a white Christianity used to keep enslaved people bound.
In 1815, whites in Charleston discovered that black Methodists had been secretly pooling money to buy freedom for enslaved congregants. Whites moved to restrict black autonomy. They planned to construct a hearse house on top of a black burial ground, a move Charleston blacks saw as a final insult. Over 4,000 black members left white churches in protest, and formed an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Denmark Vesey followed them, leaving the segregated Second Presbyterian Church, where slaves were taught the words of St. Paul: "Servants, obey your masters." In the AME Church, Vesey found the freedom to preach his beliefs.Vesey even sought out an African born non-Christian Gullah Jack, who still practiced African traditions, to help recruit Africans to rebel.
In the days when the first blacks were dragged here in chains, many states had laws to forbid enslaved people from learning to read and write.
Acts against the education of slaves South Carolina, 1740 and Virginia, 1819The first ministers to preach Christianity to slaves were white men and tools of the owners. But little by little slaveholders allowed blacks to preach, and they also had to be able to read the Bible. There was a great fear that Africans in America would continue to worship in their own ways, and the revolution in Haiti sent waves of fear here, because that rebellion was sparked by practitioners of Voudou at Bois Caïman. African drums were banned.
When first brought to North America during the 1600s and 1700s, slaves from the west coast of Africa used drums to communicate with each other in much the same way as they did at home, sending coded rhythmic messages Europeans could not understand over long distances. In this way slaves held in different encampments could stay in contact, and rebellions could be planned. But after some time the masters realized that the drums could talk.Africans and African-Americans gathered in ostensibly European-Christian worship lost the drum, but played instead the tambourine, and used hand-clapping and song to bring down the spirit.
There was a irony about the encouragement of Euro-Christian worship. Instead of remaining passive good servants of superior whites, blacks heard "the word" of Moses leading the people of Israel out of bondage, and the Bible became a series of inspirational and radical messages of freedom.
Go Down Moses
When Israel was in Egypt land,
Let my people go!
Oppressed so hard they could not stand,
Let my people go!
Go down, Moses,
way down in Egypt land,
tell old Pharao
to let my people go!
Secretly, in Sunday gatherings people were taught to read and write. Banned West African practices were absorbed into a form of worship that was still fundamentally black, with a white overlay. Instead of being possessed by Orisha, or Loa, or Nkisi, congregants were "filled with the spirit" of Jesus and the Holy Ghost. The call-and-response form of music, singing praises to God, were in form no different from African mojubas (praise) and prayers to the ancestors. W.E.B DuBois, a black revolutionary thinker and socialist who has often been labelled an atheist, was not. He strongly rejected a white-dominated oppressive religious institution yet had a deep understanding of the power of the black church.
Du Bois' early works, The Philadelphia Negro (1899) and The Negro Church (1903), focused on the African American church. As his biographer Edward Blum has observed, Du Bois understood that the black church stood at the center of the African American community. The Negro Church was the first major sociological study of the church that was based on empirical evidence. Du Bois and his colleagues interviewed more than 1,000 young African Americans about their religious beliefs, practices and expectations. The result was a portrait of a vibrant institution with a multitude of voices.But Du Bois was not content with academic analysis; he wanted the church to become a transformative powerhouse of social, racial and economic uplift. He believed that ministers were essential to this uplift because they possessed the power to instill moral fiber and encourage moral virtue.Many of the earliest colleges for blacks were funded by church groups, but black churches were not just a place of education. They were not only the oldest black institution in the U.S. but they were also a legal place to gather and to form support networks. A place to develop leadership. It is no coincidence that a majority of our leaders have been ministers, from Sojourner Truth, to Martin Luther King, Minister Malcolm and to Reverend Barber. Our churches provide a place to eat, a place to receive clothing, a place from which to make visits to the sick, provide daycare for children and solace and companionship for our seniors.
The church is where we receive food for the spirit. The crippling weight of racism and oppression can be lifted long enough to gain the strength to carry on—just another day. A place where joy can be expressed and the soul could be refreshed.
Joy, joy, God’s great joy.
Joy, joy, down in my soul;
sweet, beautiful, soul saving joy,
oh, joy, joy in my soul
Black radical theologians from Rev. Dr. James Cone, founder of modern black liberation theology to Cornel West, a Democratic socialist theological scholar, "get it." The Black Panther Party started its free breakfast programs in the church of Reverend Earl Albert Neil. Black churches across the South hosted voter registration and gave beds, sometimes on the floor to civil rights workers. Black churches ferry "Souls to the Polls."
Is there any wonder why white terrorists burn and bomb black churches?
President Obama made this very clear.
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. (Applause.) 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.Let me give an amen to that ..."our nation's original sin."
A country founded on genocide and racism.
He went further, and said the Confederate flag is wrong, slavery was wrong, Jim Crow was wrong, and incarceration of so many of our young men is biased. He addressed poverty and "dilapidated" schools, gun violence, and voter suppression.
For too long, we were blind to the pain that the Confederate flag stirred in too many of our citizens. (Applause.) 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 -- (applause) -- as we all have to acknowledge, the flag has always represented more than just ancestral pride. (Applause.) For many, black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation. We see that now.My favorite line was "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."
Income inequality as political rhetoric doesn't resonate unless it is clear that race trumps class when you are black and applying for a job. The president made it clear in that one line. I thought about the research study "Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A field experiment on labor market discrimination." My black middle-class respectable self still gets followed around when shopping. My Afro-Puerto Rican husband gets hassled by cops. If we don't tackle racism in intersection with gender and class issues, my freedom is going to be a longer time comin' than yours, if you are white.
And then he talked about Grace. Amazing Grace.
I can remember watching Bill Moyers' PBS documentary, Amazing Grace, on the origin of the hymn, which gave me a deeper understanding of its roots in the slave trade.
It's one of the most popular and beloved songs in the English language. Transcending race, creed, geography, generation, and social station, Amazing Grace has been recorded more times than any other hymn and is widely credited with transforming lives. Written by John Newton, an English clergyman and former slave-ship captain, the poem was published in 1779 and took on its familiar tune during the Second Great Awakening in the United States. In this inspiring program, Bill Moyers explores the song's origins and enduring power. Produced and directed by Emmyr and Peabody winner Elena Mannes, this documentary features illuminating conversations and stirring performances by Johnny Cash, Judy Collins, Jessye Norman, Marion Williams, the Boys Choir of Harlem, shape-note singers, prison inmates, and more. There are 24 renditions in all, no two alike, and each filled with emotion and conviction. With Jeremy Irons as the voice of John Newton.It has a special and multi-layered meaning in the black church and black community. We have raised and embraced the children of rape, with grace. Why do you think we are so many shades of brown? We have nurtured and nursed your white children, with grace. Cleaned your toilets, shined your shoes, portered your trains, picked your cotton, and we haven't slaughtered you in your beds. We have both amazing grace and fortitude. We have welcomed into our community white wives and husbands. We have welcomed you into our churches. Just like the folks at Mother Emanuel welcomed killer Roof.
Aretha Franklin has been dubbed "The Queen of Soul," and like many other black artists her roots were in the black church of her father the Reverend C.L. Franklin, who also organized in the civil rights movement.
I will close with Aretha's version of Amazing Grace, but before I end, I ask that those of you who want to see Democratic victories in the future, to please abstain from denigrating and mocking the members of this party who are a solid core of our base and are people of faith. We want the same things. Jobs, justice, an end to racism and most importantly—R.e.s.p.e.c.t.
Thank you President Obama. You have handled all the vile racism thrown at you daily—with amazing grace.
This was originally posted to Daily Kos on Sunday, July 5, 2015.
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