By Robert A. Rees
Robert A. Rees teaches Mormon Studies at Graduate Theological Union and the University of California Berkeley. He has just completed a play on Emerson and his circle and is compiling a collection of his essays on the Book of Mormon. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There is no music like that music, no drama like the drama of the saints rejoicing, the sinners moaning, the tambourines racing, and all those voices coming together and crying holy unto the Lord.
—James Baldwin, “Down at the Cross”
As I listened to President Obama deliver the eulogy and sermon in honor of Clementa Pinckney and the eight other black worshippers shot to death in the Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, I wondered how many Americans appreciate that we have a president capable of composing and delivering such a message. I quickly reviewed presidents during my lifetime (beginning with Franklin Delano Roosevelt) who could have possibly delivered such a powerful spiritual address, but could not think of a single one (with the possible exception of Jimmy Carter). It is a remarkable gift to have a president who understood both his immediate and national audience, who demonstrated a deep understanding of the Christian concept of grace, and who could use this unique opportunity to help unify a divided nation.
From the moment he and the First Lady were ushered into the pavilion, it was clear that President Obama was in a place both familiar and comfortable. As the gospel choir sang, the president started swaying and clapping his hands: he was at home among the worshippers. He knew the hymns, he knew the rhythms, and he knew the language of this space, which is why seeing him preach (which, more than anything, describes what he did) was so much more powerful than just hearing him. One blogger said what pleased her most was that “Our President finally allowed himself to ‘Be Black!’ The very ‘Blackness’ that was so hated by the killer was being celebrated and venerated!”
That blackness is often kept in check by the President; he is aware of the deep racial divisions in our nation and the delicate balance he needs to maintain, leaving him open to criticism from many sides. His precarious position reminds me of a story by John Henrik Clarke titled “Santa Claus Is a White Man.” Randall, a young black boy, is given a quarter by his mother and instructed to go into town and buy Christmas presents for the family. He is so excited to have actual money in his hand that he starts to run—and then catches himself. He is aware that if he runs too quickly he might be accused of having stolen the quarter, but if he walks too slowly he will be accused of loitering. Although he thinks he has found a safe gait, when he gets to town some boys threaten to lynch him, and then a nearby Santa Claus filches his quarter. Louis Armstrong sang, “What did I do/To be so black and blue?”
The black worship service, like jazz and the blues, is a unique form of American expression that emerged from the cauldron of slavery and oppression—a dark legacy that remains with us in myriad ways, both visible and invisible. Anyone who has ever experienced the jubilation of a black worship service—with its unabashed emotional and physical expression, its free and joyful singing, its “call and response” engagement, and its down-to-earth communion and community—knows what a full-bodied, full-spirited experience it is. It was impressive to see the President—whose religiosity and spirituality have so often been called into question and even demeaned—so at home, so comfortable in his own religious skin.
The skill of his “performance” (as James Fallows rightfully and positively characterizes it) was especially evident in his “riff” on grace—that most mysterious of Christian concepts. He said, “We don’t earn grace. We’re all sinners. We don’t deserve it. But God gives it to us anyway.” He also spoke of the grace we give to one another (which, unlike divine grace, seems always in short supply) as exemplified in the gracious forgiveness members of Mother Emmanuel extended to the young racist who so wantonly shot their brothers and sisters after they had welcomed him into their worship service.
What most surprised those listening and watching the President was the moment he suddenly began singing John Newton’s “Amazing Grace,” perhaps the most popular hymn in Christendom. Almost immediately, everyone spontaneously joined in, even, one imagines, many of those watching the service on TV, as I did.
“Amazing grace! how sweet the sound/That saved a wretch like me./I once was lost but now am found,/was blind, but now I see.” It was as if we were in a collective worship service, acknowledging both the need for grace and our gratitude for experiencing it in that moment.
As the President was delivering his sermon, I couldn’t help but think of the racism that has infected Mormonism for much of our history and how many have suffered because of it. In spite of the December 2013 statement from the Church disavowing the myths and misinterpretations of scripture that has girded Mormon racism for well over a century, just about any black American Mormon will affirm that racism still runs deep in our culture. Recently I received an email from a friend in Utah who accused Obama of turning America into a socialist state, of being “a bully,” and of being a non-Christian whose “religious convictions contribute to his lack of love for the U.S.” I worry that such sentiments are widespread in American Mormonism.
I mentioned the President’s eulogy in my Gospel Doctrine class and said that I felt it was very relevant to our study of the life and mission of the Savior. Afterward, a ward leader wrote me a note accusing me of “advocating [sic] Obama as having so much grace . . . . Really? Please Bob, this is Sunday school where we share the approved Sunday school curriculum.” His implication seemed to be that President Obama was incapable of possessing, understanding, or speaking about grace.
Of course Obama is gifted with grace, as is the writer of the email I quoted. Everyone enjoys that gift. God gives us grace even though we don’t deserve it. Our response to that grace is what defines us. Do we try to hold it back from others, insisting that they have no claim on it? Or do we recognize it, revel in it, and spread it even to those we disagree with—even to those who hurt us? The grace we receive is one kind of miracle; but the grace we give is another.