To those I consider co-laborers:

It is four in the morning, and I have kept watch. I have kept watch after another day of disappointment and grief over sin of which has nothing to do with me and everything to do with me.

It has been a difficult year. The Christian witness in this country has been undermined from within and without. People who have never cared what Christians have to say are now eager to condemn our silence and malpractice. People who speak the loudest for Christians bring condemnation unto us.

It has been a long year. It has seemed like a century, and this young century feels longer still.

It is a long wait for Jesus. It feels as though evil is pursuing new ways to extend our experience of time, knowing that the kingdom is at hand, closer in this moment than the last.

I do not think what we’re doing is sustainable.

I am moved this morning to write to you, dear sisters and brothers, who feel as though this church is not yours: What we are doing is not sustainable.

We have spent years railing against false teachers and false doctrine. We have spent years as outsiders waiting and pushing for a time of correction. We have seen the wrong leaders with megaphones, and we have sought to shout them down, to turn the tide, to claim the ground for truth. There is a franticness that has no recourse but cynicism. A striving that has no end but disappointment.

We keep waiting for the future, for our future.

But while we feel as though we are looking toward the future, and while our activity is consumed with the present, I am convinced that in reality we are stuck in the past. I think God is way ahead of where we are right now. The present is the past.

So many of you are waiting for your turn, when we need to realize our turn is now. It’s happening right now. We feel like outsiders, but the ones we protest are running on fumes. They have made their decisions, and they have their reward. What are we building?

Let me be explicit: The hucksters do not represent Christ.

Let me be even more explicit: Roy Moore does not represent Christ.

And we need to stop treating them as if they do. We keep waiting for some magical moment when they will be unequivocally, ceremoniously dethroned while their throne rests on our backs. We say we’re queasy about identifying as evangelicals, or as Christians even, while they claim the same title, but our queasiness is ceding the territory to the very ideas we oppose.

So much has been building up in me over the last decade, as I’ve seen faith and politics and culture all intermingle from a number of different perspectives and positions. I’ve become more firmly convicted in all of this over just the last couple of years through individual and corporate prayer, discernment and analysis. But I felt it rush to me now when I saw this from Tyler Burns.

This is my conviction this morning:

Christianity belongs to no man. The church belongs to no man. It all belongs to Jesus. Some may have forgotten this, but let us never forget. Let us never forget that the way this world counts power and influence means nothing to our God. He will settle all accounts, we can be sure of that. This year, the story we have allowed to be told about us is what we are in reaction to the hucksters and the charlatans, but all the while we have been seeking to live a different story: who are we in relation to Christ? What are we building?

We have built so much this year as we live out our callings, as we pursue Jesus who is the standard-bearer of our faith.

I see what Jemar Tisby and Tyler Burns are building: a bold, Christ-centered Witness that is neither ashamed of the gospel, nor timid in the face of injustice.

I see what Michelle Higgins, Christina Edmondson and Ekemini Uwan are building as they generate new power through their work that is redirecting stagnant waters, and carving out new territory for Christ to work His will.

I see what Ann Voskamp is building as she stewards her influence to raise money for a radical, Preemptive Love. I saw her on a cold February morning protesting outside of a hotel where political leaders would gather to publicly pray while denying welcome to the stranger.

I see Sharon Hodde Miller and Tish Harrison Warren and Alan Noble and Duke Kwon and Scott Sauls and Sarah TheBarge and Ray Chang and Sho Baraka and Laura Turner and Trillia Newbell and Beth Moore and Charlie Dates and Wesley Hill and Matthew Loftus and Sarah Bessey and Russell Moore and Justin Giboney and on and on and on.

I see young Christians in politics who want to build their careers by faithfulness, not utilitarian power-grabbing.

I see seminary students who are pursuing sound doctrine and sound practice, who believe the gospel is for all of life and will preach a gospel that changes everything.

I see young Christians in “secular” fields who are neither arrogant because of their faith nor ashamed of it, but believe in living a life of integrated integrity in light of the security they find in Christ.

I see COGICs and Catholics and Baptists and Quakers and Anglicans and Presbyterians—Christians pursuing God rooted in many different expressions—all like streams of living water, nourishing the ground for a new harvest.

I do not name people here as exceptions—that is to miss the very point. I would encourage you to share the stories of brothers and sisters you see that are building, but this is most useful when it points to the One they’re building for. That you or I know or recognize someone does not vindicate their work. What a gift it is to be introduced to someone new! This, of course, requires that they were unknown to us prior to that very moment. And there are many who labor in obscurity who are no less integral to the body.

We act as if we must wrest control of the witness of the church from those who are getting the attention, but the work of the church belongs to Jesus and all that does not belong to Him stands no chance against Him.

The main challenge that faces us is not the hucksters, but ourselves. Our own sin. Our own pride. Our own specific tastes. Can we root each other on even in our diversity? Can we support one another though there may be areas where we disagree? The main challenge we face in our accentuated diversity is the recognition that we are all part of one body in Christ. What weapon formed against us will prosper if we grab hold of that truth, if that love for Christ and one another is embedded in our hearts?

I do not recognize the name on the hucksters’ lips, this name they use of obfuscation and self-protection, this alibi for sin and degradation, this tactic for maintaining self-serving power. They are running on fumes. I do not recognize the name on their lips.

We must condemn what must be condemned. We must repent for what requires repentance. But we must not spend our present days in reaction to their transparent distortions. The world has done a fine job recognizing those things. Is our primary task to point to them?

Of course not.

Let us proclaim Christ in our time, now. We do not need to wait for more influence, we can build right now. We are building. We have built.

While we have breath in our lungs, let us point to Jesus. Christian leaders, even the best of them, have never been worth anyone’s ultimate trust, devotion or faith. There is only One who is always faithful. He is ever worthy to be praised.

America's New Export

America's New Export

Michael reflects on his recent trip to Luton, England, the possibilities of interfaith partnership, and Donald Trump's unhelpful contribution to the fight against violent extremism.

Reviews of Reclaiming Hope

After my post last week in response to the Comment Magazine review of Reclaiming Hope, I thought I would share  some of the other reviews that have come out since the book's release. 

If these reviews spark your interest, you can buy Reclaiming Hope at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Hearts & Minds, IndieBound or your favorite local bookstore. 

REVIEWS OF RECLAIMING HOPE

Hearts & Minds Bookstore/Byron Borger

I absolutely loved Michael Wear's brand new book, Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of America (Nelson Books; $25.99; see our 20% off sale price at the order link below.)  I think many readers will enjoy it, will learn much, and that regardless of one's affiliation (or non-affiliation) with a political party, it will be a valuable, even important read.  The book is graced with bunches of rave reviews from significant political leaders from across the political spectrum (from several countries, no less) and many respected Christian leaders - from Tim Keller to Russell Moore, pundits, (from Kirsten Powers to E. J. Dionne) and writers as different as J.D. Vance and Ann Voskamp, all insisting this is an important, graceful book.  You see, I'm not alone in highly recommending it although it really is a "Hearts & Minds" kind of book. We think our customers and friends will really appreciate it.

Let's get this said right away: Yes, Michael is a life-long Democrat and, yes, he worked for the Obama campaign and landed a job as one of the youngest White House staffers ever.  And, yes, he finished his job well but didn't seek another season of service - not exactly in protest, but certainly with great sadness and inner conflict - before the 44th President finished his final term.   Which is to say that if you loved, sort of liked, or significantly disliked President Obama, you will find something interesting and helpful in these reflections from this insider.

Sojourners

THIS IS A PRE-TRUMP book with serious questions for our politics in the age of Trump.

A political memoir from Michael Wear, a young evangelical strategist who worked in Obama’s faith office, it tells stories from the fights of those years and offers a vision of a future faith-in-politics.

I’m a sucker for this kind of memoir: a chastened idealist tells how people worked well together. His ideals have met reality, but Wear still believes politics can help people.

More than merely telling old war stories, Reclaiming Hope makes a sustained case for public service. It argues well that Christian love should motivate us to become active within existing political institutions. Wear highlights specifically race and religious freedom as fields needing further work (a great combination, designed to irritate people all across the ideological spectrum). We need to figure out how to live together and build cultures that respect people and enable them to live without fear.

The Gospel Coalition

If you asked me what the American republic needs most right now, at least at the human level, I would say: “more Democrats like Michael Wear.” And if you asked me what the American church needs most right now, on the human level, I would say: “more Democrats like Michael Wear.” Wear’s Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America is more than just another good political memoir; it’s a window into how Christianity can find its way back toward a faithful and responsible participation in American public life.

I’m an unlikely candidate to say that what we really need is more progressive Democrats. I was a Republican from my 18th birthday until the day they nominated America’s answer to Silvio Berlusconi. I was a diehard conservative right up until the moment, sometime last year, when the word “conservative” ceased to mean much.

But there are thousands who can say the same; the church and the nation don’t need more of them. Wear—who worked for Barack Obama as a White House staffer and re-election campaign official—is what we need more of.

Publisher's Weekly (Starred Review)

Wear, founder of Public Square Strategies and former White House staffer for the Obama administration, argues for voters—especially young adults—to take a less cynical and apathetic approach to politics, especially the intersection of politics and religion. After a chance meeting with then-Senator Obama as a college freshman, Wear signed on to assist with his campaign in 2008, eventually landing a position in the White House doing outreach to evangelicals and helping to manage the Obama administration’s engagement on issues important to religious communities, such as adoption and efforts to stop human trafficking. While Wear witnessed the dark underbelly of politics at times, he is able to maintain a balanced and nuanced approach to writing about it, even offering critiques of Democratic strategies when appropriate. It takes a mature observer to understand the ambiguities involved in ethical and religious issues, and Wear is savvy enough to comprehend and cogently explain some complex and thorny policies, such as the ACA contraception mandate. This is not a political tell-all; instead, Wear’s book provides clear, actionable ways to rethink political engagement within the frame of fostering healthy religious communities.

The Public Discourse

In a hyper-politicized age like our own, intellectual honesty is one of the first casualties. Hewing to the ideological line prevents otherwise honest people from admitting error when things go wrong. Inevitably, every side falls prey to this. So when a book comes on the scene that reminds readers what an honest critique of one’s own tribe looks like, we’re surprised by such honesty and we find it refreshing—because something about self-assessment reminds us of our own predilection to myopia.

Intellectual honesty is the theme I came away with after reading Michael Wear’s Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House about the Future of Faith in America. Wear does not shy away from issuing honest, blunt critiques of the modern Democratic Party’s foreignness to faith and of the tension inherent in being an evangelical in a party whose platform flatly contradicts biblical teaching at many irreconcilable points. For conservatives who believe that the modern Democratic Party is uncompromisingly hostile to evangelical and conservative Catholic beliefs, Wear’s book in large part confirms this angst.

The National Review

Conservatives will have a hard time finding a more like-minded guide to the decision-making inside the Obama White House than Michael Wear. Wear served in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships during Obama’s first term, and then directed faith outreach for the president’s reelection campaign. His memoir of his time in the administration, Reclaiming Hope, is a spectacularly readable portrait of a unique niche in Obama-world to which many progressives grew hostile over time, representing as it did faith in general and Christianity in particular.

Opportunity Lives

You won’t find Donald Trump in the index of Michael Wear’s new book, Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America. Yet Wear recently told me he thinks that part of why our country has seen so much social division during the bruising 2016 election was in part because the Left hadn’t spent enough time understanding America’s religious conservatives, many of whom supported Trump. 

With polling showing deep divides in American culture, Wear offers a new book with ideas on how to repair these fissures. Reclaiming Hope acknowledges that Obama’s remarks degrading religious people who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them” were damaging for outreach to people of faith. Yet Wear said he believes that the next four years offer a time of reconciliation between people of faith on the Right and secular people on the Left.

In Response to Reviews of Reclaiming Hope

I have kept my responses to reviews of Reclaiming Hope pretty limited up until now. I have done this because most of the reviews have been thoughtful and wise, with critiques that I think are valid and rational even if I might disagree with them. I have also not responded to reviews yet, because I think it’s generally wise to let a book breathe for a little without the author suffocating dissent by asserting their authority as the creator of the content.

However, it has now been three months, and I do want to elaborate on some ideas, and respond to common critiques. In particular, I want to respond to the recent review in Comment Magazine, as it helpfully tees up some broader issues.

I should say that I was honored that Comment Magazine and Heath Carter reviewed the book. Comment is an admirable publication (I mean, they did have the honor of publishing my wife, Melissa Wear), and Heath is a true expert on the intersection of faith and politics. His review was fair and insightful, and his critiques were all above-board. I focus on his review not because Carter wrote anything particularly egregious, but because it is the most recent review and it was one of the most direct in its criticism.

If you have not already read Reclaiming Hope, I hope that you will. The book is a passion project, and I believe in it even more now than when I wrote it. You can buy the book at AmazonIndieBoundHearts & Minds and Barnes & Noble.

Let’s dive in to this review.

The Election of Donald Trump

Carter opens his review with the idea that Reclaiming Hope is less relevant in the Trump era. Indeed, the through-line of his review is that the book, and its author, failed “to anticipate the political earthquake that shook both the nation and world while his book was in production.” I think this is a bit of a non-sequitur. Reclaiming Hope makes no prediction about future electoral outcomes. The book was not written to speculate on the 2016 presidential race. It is fine to wish that the book commented on the subject, but the fact that it did not was not an oversight or failure to anticipate developments, but a conscious decision about what the book was and what it was not.

One clear goal I had in mind for Reclaiming Hope, which relates directly to the election outcome, was to explain in a way that could be heard and understood by both religious conservatives and Democrats the intersection of faith and the Obama Administration. Based on reviews and feedback, the book has already helped many who do not share the policy views of religious conservatives understand nevertheless their legitimate and substantive frustrations with the Administration. As I have argued in my writing and speaking leading up to and since the election, the election of Donald Trump cannot be understood separate and apart from the pressure that was built up in evangelical and Catholic communities as a result of political decisions made during the Obama era and the coinciding changes in American culture. These developments are described in Reclaiming Hope in unprecedented detail and perspective.

Additionally, the book provides specific examples of the kind of religious ineptitude and misunderstanding that was decisive in the failure of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Carter writes that “Trump's surprising victory does not render Wear's concerns about the Democratic Party mute,” but this makes no sense. Why would a disastrous, unexpected loss by Democrats that included perhaps the Party’s worst ever showing among religious voters in a presidential election render concerns about the Democratic Party mute?

Carter’s reason for suggesting the book fails to anticipate Trump is that because of Trump it is Christians’ lack of integrity that should be a focus, not historical reflection on the Obama years. First, and again, to the extent Christians’ integrity ought to be examined after 2016, I don’t think their vote (particularly white evangelicals) is disconnected from the Obama years. I’ll say it again: you can’t understand how evangelicals voted in 2016 without understanding the role of faith in Obama’s presidency.

Two more quick points on this: First, we are doing a great disservice to our politics if we justify all other infractions in light of the great dumpster fire that is Donald Trump. This is how Trump creates a new normal—we allow him to set the new standard by which we judge what is acceptable or not in our politics. Second, it’s outside of the scope of this post, but many others on the right and left have pointed out that some of Trump’s antics and misdeeds build on precedents set by his predecessors. We cannot ignore or postpone reflections on the past. I think that would be foolish.

I would suggest that it is difficult to read Reclaiming Hope, and not see in it the seeds that gave rise to Trump. Any reader of the book would be more prepared—not less—to understand and explain 2016.

The Critique I Was Waiting For

 Carter is the first that I have seen to make this critique:

It is striking that, in Wear's account, the administration's chief failings were on conventional culture-war issues. We read nothing about the tensions, to put it mildly, between major veins of Christian social ethical teaching on the one hand and Obama's record of mass deportations and drone warfare, let alone his conspicuous coziness with the corporate sector and failure to address the declining fortunes of poor and working-class Americans, on the other.

I accept this criticism. It is a consequence of both my experience and the nature and goals of the book. Let me elaborate briefly, but non-exhaustively as, again, I don’t disagree with Carter’s basic contention.

First, while there certainly were religious objections to the president’s policies on issues like those mentioned by Carter, the religious objectors were generally part of a larger coalition that was not characterized by religious opposition. Faith voices were part of the coalition that opposed the president’s policies in these areas, but they did not lead it. Furthermore, people of faith who argued that the president did not go far enough on issues like immigration reform or poverty, were nonetheless likely to support and vote for him given the opposition. There was faith-based opposition to the president’s drone warfare policy, but that policy fight was not primarily a fight with the faith community.

Secondly, I did not play a role in the policymaking process regarding issues like drone warfare. My work touched on consumer finance protection and payday lending, the social safety net and immigration reform, but I was not at the center of the policymaking process on those issues. The faith-based office had a seat at the table, but it was not a primary decisionmaker in those areas.

While I consistently argue in Reclaiming Hope for a broad application of Christian teaching in politics that touches on a range of issues, the focus of Reclaiming Hope is not to analyze every action taken by the president in light of Christian ethical teaching. Instead, it is explicitly a narrative argument based on my direct experiences as a staffer in the Obama White House. The book certainly does not cover every issue or event related to faith and the Obama Administration that it could, and there is more that could be written to be sure. I hope more will be written about how various faith communities interacted with the Obama Administration.

Independents

Carter, and many others, have also been unsettled by my analysis regarding the rise of independents. Carter writes:

At one puzzling juncture in the book, he argues that "hope looks like commitment" and goes on to inveigh against anyone who would buck the two-party way, declaring that "to become an independent is to check out of the system. It is to unilaterally disarm, to give up one of the primary levers we have as citizens to influence our political system. Withdrawal is not a prophetic message that those in power ought to shape up. They are not listening." Certainly Christians should not withdraw from the political process. But for the sake of our integrity, a collective declaration of—at minimum, much, much greater—independence from the two major parties might well be in order.

Carter’s language here about “bucking the two-party way” is the same kind of congratulatory language about independents that I critique earlier in that same section. The core of my argument here is not against “bucking the two party system.” Perhaps this would be more clear to the reader of Carter’s review if he had included the clause directly preceding his quotation. Here’s the full sentence: “In a two-party system of government, in a party-based system of government of any kind, to become an independent is to check out of the system.”

The core argument here is against becoming an independent, thus refusing to invest in and associate with any political party, including third-parties. I wrote this section (which I understood would be controversial for a reason I’ll mention later) so that people might consider whether their choice to become an independent was really a courageous risk for the common good, or a measure of self-preservation and virtue signaling. My sense is that many become independents because they have bought into the lie that their politics ought to define them. So when they discover that no political party is particularly suited to their personal needs and desires (as if that was the purpose or expectation we should have of political parties), they decide to “send a message” and become an independent. And, again, they leave not to join a political party that is closer to their position, because no party is close enough, but wash their hands of the whole system. Or so they think. When an independent critiques our political parties, their critique is often accompanied by a sort of righteousness. I know better. I’m not a part of that mess. I’m not culpable.

My argument is that they are culpable.

Some wonder why our political parties have become more extreme, why Congress is in a stalemate and compromise is nowhere to be found. A major reason is that many of the people who would provide either of our political parties with some semblance of balance have left the party altogether. This is not an abstract or symbolic argument. In many states, you cannot vote in a party’s presidential primary unless you belong to that party. You cannot become a party delegate and vote on the party platform unless you belong to that party.

Christian political engagement

Carter writes in the closing paragraph of his review:

But those who are already on board with these baseline assumptions may be left wondering whether our current plight does not call for more creative and daring forms of collective Christian political engagement than Wear proposes here.

In some ways, I find this critique has merit, and it is one I expected. The book certainly does not offer an academic or systematic vision for Christian political engagement. Indeed, when I first started writing the book, I considered making the content following Chapter Ten (the last chapter directly on my time working for the president), take up much more space. What I decided with my editor is that it would be outside of the scope of this particular book, and to attach a holistic, specific and thorough how-to for political engagement would undermine the unique contributions I intended for this book. The lessons for Christian political engagement are weaved throughout the narrative of the book, and are intentionally meant to be pulled out and identified by the reader as they walk through my experiences working in politics. I will say that there are worthwhile books that are specifically aimed at that purpose (The City of Man by Gerson and Wehner not least among them), and that I wrote this book understanding that I should not and could not say everything I have to say when it comes Christian political engagement. This book is a direct reflection on my experience in the Obama Administration, the intersection of faith and politics in the Obama years, with the aim of providing resources for Christians and others to think more wisely about politics in the years ahead.

So while I accept the criticism to an extent on one hand, on the other I would argue that in a time when politics is increasingly tribal, a call for an other-centered politics that puts faithfulness ahead of victory is creative and daring. I would argue that at a time when 43% of all Americans are independents, and a rejection of institutions lauded as a courageous act, encouraging people to stay in political parties and fight within them for what they view as good, true and just is creative and daring. In fact, on Thursday the editor of Comment Magazine tweeted a message that would seem to agree on this point: 

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My hope for Reclaiming Hope

What I do hope is that Reclaiming Hope provokes Christians to reconsider where they have placed their hope, and the resources hope provides them in politics and in life. I want the conservative Christian Republican who snaps at his kids because he’s so riled up after listening to talk radio to consider where his hope is placed. I want the church member who fires off a frustrated email to their pastor because the pastor dared to pray for the family of Michael Brown and Ferguson to consider whether their reaction springs from partisan tribal concerns or a Christian concern for justice and a Christian heart for compassion. What I hope is that if you are a conservative Christian who hates Barack Obama because you think he hates you, that you will learn that not only did the president accomplish much that Christians can support, but that the motivations for policies you disagree with are much more substantive, and less malicious, than you think.  

In Reclaiming Hope, I argue not that hope is necessary as a strategy, but as a reality. It is our politics, and the lives of Christians and others, that has been weighed down by false hopes and misplaced affections. My case for hope is not based in some assessment that it has utility in a difficult time, but that if we do not have hope we are failing to grasp reality, we are misdiagnosing the very nature of our situation. The ultimate aim of Reclaiming Hope is to move readers to consider contending with the reality of hope, and all that it requires of our politics and our lives. 

President Obama's Greatest Act of Hope

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

For more on President Obama's legacy, particularly on issues of faith, check out Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America.

           We were reminded last month of the stark, unvarnished evil that visited Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina in the Summer of 2015. In the sentencing phase of Dylann Roof’s trial, we learned that six weeks after his arrest he wrote in his journal: “I do not regret what I did. I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed. I do feel sorry for the innocent white children forced to live in this sick county. I do feel sorry for the innocent white people that are killed daily at the hands of the lower races. I have shed a tear of self-pity for myself.” He was given the death penalty, which indicates our society’s judgment that he committed an act so profoundly evil, Roof himself was irredeemable. 

            Many have been lulled into thinking racism is no longer operative in American society because when racist actions are made public, they are almost always accompanied by expressions of shame and contrition. And while these expressions of shame often function as a misdirection, the very existence of shame about these matters represents progress in the story of our nation. So to witness evil absent shame as in Roof’s statement is shocks us, rattling our bones. We shudder at the human heart’s capacity for hate, self-deception and sin.

            It was into this encounter with evil that President Obama--his presidency then more burdened with racial division and controversy than ever—had to speak. The eulogy he delivered at the service for the Charleston Nine was, in its creativity and potential offensiveness, a singular moment in American history

            I was not shocked to hear President Obama quote scripture or even sing a hymn. I had worked in the White House for President Obama, where I helped him and his Administration navigate religious issues and work with the faith community. I also led religious affairs for his re-election campaign and second inauguration. I’ve attended church with him dozens of times, worked on speeches he delivered to faith audiences and at churches, and prayed with him. And while, according to polls, many Americans do not know or even misidentify his religion, I was not surprised to hear him quote from the New Testament or invoke broad religious themes. But how he spoke of God in Charleston, while familiar to the Old Testament Prophets and those in church pews every Sunday, was almost entirely unprecedented for any modern political leader--especially the leader of the free world.

            After “giving all honor and praise to God,” Obama opened with a theological claim: “The bible calls us to hope,” he said. “To persevere, and have faith in things not seen.” He spoke of State Senator Reverend Clement Pinckney, noting that he was “often asked why he chose to be a pastor and a public servant.” The president, who had been accused in his previous campaign of leading a “war on religion,” responded to the question not just for Pinckney, but for himself: “As our brothers and sisters in the AME church know, we don't make those distinctions. ‘Our calling,’ Clem once said, ‘is not just within the walls of the congregation, but…the life and community in which our congregation resides.”

            The President went on to recognize the unique, irreplaceable role of the church as a “foundation stone” in the story of America, and the “center of African-American life.” It was in the church, a place of God’s creation, where the dignity of African-Americans was “inviolate.”

            This, he argued, was what “the killer” meant to attack. Roof’s actions were not just an attack on a race, but on a people who believed in a God who created all people equal, all in His Image. The killer was attacking people who dared to believe in a God of justice who chose sides in the argument of whether there was a “lesser race,” in a God was and is with those who were slain. The killer thought he could overturn God’s judgment on the question, that his murderous act would “incite fear and recrimination; violence and suspicion.” 

            “Oh, but God works in mysterious ways,” the president proclaimed. “God has different ideas. He didn’t know he was being used by God.”

            These might be the most audacious lines of presidential oratory to have ever been uttered. And in this century, only Barack Obama could have said them. Only Barack Obama, the first African-American president, baptized in the black church, could have made the claim that God might use the deaths of nine black citizens for His glory and the nation’s good.

             Imagine for a moment if George W. Bush had wondered aloud if God might be working in the midst of Hurricane Katrina. The partisan mockery would have been relentless. Accusations that he was using “God talk” to distract people from his mismanagement of the crisis would have boomed. Or consider when Prime Minister Theresa May said in response to a question that she prayed when faced with important decisions, and some in the British press were so offended you might have thought she had prayed the UK into a theocracy. The idea that God should or could have anything to do with human affairs is increasingly an absurd offence in politics. 

            There has been and will be much discussion about hope and Barack Obama’s presidency. His 2008 campaign claimed hope as its mantle. Over the course of his presidency, the idea of hope became distorted and conflated with this or that policy victory. At times, it seemed as though the “moral arc of the universe” depended on every executive order, every vote, every press release from Senator McConnell’s office. This false conception of hope fits comfortably in our politics, because it is contained by politics. A hope in political machinations will always lead to disappointment.

            But in the face of the evil visited upon Emmanuel Church, President Obama offered a different kind of hope. The killer, “blinded by hate,” could not fathom what Pinckney “so well understood—the power of God’s grace.” Out of this terrible tragedy, these senseless murders, God was providing a grace to allow us to “find our best selves.”

            The president went on to explore what it might look like for America to “prove itself worthy” of the grace God offered. He suggested the removal of the Confederate Flag from the South Carolina statehouse would be an appropriate and worthy response. “But I don’t think God wants us to stop there,” Obama said, and proceeded to urge Americans to use the opportunity of grace to consider how we might address the injustices of racial bias and discrimination, poverty, inequalities in education and gun violence. People of goodwill would disagree about the solutions, but surely we could act, he urged. This hope, this grace, was not grounded in politics, but certainly it could find expression there if we allowed it.

            Obama told the congregation he was learning the proper response to grace was an open mind and an open heart, open to receive what God was offering. He quoted the popular American novelist--a devout, white, protestant Christian--Marilynne Robinson, who defined grace as “that reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.” 

            Hope is often reduced to a nicety, a way of wishing and a distraction from the important work of struggle and material improvement. But as the South African theologian Allan Boesak wrote, “the poor and the powerless cannot ever let go of hope; that luxury is for the rich and powerful.”

            Hope is about acknowledging and acting on what is most real at the precise moment it is most unbelievable.

            Hope is the expression of forgiveness in the presence of your loved ones’ murderer. Hope is the foolishness of the Commander-in-Chief and leader of the free world speaking of God’s mysterious ways. Hope is a mourning congregation’s affirmation of racial equality and shared human dignity while seated in front of the casket of a black man slain by an avowed white supremacist. Hope is a song of amazing grace in front of the casket of an innocent.

            The unrepentant killer of the Charleston Nine walked into their meeting place like Judas, profited from their fellowship with a kiss on the cheek, and betrayed them with no just cause. The words of his journal should remind us of the reality of evil. But as President Obama boldly asserted, they should also point to the reality of God’s grace, even today. The choice is still ours as to how we will respond.