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.