Based as it is in the concept of “grace,” President Obama’s eulogy on June 26, 2015, for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, pastor of the Emanuel AME Methodist Church, was framed to be moving . But at the same time it was crafted not to rock the ship of state by steering it safely through the troubled political waters of the controversial issues raised by the murders of the Reverend Pinckney and eight of his parishioners. Moving yet politically safe is the keynote of the eulogy.
In this respect the eulogy follows the rhetorical pattern of other speeches Obama has given in the past, most notably the 2008 Philadelphia speech on race. The pattern of these speeches is one in which Obama touches on key issues—poverty, race, gun violence, etc—and then does not propose concrete policy initiatives to deal with the issues, even as a way of educating the public on the specific route to justice we should be taking, no matter what the political obstacles. Instead, he offers us consolation and, of course, his trademark “hope.” That is, he sentimentalizes the issues: “…an open heart,” the president tells us at the end of the eulogy, “That, more than any particular policy or analysis, is what’s called upon right now, I think.” So while earlier in the speech he insists that “To settle for symbolic gestures without following up with the hard work of more lasting change — that’s how we lose our way again,” the eulogy, devoid of any policy recommendations to follow, is no more than a symbolic gesture.
In the case of the murders at Emanuel, the president offers us the consolation and hope of “grace,” which he tells us “according to the Christian tradition [cannot be] earned.” In point of fact, the president is wrong here. It is only a segment of the Christian tradition, the Protestant tradition, in which grace cannot be earned. For the 76.7 million Catholics in the U.S. (a significant number of whom are Black) grace must be earned, through penance. And Catholics, of course, are the first Christians. How significantly different would the eulogy have been had Obama pursued this avenue to grace? For, indeed, there is much actual penance in the form of restorative justice that the United States needs to do.
We should have no doubts that the killings of the Reverend Pinckney and the eight parishioners of the Emanuel AME Methodist Church on June 17, 2015, are part of the ongoing history of lynching of Black people in the U.S. In the present, these wanton killings of Black adults and children have most often been carried out by the police acting in the name of the law: Amadou Diallo, Yvette Smith, Eric Garner, Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Brown, Tarika Wilson, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, to name but a few. But they have also been carried out by white vigilantes as in the present case, where Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons, Sr., Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson were lynched alongside Clementa Pinckney. Recently as well, there have been others: James Byrd, Jr., tied to a pickup truck and dragged to death in Texas in 1998 by white racists, comes to mind; and, preceding the recent murders by police in several U.S. cities and by Dylann Roof in Charleston, the lynching of Trayvon Martin by vigilante George Zimmerman on February 26, 2012, stands out. But these few names only represent the multitude of Black lynchings, past and present.
Yet I have not heard any official or mainstream media commentary refer to the AME murders, or any of the killings I’ve referenced, as part of an ongoing history of “lynching?” Nor, while mentioning the history of racial violence in the most general terms, did the president reflect on this specific history in his eulogy. Why not? The reason would seem to be that the U.S. is continually in denial of its own continuing violent history, a denial that acknowledges this history but very generally, almost abstractly, distancing it from us as a way of not coming to grips with it in the present, a denial that works against real reform.
In his eulogy, President Obama referred to slavery as “our original sin.” An implicit effect of Obama’s equating the national “original sin” with slavery is that it reinforces the classic black/white binary. While this binary serves to emphasize a key strain of U.S. history, it simultaneously serves to erase other key components of a continuing history of imperial and colonial violence. In fact, our original sin was not slavery but Native American genocide and the theft of Native land. This genocidal theft was the very ground of slavery, both literally and figuratively. But the U.S. does not want or cannot afford to admit that it is a settler colony.
In addition to Native genocide and continued colonialism in Indian country under the regime of federal Indian law, in addition to the legacy of slavery and the fact that 150 years after the Civil War Blacks along with Native Americans remain at the bottom of the economic ladder, the U. S. has continued to deny, under the myth of American exceptionalism, which informs all the president’s speeches, its colonial-imperial past and present in Latin America and the Middle East. If we are going to speak in religious terms, as the president chose to do in Charleston, the U.S. has a multitude of “sins” for which to atone both at home and abroad, where it continues to violate international law with undeclared drone warfare that is killing civilians like those who were murdered in church in Charleston.
Perhaps, then, if we followed the Catholic Christian tradition, in which there is also a strong tradition of action for social justice, we might do “penance,” and thereby earn our grace, by fighting for actual policy initiatives: gun control, reparations in the form of economic development for the official theft of labor and land owed the Black and Native communities, the end of deportations for undocumented workers, a living wage, permanent voting rights, equal pay for women, and total LGBTI equality under the Constitution. The implementation of such policies, indeed placing them at the top of the national political agenda, would go a long way to ending the psychological and social conditions that continue to foster lynching in the U.S, conditions that devalue not only Black lives but the lives of other marginalized people of all races, ethnicities, and sexual identities.
This tradition of action for social justice is also a part of the tradition of the Black Protestant Church, which the president references in the eulogy. In that Church this tradition is represented not only by Clementa Pinckney but by such ministers as the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, whom presidential candidate Obama jettisoned in his Philadelphia speech by taking out of context Wright’s just criticism of the United States’ history of violence at home and abroad; that is, by erasing Wright’s taking exception with American exceptionalism.
In the eulogy, Obama develops his meditation on grace by first noting , with admiration bordering on awe, that the families of the fallen forgave the killer at his arraignment hearing: “The alleged killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court — in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness. He couldn’t imagine that.”
In contrast to Obama’s praise for this act of forgiveness, on the June 24, 2015, Michelangelo Signorile satellite radio show on Serius XM Progress, two days before Obama’s eulogy, Mark Thompson—Black activist, minister, and host of his own show Make It Plain on the same channel—commented skeptically on the time and place of this expression of forgiveness: “What I as a Christian minister can’t understand and what no other Christian minister I know can understand is how you announce forgiveness less than 48 hours after your loved ones have been taken out by Dylann Roof…. it is humanly impossible with all the stages of grief that have been codified and studied ad nauseam…to make that kind of statement credibly that soon.”
Moreover, Thompson pointed out, to make the statement of forgiveness at a “bond hearing” is particularly inappropriate “because that opens the door for legal maneuvering on the part of his counsel.” Thus for Thompson, and he is not alone in this, the time and place of this expression of forgiveness by the bereaved, not forgiveness itself, suggests that the event “was orchestrated, staged and choreographed” in order to suppress potential aggressive protests by the Black community of Charleston, of the kind that had just taken place in Ferguson and Baltimore over the police lynchings of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray (and Thompson made it plain in this interview that he understands these killings, along with those in Charleston and the others I have referenced, as part of the continuing history of lynching): “Nikki Haley,” Thompson remarks, “gets up there and says we’re not like Baltimore…which was insulting to the people of Baltimore, maybe you didn’t have that because people are still in shock, maybe you didn’t have that because you all choreographed, you made a phone call and said to some relatives you all need to come down to this bond hearing and say forgive this man,” though, Thompson notes, “I’m not saying I know that’s what happened but… we just really do not understand how that came to be, the timing of it, highly, highly, highly inappropriate….”
The timing, Thompson suggests, also served to present a comforting , indeed subservient, image of Black people to the nation: “It’s also part of the subjugation of our people…some people cannot feel comfortable in America unless we as Black people are always in this passive and submissive role….” The immediate expression of forgiveness by the families of those murdered at Emmanuel AME , then, is the perfect emotional antidote to the anger of the protestors in Ferguson and Baltimore and in fact to all the acts of Black resistance that are a crucial part of American history and of which the Emmanuel AME and the Black Church as a whole are a part. This act of forgiveness might remind some of us of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s antebellum bestseller Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which presented a sentimental picture of a forgiving Christian Black populace in a U.S. caught up the in the antebellum violence of slavery and of Black and white abolitionist resistance to and rebellion against this “peculiar institution.”
This is exactly the comforting picture that Obama’s eulogy presents with its theme of forgiveness through unearned grace. At the end of the eulogy, Obama sang, in fine voice, quite movingly, Amazing Grace, and once again we might be reminded of the sentimental power of Stowe’s novel, even as we understand its hallucinatory vision of race relations in the United States.
Social critic Jon Stewart got to the heart of our continuing hallucination about the conjuncture of race and violence, when, a day after the Emanuel lynchings, he spoke about them on The Daily Show:
“I honestly have nothing other than just sadness once again that we have to peer into the abyss of the depraved violence that we do to each other and the nexus of a just gaping racial wound that will not heal, yet we pretend doesn’t exist. And I’m confident, though, that by acknowledging it, by staring into that and seeing it for what it is, we still won’t do jack s—. Yeah. That’s us….And we’re going to keep pretending like, ‘I don’t get it. What happened? This one guy lost his mind.’ But we are steeped in that culture in this country and we refuse to recognize it, and I cannot believe how hard people are working to discount it.”
Obama’s eulogy does the hard work of denial by at once “acknowledging” the continuing U.S. history of racist violence against Blacks (though he is careful not to call this continuing violence by the name of “lynching”), by “staring into that and seeing it for what it is,” but in the same breath denying this history by sentimentalizing it and turning policy into morality, most pointedly in the moment when he speaks about gun violence:
“For too long, we’ve been blind to the unique mayhem that gun violence inflicts upon this nation…. The vast majority of Americans — the majority of gun owners — want to do something about this. We see that now. (Applause.) And I’m convinced that by acknowledging the pain and loss of others, even as we respect the traditions and ways of life that make up this beloved country — by making the moral choice to change, we express God’s grace.”
This is vintage Obama: the problem of gun violence is at once articulated and solved in a virtual reality where the “vast majority of Americans—the majority of gun owners, expressing “God’s grace” make “the moral choice to change.” No policy needed; the “something” that “the vast majority of Americans…want to do” about gun violence is not specified, precisely because there is no consensus on the issue. It follows that if one does not voice an actual policy on guns, there are no hard choices of the kind, for example, that Australia (another frontier colonial state) made in instituting rigorous gun laws in 1996 after a lone gunman, Martin Bryant, went on a shooting rampage that left 35 people dead and 23 wounded in Tasmania. Indeed, Obama has cited Australia’s response to this massacre favorably in the past. Here, however, within the scope of God’s grace, the U.S. can apparently have its political cake and eat it too “by acknowledging the pain and loss of others, even as we respect the traditions and ways of life that make up this beloved country.” We can, it appears, control guns without disturbing “the traditions and ways of life” of gun owners. This is magical thinking, which clearly ignores the NRA and its vast lobbying power.
If the audience hasn’t been moved by this sentimental appeal, and apparently it has been if the applause the appeal calls forth is any indication, then the president’s invocation of “this beloved country” functions rhetorically to conjure his imaginary consensus.
At worst, one might be tempted to think that Obama’s eulogy was cynical in its turn away from policy, that is, from the major political form of accountability, to a sentimentality that mimics the precipitous act of forgiveness of the bereaved in Charleston. As Mark Thompson points out such acts of forgiveness, if they are to come at all, typically come at the sentencing hearing after the trial has been concluded. But there has been no trial as yet, not simply of the killer but of the country from which the killer emerged, from us: no testimony, no rigorous analysis of the evidence, no accountability, no verdict, no punishment or “penance” if you will.
We can be certain that the killer will be put on trial and a verdict rendered in due time. But it is highly doubtful, given our powers of denial, that the country has the will to face its own day of judgment.