For over seven years now, Republicans have fueled the racism of their base by claiming that our first African American president was neither patriotic nor Christian. On the other hand, a group of what some call “blackademics” have claimed that he isn’t “black enough.”
I would like to point out to both groups that President Obama articulated his patriotism at the 50th anniversary celebration of the Selma march and gave voice to his Christian beliefs in his eulogy at one of the original Black churches in this country after its minister was gunned down in an act of racial hatred.
What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?
That’s why Selma is not some outlier in the American experience. That’s why it’s not a museum or a static monument to behold from a distance. It is instead the manifestation of a creed written into our founding documents: “We the People…in order to form a more perfect union.” “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”…
Fellow marchers, so much has changed in 50 years. We have endured war and we’ve fashioned peace. We’ve seen technological wonders that touch every aspect of our lives. We take for granted conveniences that our parents could have scarcely imagined. But what has not changed is the imperative of citizenship; that willingness of a 26-year-old deacon, or a Unitarian minister, or a young mother of five to decide they loved this country so much that they’d risk everything to realize its promise.
That’s what it means to love America. That’s what it means to believe in America.
Do you see what he did there? He said that those who fought against racism and Jim Crow demonstrated what it means to be patriotic. At one point, he expanded on that and gave a diverse list of other examples. But on that day, he put the Civil Rights Movement at the center of what it means to love one’s country.
Of course nothing in our Constitution requires that a president be a Christian. But it just so happens that our current one is. The attempts to paint him as “other” (usually Muslim) are efforts to elicit fear. In his eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, President Obama put his Christian faith – and the African American church – at the center of his message about grace.
First of all, he gave an eloquent history about the meaning of church in the African American community.
To the families of the fallen, the nation shares in your grief. Our pain cuts that much deeper because it happened in a church. The church is and always has been the center of African-American life — 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 — 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 — and taught that they matter. That’s what happens in church.
And then he grounded his next remarks in what might be the one song that could be called the Anthem of Christianity – Amazing Grace.
This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace. The grace of the families who lost loved ones. The grace that Reverend Pinckney would preach about in his sermons. The grace described in one of my favorite hymnals — the one we all know: Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind but now I see…
Removing the flag from this state’s capitol would not be an act of political correctness; it would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought — the cause of slavery — was wrong — the imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people was wrong…By taking down that flag, we express God’s grace.
But I don’t think God wants us to stop there. For too long, we’ve been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present. Perhaps we see that now. Perhaps this tragedy causes us to ask some tough questions about how we can permit so many of our children to languish in poverty, or attend dilapidated schools, or grow up without prospects for a job or for a career.
Perhaps it causes us to examine what we’re doing to cause some of our children to hate. Perhaps it softens hearts towards those lost young men, tens and tens of thousands caught up in the criminal justice system and leads us to make sure that that system is not infected with bias; that we embrace changes in how we train and equip our police so that the bonds of trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve make us all safer and more secure.
Maybe we now realize the way racial bias can infect us even when we don’t realize it, so that 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. So that we search our hearts when we consider laws to make it harder for some of our fellow citizens to vote. By recognizing our common humanity by treating every child as important, regardless of the color of their skin or the station into which they were born, and to do what’s necessary to make opportunity real for every American — by doing that, we express God’s grace.
For too long, we’ve been blind to the unique mayhem that gun violence inflicts upon this nation. Sporadically, our eyes are open: When eight of our brothers and sisters are cut down in a church basement, 12 in a movie theater, 26 in an elementary school. But I hope we also see the 30 precious lives cut short by gun violence in this country every single day; the countless more whose lives are forever changed — the survivors crippled, the children traumatized and fearful every day as they walk to school, the husband who will never feel his wife’s warm touch, the entire communities whose grief overflows every time they have to watch what happened to them happen to some other place.
The vast majority of Americans — the majority of gun owners — want to do something about this. We see that now. 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.
We don’t earn grace. We’re all sinners. We don’t deserve it. But God gives it to us anyway. And we choose how to receive it. It’s our decision how to honor it.
I wanted to quote that lengthy passage because what the President did was outline what might be called “the civil rights issues of our time.” As a country, we’ve been blind to racism. But perhaps, because of God’s grace, we can now see.
And so, over the last few months, we’ve seen President Obama’s powerful answers to those who have questioned his patriotism and faith…questions that were designed to invalidate him via racism. He has done so in a way that is grounded in his own experience as an African American.
All of that makes me think of one of the four critical steps of the Aikido Way: “You must enter the very center of the conflict.” In other words, rather than avoid the racist implications of those questions and attempt to make white people comfortable with his answers, the President stepped right into the center of the allegations and responded by saying that he is both patriotic and a man of faith BECAUSE he is African American. That is a unique gift that Barack Hussein Obama has given this country.