Thursday, July 16, 2015

Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney 1: The Circle of Grace

Make no mistake, it was a remarkable performance. Nominally a eulogy, very much a eulogy. But also a sermon on the past and future of race relations in America.

Though Rev. Pinckney’s funeral was held on June 26, and I heard of Obama’s eulogy shortly thereafter, and heard about it again, and again, I didn’t bother to watch it until a couple of days ago when I was reflecting on some remarks the economist Glenn Loury and linguist John McWhorter made about the ‘authenticity’ of Obama’s performance. After all, Obama wasn’t raised in the church. And yet he chose to don the vestments of a black preacher, the rhetorical and oratorical style, to deliver his eulogy.

I’ll get around to Loury and McWhorter in a later post. In this one I want to look at the eulogy itself, which pretty much took the form of a sermon addressed to the nation. In my preliminary analysis that sermon has five basic parts as follows:
1. Prologue: Address to his audience, quoting of a passage from the Bible.

2. Phase 1: Moves from the Clementa Pinckney’s life to the significance of the black church in history.

3. Phase 2: The murder itself and presence of God’s grace.

4. Phase 3: Looks to the nation, the role racism has played, and the need to move beyond it.

5. Closing: Amazing Grace.
In the course of this analysis I will be referring to specific paragraphs by number. I have appended the entire text to this post and have numbered the paragraphs. Furthermore, I have uploaded an analytical table I am using as I think about the text. Each paragraph appears in the table along with comments here and there. You may view or download this document here:

* * * * *

I want to begin by quoting from an article Michiko Kakutani published on July 4, Obama’s Eulogy, Which Found Its Place in History:
A draft of the Charleston eulogy was given to the president around 5 p.m. on June 25 and, according to Mr. Keenan, Mr. Obama spent some five hours revising it that evening, not merely jotting notes in the margins, but whipping out the yellow legal pads he likes to write on — only the second time he’s done so for a speech in the last two years. He would rewrite large swaths of the text.

Mr. Obama expanded on a short riff in the draft about the idea of grace, and made it the central theme of the eulogy: the grace family members of the shooting victims embodied in the forgiveness they expressed toward the killer; the grace the city of Charleston and the state of South Carolina manifested in coming together in the wake of the massacre; the grace God bestowed in transforming a tragedy into an occasion for renewal, sorrow into hope.
First, I would love to be able to compare Keenan’s draft with the eulogy that Obama delivered. Did that draft open with “Giving all praise and honor to God”? Did it quote Scripture at the beginning (Hebrews 11:13), as is typical of sermons? That is to say, did Keenan know he was drafting a sermon, or did that happen as Obama devoted five hours and who knows how many pieces of 8.5 by 14 lined yellow paper to the rewrite?

Kakutani is quite right to single out grace as the sermon’s theme. But Obama did more than use the word a lot – 35 times by my count. The word didn’t appear until about 1300 words in to this 3000 word sermon, that is, a bit before the mid-point. Roughly speaking, then, we can divide the sermon into two movements, 1) before “grace” and 2) after “grace”. Once we’ve done that the eulogy’s overall logic begins to reveal itself.

Let’s set the prelude and closing aside for a moment. Each is short and both are formulaic. The bulk of the sermon is in between, roughly 2700 words.

Let’s skip to the middle, the part that I’ve called the transition. It starts with paragraph 21:
We do not know whether the killer of Reverend Pinckney and eight others knew all of this history. But he surely sensed the meaning of his violent act. It was an act that drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches, not random, but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress. (Applause.) An act that he imagined would incite fear and recrimination; violence and suspicion. An act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation's original sin.
This is the first time that Dylann Storm Roof is mentioned, but not by name, never by name. Obama establishes that this action was not a personal one. It was not aimed at individuals as individuals. In the killer’s mind it was a symbolic act. He was attacking a group of people and an institution. The paragraph ends by referencing “our nation's original sin”, by which, I assume, Obama meant slavery, but/and of course the phrase “original sin” has deep Biblical resonance.

In paragraph 22 Obama says, “God works in mysterious ways”. Utterly standard, a cliché. But in this context, in this eulogy, we ARE immersed deep in mystery, that of the violent willful senseless deaths of nine people. The next paragraph, 23, has the first use of “grace” and references the “alleged killer” twice.

We are now poised at the mid-point of our trajectory, our oratorical and ritual journey.

Let us skip to paragraph 28, which begins: “As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we've been blind.” At this point we’ve moved through grace and are now prepared to contemplate that original sin – “allowed us to see where we've been blind” – and what we must set out to do.

What’s astonishing is how Obama got us there. Let us look at the opening of paragraph 23: “He [the alleged killer] didn't know he was being used by God. (Applause.)” Repeat: “He didn't know he was being used by God.”

Didn’t know he was being used by God.

What does that say; what does it imply? Was Dylann Roof’s murderous act willed by God? That’s what Obama’s words can be taken to imply, but it’s not quite what Obama is actually saying. His formulation – “being used by” – distances him and us from that implication – and remember, this is being delivered and comprehended in real time during which there is no time (nor inclination to) reflective second guessing. Roof does something and God takes it up and uses it.

And now we must take it up and use it. That’s what this sermon is about, taking it up and using it.

God works in mysterious ways.

We are deep in the thicket of what I’ve elsewhere termed “myth-logic.” Myth logic is rigorous in its own way, but those ways are not those of science. They are the ways of the heart.

Obama’s job is to say something that will be uplifting, that will allow people to leave the service feeling good about themselves and the world they live in, feeling ready to go out and change things. And he has to do that in the middle of terrible tragedy, when people are grieving for their lost husbands, wives, sons and daughters, relatives and friends, and for their nation. How do you create joy from grief? That’s a job for myth logic, not for rational deduction.

* * * * *

There’s much more to be said about this text, and perhaps I’ll devote another post to analysis. But I’ll close with some remarks about the prelude and the closing.

In the third paragraph Obama quotes Scripture:
"They were still living by faith when they died," Scripture tells us. "They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on Earth."
That sets up a template for the rest of the sermon. We are those who “did not receive the things promised” and yet we are too live by faith until we die, as those nine others did. And it sets up the theme of not being able to see (God’s mysterious ways) that is central to “Amazing Grace”. Divine grace itself is a mystery, coming as it does through no act or will of our own. That word “grace” pervades the second half of the eulogy, which ends in that hymn.

Thus Obama, in choosing his Scripture at the beginning, was also setting us up for the end. It is the song, which everyone sang along with him, that provided the salving grace people sought in that funeral.

* * * * *

Those who have been following New Savanna for awhile know that I have a particular interest a kind of textual symmetry known as ring-composition or ring-form. Such texts unfold as follows:

A, B, C … X … C’, B’, A’

A’ echoes A, B’ echoes B and so forth, with X being structurally central. Is Obama’s eulogy/sermon a ring-form text? Perhaps it is, and perhaps I’ll make an explicit argument in a later post. For now I note only that its structural center is that section where Obama talks about the murder, the only place he does so, and where he first invokes God’s grace.

* * * * *

Here is the complete text, which I copied from CNN:

1.) THE PRESIDENT: Giving all praise and honor to God. (Applause.)

2.) The Bible calls us to hope. To persevere, and have faith in things not seen.

3.) "They were still living by faith when they died," Scripture tells us. "They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on Earth."

4.) We are here today to remember a man of God who lived by faith. A man who believed in things not seen. A man who believed there were better days ahead, off in the distance. A man of service who persevered, knowing full well he would not receive all those things he was promised, because he believed his efforts would deliver a better life for those who followed.

5.) To Jennifer, his beloved wife; to Eliana and Malana, his beautiful, wonderful daughters; to the Mother Emanuel family and the people of Charleston, the people of South Carolina.

6.) I cannot claim to have the good fortune to know Reverend Pinckney well. But I did have the pleasure of knowing him and meeting him here in South Carolina, back when we were both a little bit younger. (Laughter.) Back when I didn't have visible grey hair. (Laughter.) The first thing I noticed was his graciousness, his smile, his reassuring baritone, his deceptive sense of humor – all qualities that helped him wear so effortlessly a heavy burden of expectation.

7.) Friends of his remarked this week that when Clementa Pinckney entered a room, it was like the future arrived; that even from a young age, folks knew he was special. Anointed. He was the progeny of a long line of the faithful – a family of preachers who spread God's word, a family of protesters who sowed change to expand voting rights and desegregate the South. Clem heard their instruction, and he did not forsake their teaching.

8.) He was in the pulpit by 13, pastor by 18, public servant by 23. He did not exhibit any of the cockiness of youth, nor youth's insecurities; instead, he set an example worthy of his position, wise beyond his years, in his speech, in his conduct, in his love, faith, and purity.

9.) As a senator, he represented a sprawling swath of the Lowcountry, a place that has long been one of the most neglected in America. A place still wracked by poverty and inadequate schools; a place where children can still go hungry and the sick can go without treatment. A place that needed somebody like Clem. (Applause.)

10.) His position in the minority party meant the odds of winning more resources for his constituents were often long. His calls for greater equity were too often unheeded, the votes he cast were sometimes lonely. But he never gave up. He stayed true to his convictions. He would not grow discouraged. After a full day at the capitol, he'd climb into his car and head to the church to draw sustenance from his family, from his ministry, from the community that loved and needed him. There he would fortify his faith, and imagine what might be.

11.) Reverend Pinckney embodied a politics that was neither mean, nor small. He conducted himself quietly, and kindly, and diligently. He encouraged progress not by pushing his ideas alone, but by seeking out your ideas, partnering with you to make things happen. He was full of empathy and fellow feeling, able to walk in somebody else's shoes and see through their eyes. No wonder one of his senate colleagues remembered Senator Pinckney as "the most gentle of the 46 of us – the best of the 46 of us."

12.) Clem was often asked why he chose to be a pastor and a public servant. But the person who asked probably didn't know the history of the AME church. (Applause.) 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." (Applause.)

13.) He embodied the idea that our Christian faith demands deeds and not just words; that the "sweet hour of prayer" actually lasts the whole week long – (applause) – that to put our faith in action is more than individual salvation, it's about our collective salvation; that to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and house the homeless is not just a call for isolated charity but the imperative of a just society.

14.) What a good man. Sometimes I think that's the best thing to hope for when you're eulogized – after all the words and recitations and resumes are read, to just say someone was a good man. (Applause.)

15.) You don't have to be of high station to be a good man. Preacher by 13. Pastor by 18. Public servant by 23. What a life Clementa Pinckney lived. What an example he set. What a model for his faith. And then to lose him at 41 – slain in his sanctuary with eight wonderful members of his flock, each at different stages in life but bound together by a common commitment to God.

16.) Cynthia Hurd. Susie Jackson. Ethel Lance. DePayne Middleton-Doctor. Tywanza Sanders. Daniel L. Simmons. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton. Myra Thompson. Good people. Decent people. God-fearing people. (Applause.) People so full of life and so full of kindness. People who ran the race, who persevered. People of great faith.

17.) 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 – (applause) – a place to call our own in a too often hostile world, a sanctuary from so many hardships.

18.) 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 – (applause) – 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 – (applause) – and taught that they matter. (Applause.) That's what happens in church.

19.) That's what the black church means. Our beating heart. The place where our dignity as a people is inviolate. When there's no better example of this tradition than Mother Emanuel – (applause) – a church built by blacks seeking liberty, burned to the ground because its founder sought to end slavery, only to rise up again, a Phoenix from these ashes. (Applause.)

20.) When there were laws banning all-black church gatherings, services happened here anyway, in defiance of unjust laws. When there was a righteous movement to dismantle Jim Crow, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached from its pulpit, and marches began from its steps. A sacred place, this church. Not just for blacks, not just for Christians, but for every American who cares about the steady expansion – (applause) – of human rights and human dignity in this country; a foundation stone for liberty and justice for all. That's what the church meant. (Applause.)

21.) We do not know whether the killer of Reverend Pinckney and eight others knew all of this history. But he surely sensed the meaning of his violent act. It was an act that drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches, not random, but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress. (Applause.) An act that he imagined would incite fear and recrimination; violence and suspicion. An act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation's original sin.

22.) Oh, but God works in mysterious ways. (Applause.) God has different ideas. (Applause.)

23.) He didn't know he was being used by God. (Applause.) Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group – the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle. 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. (Applause.)

24.) The alleged killer could not imagine how the city of Charleston, under the good and wise leadership of Mayor Riley – (applause) – how the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America would respond – not merely with revulsion at his evil act, but with big-hearted generosity and, more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life.

25.) Blinded by hatred, he failed to comprehend what Reverend Pinckney so well understood – the power of God's grace. (Applause.)

26.) This whole week, I've been reflecting on this idea of grace. (Applause.) 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. (Applause.) I once was lost, but now I'm found; was blind but now I see. (Applause.)

27.) According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It's not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God – (applause) – as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. Grace.

28.) As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we've been blind. (Applause.) He has given us the chance, where we've been lost, to find our best selves. (Applause.) We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other – but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He's once more given us grace. But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude, and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.

29.) For too long, we were blind to the pain that the Confederate flag stirred in too many of our citizens. (Applause.) It's true, a flag did not cause these murders. But as people from all walks of life, Republicans and Democrats, now acknowledge – including Governor Haley, whose recent eloquence on the subject is worthy of praise – (applause) – as we all have to acknowledge, the flag has always represented more than just ancestral pride. (Applause.) For many, black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation. We see that now.

30.) 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 – (applause) – the imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people was wrong. (Applause.) It would be one step in an honest accounting of America's history; a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds. It would be an expression of the amazing changes that have transformed this state and this country for the better, because of the work of so many people of goodwill, people of all races striving to form a more perfect union. By taking down that flag, we express God's grace. (Applause.)

31.) But I don't think God wants us to stop there. (Applause.) 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. (Applause.)

32.) Perhaps it causes us to examine what we're doing to cause some of our children to hate. (Applause.) Perhaps it softens hearts towards those lost young men, tens and tens of thousands caught up in the criminal justice system – (applause) – 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. (Applause.)

33.) 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. (Applause.) So that we search our hearts when we consider laws to make it harder for some of our fellow citizens to vote. (Applause.) 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. (Applause.)

34.) For too long –

35.) AUDIENCE: For too long!

36.) THE PRESIDENT: For too long, we've been blind to the unique mayhem that gun violence inflicts upon this nation. (Applause.) 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.

37.) 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. (Applause.)

38.) We don't earn grace. We're all sinners. We don't deserve it. (Applause.) But God gives it to us anyway. (Applause.) And we choose how to receive it. It's our decision how to honor it.

39.) None of us can or should expect a transformation in race relations overnight. Every time something like this happens, somebody says we have to have a conversation about race. We talk a lot about race. There's no shortcut. And we don't need more talk. (Applause.) None of us should believe that a handful of gun safety measures will prevent every tragedy. It will not. People of goodwill will continue to debate the merits of various policies, as our democracy requires – this is a big, raucous place, America is. And there are good people on both sides of these debates. Whatever solutions we find will necessarily be incomplete.

40.) But it would be a betrayal of everything Reverend Pinckney stood for, I believe, if we allowed ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again. (Applause.) Once the eulogies have been delivered, once the TV cameras move on, to go back to business as usual – that's what we so often 40.) do to avoid uncomfortable truths about the prejudice that still infects our society. (Applause.) To settle for symbolic gestures without following up with the hard work of more lasting change – that's how we lose our way again.

41.) It would be a refutation of the forgiveness expressed by those families if we merely slipped into old habits, whereby those who disagree with us are not merely wrong but bad; where we shout instead of listen; where we barricade ourselves behind preconceived notions or well-practiced cynicism.

42.) Reverend Pinckney once said, "Across the South, we have a deep appreciation of history – we haven't always had a deep appreciation of each other's history." (Applause.) What is true in the South is true for America. Clem understood that justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other. That my liberty depends on you being free, too. (Applause.) That history can't be a sword to justify injustice, or a shield against progress, but must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past – how to break the cycle. A roadway toward a better world. He knew that the path of grace involves an open mind – but, more importantly, an open heart.

43.) That's what I've felt this week – an open heart. That, more than any particular policy or analysis, is what's called upon right now, I think – what a friend of mine, the writer Marilyn Robinson, calls "that reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things."

44.) That reservoir of goodness. If we can find that grace, anything is possible. (Applause.) If we can tap that grace, everything can change. (Applause.)

45.) Amazing grace. Amazing grace.

46.) (Begins to sing) – Amazing grace – (applause) – 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. (Applause.)

47.) Clementa Pinckney found that grace.

48.) Cynthia Hurd found that grace.

49.) Susie Jackson found that grace.

50.) Ethel Lance found that grace.

51.) DePayne Middleton-Doctor found that grace.

52.) Tywanza Sanders found that grace.

53.) Daniel L. Simmons, Sr. found that grace.

54.) Sharonda Coleman-Singleton found that grace.

55.) Myra Thompson found that grace.

56.) Through the example of their lives, they've now passed it on to us. May we find ourselves worthy of that precious and extraordinary gift, as long as our lives endure. May grace now lead them home. May God continue to shed His grace on the United States of America. (Applause.)


  1. The "mysterious ways" stuff with Roof as God's tool is straight fundamentalism. I don't remember the MSM mentioning it. E.g., Kakutani skirts it. Thanks again, Bill.--Frank

    1. If Kakutani only watched the video, she might well have missed it. I know it didn’t register for me until I actually read the text. But then, as a long-timer reporter/writer for the NYTimes, I’d expect her to have read the text.

      But what could she say? It’s tricky. As political analysis it’s nonsense. As rational discourse it’s nonsense. Is she going to say the President is spouting nonsense in possibly one of the most effective speechs of his career? As ritual, as myth, well that’s something else. And that’s what it is.

      But what’s the role of myth and ritual in our political life? Well as a practical matter myth and ritual are all over our political life. Without it there wouldn't be any political life. Because, alas, people aren't moved (solely) by rational argument.

      What’s strange is to see the President of our secular state play the role of a preacher, because that’s what he did. But I don’t think there’s anything he could have done that would have been more effective with that audience. At that point in his eulogy he’d just gotten the strongest response he’d gotten so far, a standing ovation. In a few minutes the organist would join it.

      Now, just what the man really believes in the privacy of his study, I haven’t got the foggiest idea.