By Robert Mann
Among dozens of moments that define the historic, consequential presidency of Barack Obama was his moving eulogy of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., in June 2015.
Pinckney and eight of his parishioners had died days earlier, victims of a young man’s violent racism. It was a day that justified cries of rage and retribution from those in attendance. Obama, instead, appealed to what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”
“This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace,” Obama said of the murders in the church’s basement. “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 hymns, 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.”
Obama ruminated further on grace and admonished mourners to focus not on their anger but, rather, on redeeming the tragedy. In particular, he urged banishing the Confederate flag (with which the killer had posed in a photograph) from the state’s Capitol.
“I’m convinced that by acknowledging the pain and loss of others, even as we respect the traditions, ways of life that make up this beloved country, by making the moral choice to change, we express God’s grace,” Obama said.
Obama suggested Americans also could find grace in the midst of pain by entering into a serious dialogue about our country’s history of racial division. “If we can tap that grace, everything can change. Amazing grace, amazing grace.”
And then Obama broke into song, leading the mourners in the first stanza of the hymn, written in 1772 by the Rev. John Newton, a former slave-ship captain. It was a stunning and emotional moment, one I will never forget for what it represented about what Obama and his presidency meant to the nation.
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