President Obama delivered an emotional eulogy this past Friday for Reverend Clementa Pinckney and the other victims of the AME church shooting in Charleston. If you have not yet heard it yet, you can watch it here, and read the full transcript of the President's speech.
The president offered thoughtful reflections on institutional racism, gun control, and the epidemic of mass shootings in America. But what was perhaps most remarkable about Obama's speech was that it was not delivered as a political speech at all, but as a gospel sermon.
The central theme the president kept returning to was the subject of grace. Grace as a gift of God. Grace in the face of loss and pain. Grace in the face of evil and hate.
The president spoke of the grace that opened the church doors and invited a stranger in. The grace the families of the fallen showed when they saw the alleged killer in court, and in the midst of unspeakable grief, met him with words of forgiveness.
The sermon reached a crescendo when the president paused.
It was a long pause.
Then President Obama began to sing in a low baritone the words to the familiar gospel hymn "Amazing Grace."
Amazing grace how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found.
Was blind but now I see.
"Amazing Grace" is a song we all know well. It has been called our country's spiritual national anthem, and has become a song that inspires hope in the wake of tragedy.
But there is a significance in the words of this song that are particularly significant in the immediate context of the AME shooting, and its connection to the continuing effects of what Obama referred to as "our nation's original sin."
"Amazing Grace" was published by John Newton in 1779. When he penned the words "that saved a wretch like me" he was not expressing remorse for some personal failing, such as intemperance or infidelity. John Newton came to see himself as a "wretch" because of his participation in the African slave trade. This was Newton's great sin. When the words of this song exclaim "I was blind, but now I see," Newton's blindness was specifically to the damage of systemic racism, and his participation in it for economic gain. This was what his eyes were opened to, leading to his conversion and outspoken advocacy for abolition.
"Amazing Grace" is a song about repenting of systemic sin. We typically think of sin in individual terms, as personal failings. Systemic sin is often not on our radar at all, but it needs to be. They say "all sins are the same in God's eyes," but that simply isn't true. Newton's involvement in the slave trade clearly affected and damaged more lives than any of his individual failings could have. What makes it all the worse is that systemic sin often hides under the mantle of political or religious authority, claiming as the system to represent "the good." That is the nature of systemic sin, and it is indeed wretched.
In recent years there has been a move to soften the words of the hymn, replacing the line "that saved a wretch like me," with more palatable verse, such as"that saved and strengthened me" or "that saved and set me free." While it's easy to understand the desire to move away from the song's negative theological roots of self-loathing, at the same time there is a power in those words that perhaps we should seek to face — even if that's hard to do, even when it's hard to face and own up to.
Even now, in a time when we have become almost numb to the news of yet another mass shooting, weary of all the vitriol, tired of nothing changing — as we stare into the depths of our nation's addiction to violence, and its deep scars of racism — perhaps especially now we need to rediscover as a country, and as a community, the kind of grace that John Newton did.
"Amazing Grace" is a song about one man's real and ugly sin — the sin of slavery. At the same time it is a song about the power of forgiveness, a song about looking into the depths of very real evil and, even there, especially there, finding grace that is bigger than all the hate.
That light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Editor's Note: A previous version said the hymn was written in 1779. It was published in 1779.