We’ve all heard the saying, “God Works in Mysterious Ways.” A tired trope, right? Not in the hands of President Obama, who gave it fresh and meaningful power in his moving eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney of Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston. And not in light of the events of the last seven days.
“God Works in Mysterious Ways” was just one of literally dozens of memorable phrases and comments that arose during this most remarkable of weeks. Our part of the world cracked open a door to examine some of its deepest wounds and also saw change for millions who have been denied life’s basic liberties and access to a safe and civil society.
While that change is far from complete, let’s take the time to observe (in this next installment of Observations from Home) just what took place over the last seven days since I wrote about the horrific murders at Mother Emanuel.
A Powerful Reflection on Grace
For almost forty minutes in Charleston, Barack Obama reflected on race and the meaning of grace. This was not the carefully constructed speeches on racial divides that he used as a candidate or during his first years as president. This was a deeply emotional and moving reflection that came from experience and spoke with power to those — of all races — who share or work to understand that experience.
In last week’s blog, I commented on the fact that the grace-filled forgiveness of the families of the Emanuel 9 to the alleged killer was the one ray of hope in a very sad situation, but I was quick to assume a pessimistic outlook as to its impact, given that major media reports at the time were not focused on what our rector, the Rev. Dr. Deborah Meister, called “the weapons of Christ” in her sermon on the subject last Sunday.
“When David faced Goliath, Saul tried to clothe him in his own armor: fine armor of bronze, fit for a king. But David realized that he could not even walk in it; it was the tool of a different sort of man. Even so, we must learn to walk in ways that are not the ways of violence. In our popular culture, the villains use guns and bombs — but so do the heroes. Dirty Harry, Luke Skywalker, Rambo, even Harry Potter – all these use violence to fight violence. But the master’s tools can never take down the master’s house. When Nadine Collier, niece of one of the people who were killed in Charleston, confronted the alleged killer and said, “I forgive you. You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul,” she was using the weapons of Christ — and her words did not come cheap. We, too, must learn to fight with the weapons of peace and of true justice, for we work in the name of the Lord of Hosts, who loves those people who are perishing.“
It turns out that the words of the families — and the grace with which they were spoken — did have an impact. I’ll once again turn to the New York Times report to explain the context for how God moves in mysterious ways.
“Mr. Obama joined with others paying tribute in stressing that the 21-year-old white man charged in the killings had failed to achieve his stated goal of inciting racial conflagration. Rather, he said, the killings had the opposite effect, generating an unprecedented show of racial unity and inspiring a nationwide revolt against Confederate symbols.
“It was an act that drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches,” Mr. Obama said, “not random, but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress, 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.”
He paused for effect. “Oh, but God works in mysterious ways,” Mr. Obama said. “God has different ideas. He didn’t know he was being used by God.” The crowd erupted in applause as women waved their hands toward the ceiling.“
I almost cried when I first listened to that part of the eulogy. The Times report continued.
“Mr. Obama commended South Carolina’s Republican governor, Nikki R. Haley, for her call this week to bring down the Confederate flag in Columbia, saying it would be “a meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds.”
“Removing the flag from this state’s Capitol would not be an act of political correctness,” Mr. Obama said. “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.”
It was one of the most powerful moments in a eulogy full of them – including the President breaking into song with Amazing Grace and having the organist come in to offer support and take the emotion even higher. The note that God moves in mysterious ways was a powerful moment in an emotional conversation about race and grace that must – for the health of our nation and the health of our souls – continue.
Marriage Equality (Or how both my children can now marry the people they love no matter where they may live in America)
Justice Andrew Kennedy had the definitive statement for me in the long-expected but still amazing ruling on marriage equality that came from a divided Supreme Court on Friday.
“It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves.“
These men and women are my family. My co-workers. My friends. Plus millions I do not know. And it is past time that we recognized them not only as children of God — as we all are, in whatever way we understand that phrase — but complete human beings who deserve the same rights and protections as the rest of our country.
The vitriol in the dissents — especially that of Antonin Scalia — demonstrated that we still have a long way to go in this country to address our differences and welcome our fellow human beings with grace. As one admittedly partisan commentator noted, Scalia’s “notion that the court is made up of patrician Ivy League elitists is tested mightily when he offers up legal opinions that sound like they have been culled from newspaper website comment threads.” When pronouncements from Supreme Court justices include sharp personal attacks and practically sputter in their denial of reality, the impact of 30+ years of false victim-hood by cable news, radio, and internet outlets is clear.
Speaking of Reality
The Supreme Court’s Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) decision on Thursday, by a larger 6-3 majority, provided some relief by demonstrating that we still have a government that — when necessary — can face reality. Linda Greenhouse, the Supreme Court observer, noted that “Ideology came face to face with reality, and reality prevailed.” Yet another concise take on the events of the week when God — if not the Supreme Court — moved in mysterious ways.
Universal health care for Americans is something that has been on the nation’s agenda since the Roosevelt administration. That’s Theodore Roosevelt! Every other so-called first-world and industrialized nation in the world has figured out how to do this without blowing up the government, the economy, or health care. Some third world countries have done a pretty good job of it as well. For us…not so much. When I hear that Americans don’t like the Affordable Care Act and don’t want universal coverage, I think of the following: President Obama campaigned in 2008 on providing universal health insurance and won big. Then – with the help of a lot of people who paid for it politically – the Affordable Care Act was passed based on a model that had originally been devised by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. Naturally, the new law was derided by conservatives. President Obama ran again in 2012 on a platform of maintaining the ACA against a candidate who promised to repeal the act. Again, he won big. And millions of Americans who didn’t have health coverage before now have it, while those of us who have had health care still benefit from provisions in the law such as being able to keep our children on our policies through their mid-20s and not being punished for pre-existing conditions. Reality is that the program has worked pretty much as advertised.
In discussing how the Supreme Court’s majority came to see the case for the “cynically manufactured and meritless argument” which tried to turn the court into “a partisan tool,” Greenhouse wrote:
“The chief justice’s masterful opinion showed that line of argument for the simplistic and agenda-driven construct that it was. Parsing the 1,000-plus-page statute in a succinct 21-page opinion, he deftly wove in quotations from recent Supreme Court opinions.“
These were all opinions — written by Justice Scalia — which rightly noted that short ambiguous phrases could be easily understood in the context of the law’s purpose and framework. Of course, Gail Collins had a perhaps more direct take:
The court decided — in what opponents decried as a wild leap of judgment — that it was not going to strip millions of people of their health coverage and upend one of the most important pieces of legislation in modern history because of a four-word drafting error.
Reality won. God really does move in mysterious ways.
“Nothing in this world is indifferent to us”
While I am stretching my 7-day time frame a bit, these recent words from Pope Francis’ encyclical on Care for our Common Home fits into the pattern of change. For far too long, we have heard from the religious right that humans are the masters of the universe, and that changes in our climate are either non-existent or not related to human activity. But Pope Francis, writing to all the peoples of the world, speaks from a very different perspective.
“This sister (our common home) now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.“
Dana Beach of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League connected the dots between the pope’s encyclical and the events at Mother Emanuel.
“Like the Emanuel AME community, Francis emphasizes the central role love must play in our world, in this case, to stop catastrophic environmental degradation. From his extensive declaration, ‘A sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings.'”
And yet another long and contentious conversation is changed by grace.
At some other point I’ll write more about how these themes played out in my work over the past week — where colleagues in Charleston visited Emanuel A.M.E. Church, saw the tangible expressions of concern, support, hope, and prayer that people left in front of the church, and helped the members of Mother Emanuel begin planning for their preservation. Where the National Trust and other preservation groups highlighted landmarks of the LGBT civil rights movement, places that each in their own way helped lead to this week’s ruling. Where colleagues and I met in New York to advance our work to build sustainable and livable cities as part of our common home. But all of that is for another post or two. I want to give President Obama the last word, as he wrapped up his powerful reflection on grace.
“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.”
That reservoir of goodness. If we can find that grace, anything is possible. If we can tap that grace, everything can change.
Amazing grace. Amazing grace.
(Begins to sing) — 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.
Clementa Pinckney found that grace.
Cynthia Hurd found that grace.
Susie Jackson found that grace.
Ethel Lance found that grace.
DePayne Middleton-Doctor found that grace.
Tywanza Sanders found that grace.
Daniel L. Simmons, Sr. found that grace.
Sharonda Coleman-Singleton found that grace.
Myra Thompson found that grace.
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.“
More to come…
Image: Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church, Charleston (photo credit: Democracy Now)