Recommending books to others and quoting from books to express one’s thoughts are actions that are fraught with potential dismay. Will they dismiss the recommendation quickly? Will they follow the recommendation and then say, “What was he thinking?” Will they see the quotes as antithetical to their beliefs and again say, “What was he thinking?” Will they think less highly of you and be much more reticent to listen to you in the future?
Well, while all of the issues come to mind as I pen this piece, I will proceed anyway because when a book sings to your soul, I feel compelled to repeat its tune and ignore the noise. When a book sings to your soul, you just have to share it and accept fallout, hoping that more folks see the beauty and less folks are critical of the messaging.
Grace: President Obama and Ten Days in the Battle for America by Cody Keenan is the latest such book for me. Mr. Keenan was President Obama’s chief speechwriter and as such was at the heart of the work of the Obama administration. He was there through good times and bad times. He was there to help the President articulate and subsequently communicate his messages to the American public. The timeframe of the book is the ten days after the Mother Emanuel AME Church massacre (nine people killed during a weeknight bible study, led by Rev. Clementa Pinckney) in Charleston, SC from its occurrence on June 17, 2013 to his stirring eulogy on June 26, 2013. To get a behind-the-scenes look at this incredible man and his eloquence spoke volumes to my own life’s journey.
A reminder. “According to Christian tradition, grace is not earned. It is not merited; not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings,” Obama noted. And it is best described in its like-named hymn as “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.”
Two and a half years before the Charleston shootings, Obama was searching for answers as he prepared to deliver remarks at the Sandy Hook remembrance where 20 elementary school students and six adults were murdered. In his anguish, he noted, “Why are we here? What gives our life meaning? What gives our life purpose?…We are born and then we die. During the years we have on the Earth, there are going to be fleeting moments of pleasure and pain. And at the end of those days, we have to ask ourselves, What did all this mean? What was God’s purpose here? What is our purpose here? Were we true to that purpose? Each of us grips through the darkness and confusion and we understand how limited we are, and that bad things happen, and we ask ourselves why.” He further reflects, “and the only anchor we have—the only things we are sure about—is the love that we feel for our children. The cling of their hugs at night before we tuck them into bed. The warmth of their breath on your necks. Seeing their joy. That’s what matters. That’s all we’ve got. That’s the only thing we’re sure of. So we gotta make that count.”
Two and a half years before the Charleston shootings, Obama was searching for answers as he prepared to deliver remarks at the Sandy Hook remembrance where 20 elementary school students and six adults were murdered. Click To Tweet
So, the stage was set. President Obama recognized how we, as a society, have failed to adequately protect our most vulnerable citizens. And now two and a half years later, we have failed to protect some of our most devout citizens.
On day 4 of the 10-day period, the families of many of the victims expressed their forgiveness toward the shooter during his appearance in court. They professed a lack of hatred based on their faith. They flipped the script. Instead of hatred toward the perpetrator of this heinous crime, they held true to their faith, extending grace to this person who definitely was undeserving in the eyes of most. These folks followed their faith from years of worship, recognizing that grace is extended from God to all.
I would also contend that their faith journeys were indeed journeys that led them into acceptance and led them into actions that are consistent with the acceptance. Obama and his speechwriting team were humbled by these actions and pondered how to adequately represent those journeys and the devotion of these families now confronted with this tragedy. They searched for something to explain the process of “extending unmerited love, favor, and goodwill to someone else.” Keenan tried to articulate the “amazing grace that can drive hatred from our own hearts and heal the hearts of others. The grace we’re shown even when we haven’t earned it. The grace we can earn, even cultivate, by making the effort to see ourselves in each other, something that stirs souls into the most unexpected mercies, like whites and Blacks, Republicans and Democrats, coming together on a mission to remove the Confederate flag, a searing reminder of systematic oppression, violence, and degradation over generations.”
The Confederate flag was subsequently removed from the SC Statehouse grounds the next month after too long a battle to remove a symbol placed there in 1961 at the height of the civil rights movement and the fight to end segregation. Perhaps folks finally had an “open heart” and recognized the grace that author Marilynne Robinson (Obama’s friend) calls “that reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary course of things.” Obama then reflects, “if we can find that grace, anything is possible. If we can tap that grace, anything can change.”
So, do we receive grace as a gift or are we on a journey to receive grace? I would argue that grace is extended to us (amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me) yet we need to be able to receive it. “We don’t earn grace, but we choose how to receive it. We decide how to honor it,” Obama further notes in his remarks on June 26, 2015. Reverend Clementa Pinckney once stated that, “across the South, we have a deep appreciation for history—we haven’t always had a deep appreciation of each other’s histories.” To put a fine point on it, Obama stated that “it would be a betrayal of everything Reverend Pinckney stood for, I believe, if we allowed ourselves to slip into comfortable silence again, once the eulogies have been delivered and the TV cameras have moved on.”
To accept the grace of God and others might be our fate but to make it meaningful requires us to be on a journey to accept that grace and pass it on. The faithful nine parishioners at the Mother Emanuel AME Church on June 17, 2015 were on such a journey. We can, and we must, be equally faithful to same journey. Grace is the gift, and grace is the way forward.
- Keenan C. Grace: President Obama and Ten Days in the Battle for America. Mariner Books, 309 pp. 2022.