Obama's eulogy for Clementa Pinckney yesterday was, among many other things, a compressed autobiography -- or spiritual autobiography, a review of what life has taught him. It sent me back to the remarkable Chicago chapters of Dreams from My Father.
When I first read that book, in maybe 2007, I wondered, could a man with this experience and orientation really be president of the United States? Six years into that presidency, it seems no less remarkable. Three strands of the experience recorded there struck me as being compressed into yesterday's speech.
First was Obama's ode to empathy, his tribute to the connection that comes from truly listening to people. Second, the extent to which in his engagement with people on Chicago's South Side he'd taken the full measure of the devastation wrought by institutional racism. Third, his discovery of the community of black churches as the most powerful resource for countering those ravages. In each of those themes there were echoes of his personal narrative.
Obama was in a sense speaking about himself, or rather, speaking from personal recognition and memory, in this tribute:
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.Obama absorbed that capacity through his mother, a true empath who grew so absorbed in the social life, traditions, technology and economics of Indonesian blacksmiths that she had difficulty limiting her dissertation about them to 900 pages (and committed herself to informed aid work as well as academic study). In his biography of Obama, David Maraniss catches Obama discovering that capacity in himself at age 21, in a relatively withdrawn phase of his life:
“Yes with every person one meets, one is presented with a weakening of one’s certainty, a shakedown of the habits and grooves of separate existence,” he wrote. “A challenge which most people react to by fear or flight. They misunderstand the nature of the challenge. It lies in forging a unity, mixing it up, constructing the truth to be found between the seams of individual lives. All of which requires breaking some sweat. Like a good basketball game. Or a fine dance” (Obama, p. 455).In Dreams he chronicles how his capacity to "dance" grew, encounter by encounter:
Or there was Mr. Marshall, a single man in his early thirties who worked as a bus driver for the Transit Authority. He was not typical of the leadership— he had no children, lived in an apartment— and so I wondered why he was so interested in doing something about drug use among teenagers. When I offered to give him a ride one day to pick up a car he had left in the shop, I asked him the question. And he told me about his father’s dreams of wealth in a nowhere town in Arkansas; how the various business ventures had gone sour and how other men had cheated him; how his father had turned to gambling and drink, lost his home and family; how his father was finally pulled out of a ditch somewhere, suffocated in his own vomit. That’s what the leadership was teaching me, day by day: that the self-interest I was supposed to be looking for extended well beyond the immediacy of issues, that beneath the small talk and sketchy biographies and received opinions people carried within them some central explanation of themselves. Stories full of terror and wonder, studded with events that still haunted or inspired them. Sacred stories (Dreams, p. 190).He goes on to say that when he finally learned to share a bit of his own experience, people gave him more:
Then they’d offer a story to match or confound mine, a knot to bind our experiences together— a lost father, an adolescent brush with crime, a wandering heart, a moment of simple grace. As time passed, I found that these stories, taken together, had helped me bind my world together, that they gave me the sense of place and purpose I’d been looking for. Marty was right: There was always a community there if you dug deep enough. He was wrong, though, in characterizing the work. There was poetry as well— a luminous world always present beneath the surface, a world that people might offer up as a gift to me, if I only remembered to ask (p. 191).Without self-aggrandizement, the Chicago chapters detail many such connections.
Next up: telling some truth about racism. In Selma, Obama spoke of a love of country that's "strong enough to be self critical." In Charleston he compressed what he knows about institutional racism while expressing a faith that we will continue to grow out of it:
For too long, we’ve been blind to be way past injustices continue to shape the present.In Chicago thirty years ago, he saw the "dilapidated schools" and the kids with no prospects up close:
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.
Perhaps it causes us to examine what we’re doing to cause some of our children to hate.
Perhaps it softens hearts towards those lost young men, tens and tens of thousands caught up in the criminal-justice system and lead us to make sure that that system’s 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.
Maybe we now realize the way a 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…
… so that we search our hearts when we consider laws to make it harder for some of our fellow citizens to vote…
… 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.
As the teacher tried to direct them up the stairs, I thought how happy and trusting they all seemed, that despite the rocky arrivals many of them had gone through— delivered prematurely, perhaps, or delivered into addiction, most of them already smudged with the ragged air of poverty— the joy they seemed to find in simple locomotion, the curiosity they displayed toward every new face, seemed the equal of children anywhere. They made me think back to those words of Regina’s, spoken years ago, in a different time and place: It’s not about you....and absorbed this diagnosis, with which I don't think he had any substantive disagreement:
“Beautiful, aren’t they?” Dr. Collier said.
“They really are.”
“The change comes later. In about five years, although it seems like it’s coming sooner all the time.”
“What change is that?”
“When their eyes stop laughing. Their throats can still make the sound, but if you look at their eyes, you can see they’ve shut off something inside” (p. 233).
“The first thing you have to realize,” he said, looking at Johnnie and me in turn, “is that the public school system is not about educating black children. Never has been. Inner-city schools are about social control. Period. They’re operated as holding pens— miniature jails, really. It’s only when black children start breaking out of their pens and bothering white people that society even pays any attention to the issue of whether these children are being educated. “Just think about what a real education for these children would involve. It would start by giving a child an understanding of himself, his world, his culture, his community. That’s the starting point of any educational process. That’s what makes a child hungry to learn— the promise of being part of something, of mastering his environment. But for the black child, everything’s turned upside down. From day one, what’s he learning about? Someone else’s history. Someone else’s culture. Not only that, this culture he’s supposed to learn is the same culture that’s systematically rejected him, denied his humanity” (p. 258).Against that reality, in yesterday's eulogy, Obama set the black church community:
To the families of the fallen, the nation shares in your grief. Our pain cuts that much deeper because it happened in a church.Again, that's what he learned in Chicago -- slowly.
The church is and always has been the center of African American life…
… a place to call our own in a too-often hostile world, a sanctuary from so many hardships.
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…”
… 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 harms way and told that they are beautiful and smart and taught that they matter.
That’s what happens in church. That’s what the black church means — our beating heart, the place where our dignity as a people in inviolate.
Now he was explaining the history of churches in Chicago. There were thousands of them, and it seemed as if he knew them all: the tiny storefronts and the large stone edifices; the high-yella congregations that sat stiff as cadets as they sang from their stern hymnals, and the charismatics who shook as their bodies expelled God’s unintelligible tongue. Most of the larger churches in Chicago had been a blend of these two forms, Reverend Philips explained, an example of segregation’s hidden blessings, the way it forced the lawyer and the doctor to live and worship right next to the maid and the laborer. Like a great pumping heart, the church had circulated goods, information, values, and ideas back and forth and back again, between rich and poor, learned and unlearned, sinner and saved (p. 273).Dreams is in large part about Obama's growing sense that he couldn't completely bind himself to the black community, couldn't complete the empathy circuit, unless he joined a church -- and in a larger sense, "the" church, the community of churches. Pastors told him as much. "You have some good ideas, they would tell me. Maybe if you joined the church you could help us start a community program." It was the last barrier. And he worried about motive:
And I would shrug and play the question off, unable to confess that I could no longer distinguish between faith and mere folly, between faith and simple endurance; that while I believed in the sincerity I heard in their voices, I remained a reluctant skeptic, doubtful of my own motives, wary of expedient conversion, having too many quarrels with God to accept a salvation too easily won (p. 287).The book's climax comes when the dam breaks in Jeremiah Wright's church:
People began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a forceful wind carrying the reverend’s voice up into the rafters. As I watched and listened from my seat, I began to hear all the notes from the past three years swirl about me. The courage and fear of Ruby and Will. The race pride and anger of men like Rafiq. The desire to let go, the desire to escape, the desire to give oneself up to a God that could somehow put a floor on despair. And in that single note— hope!— I heard something else; at the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion’s den, Ezekiel’s field of dry bones. Those stories— of survival, and freedom, and hope— became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world (p. 294).I've always felt that the brilliant young rationalist Obama did something of a number on himself here -- that the conversion experience was spurred by a willing imagination (as they always are). After watching him yesterday, I'm not so sure. Christianity is about finding the sacred in the human, literally or no, and for Obama that search was real in the drive to touch the mystery of the people he was encountering in Chicago.
In Charleston yesterday he cast the church as a community embodying that mystery, "our beating heart, the place where our dignity as a people in inviolate"-- and Emanuel AME specifically as
A sacred place, this church, not just for blacks, not just for Christians but for every American who cares about the steady expansion…… of human rights and human dignity in this country, a foundation stone for liberty and justice for all."That is a humanist faith that does not require a real specific Christ-was-literally-God-or-not avowal.
All that said, I confess it makes me a little uneasy to watch the president function as pastor-in-chief. That uneasiness sends me back to Obama's ground rules for politicians' expression of faith in the public square:
What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy does demand is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals must be subject to argument and amenable to reason. If I am opposed to abortion for religious reasons and seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or invoke God's will and expect that argument to carry the day. If I want others to listen to me, then I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all (Audacity of Hope, p. 219).
He did adhere to this standard, casting Emanuel as a kind of temple of secular American values -- the values he's been preaching on a national stage since at least 2007. In fact "the steady expansion of human rights and human dignity in this country" is his historical narrative in a nutshell, the tale of a never perfected, ever more perfect union, the object of his seductive love for America.