By Thomas J. Whitley
President Obama did not simply deliver the eulogy at Reverend and SC State Senator Clementa Pinckney’s funeral service. President Obama preached. His sermon had it all: hope, laughter, tears, singing, and a call to action. This call to action came as an exposition of Obama’s theology (and anthropology) of grace.
By taking down that flag, we express God’s grace.
And with that the President launched into a long list of the ways that he thinks Christians should respond to God’s grace. Address poverty on all fronts. Improve our education system. Reform our criminal justice system to combat implicit racial bias. Change how we train our cops so that the “bonds of trust” between law enforcement and communities can be rebuilt and strengthened. Fight the “subtle impulse” to call back “Johnny” for an interview but not “Jamal.” Pass gun reform.
Grace, the President said, requires action.
By making the moral choice to change, we express God’s grace.
In what many thought would be a “conservative” eulogy that was not “political,” the President issued a call to action, a call to honor Rev. Pinckney’s legacy, a call to not “slip into a comfortable silence,” a call to not “lose our way again.” And in this call to action President Obama offered one of the clearest expressions of how his theology informs his policy. For one whose religion has been the subject of such scrutiny, it’s almost surprising that it has taken this long. Sure, he’s attended prayer breakfasts, delivered other eulogies, and spoken about his faith in public a lot. But what this sermon offered was insight into how his faith informs how he sees the world and the convictions that he harbors about what his faith requires of him.
This sermon was preached at the end of a roller coaster week, though it’s as if it came right on cue. Confederate flags are coming down across the South, the Affordable Care Act is here to stay, and marriage equality has been extended to the whole country. The sermon that capped this historic week – and that will likely make history itself – offers us a new lens through which to view Obama’s politics, his policy agenda, and his presidency: theology in action.