Power in the words

Screen shot from YouTube video of President Obama's eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney

Screen shot from YouTube video of President Obama’s eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney

I love playing with words in puns or poetry, and working with words to build accurate descriptions and stories of the world, to sketch out parameters of relationships and agreements, to define rules and contracts and compacts. I love the way words resonate, passion in the mouths of preachers and the soul-catching rhythms of hymns.Words purely amuse and amaze as they flash and dance in the back-and-forth of humor and repartee. I believe in the power of words to communicate and cajole and convince, to create visions of new worlds.

Today was a day for words of power: the Supreme Court decision on marriage equality and President Obama’s eulogy for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney.

Amid the long legal discussion of facts and law and history in the decision of Obergefell vs. Hodges, some of the words of the opinion held the power to inspire:

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. 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. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

Later in the day, President Obama eulogized Reverend Clementa Pinckney, a pastor and legislator killed in the massacre at Emanuel AME Church last week. President Obama spoke about the man himself:

“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.”

He also talked about the place of Christian faith in the world, and about Reverend Pinckney’s example of putting faith into action:

“He embodied the idea that our Christian faith demands deeds and not just words; that the ‘sweet hour of prayer’ actually lasts the whole week long — that to put our faith in action is more than individual salvation, it’s about our collective salvation; that to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and house the homeless is not just a call for isolated charity but the imperative of a just society.”

The reality of racism, and the continuing struggle against it; the need for national transformation and for a commitment to gun control have been important themes in the national conversation since the massacre in Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston last week, and they were also part of the president’s eulogy:

“Maybe we now realize the way 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.

“None of us can or should expect a transformation in race relations overnight.  Every time something like this happens, somebody says we have to have a conversation about race.  We talk a lot about race.  There’s no shortcut.  And we don’t need more talk. None of us should believe that a handful of gun safety measures will prevent every tragedy.  It will not.  People of goodwill will continue to debate the merits of various policies, as our democracy requires — this is a big, raucous place, America is.  And there are good people on both sides of these debates.  Whatever solutions we find will necessarily be incomplete.

“But it would be a betrayal of everything Reverend Pinckney stood for, I believe, if we allowed ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again.  Once the eulogies have been delivered, once the TV cameras move on, to go back to business as usual — that’s what we so often do to avoid uncomfortable truths about the prejudice that still infects our society.  To settle for symbolic gestures without following up with the hard work of more lasting change — that’s how we lose our way again.”

And in the most inspiring moments of his eulogy, President Obama began to sing, leading the congregation in Amazing Grace, and concluded with a litany of the names of each of the martyred church members who “found that grace” and a call “that God continue to shed his grace on the United States of America.”

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