I love my President. I listened intently to his most recent and thoughtful eulogy. After listening, I texted several of my close ministry colleagues and contemplated my thoughts, weighed my emotions and considered how to respond (if at all). Through my (cyber) dialogue with them (which will continue in the days to come), I have come to applaud and appreciate how POTUS drew upon the best and most redemptive ideas, tropes and themes of the African American Religious experience. The Black Churches attributes of faith, hope, love and justice came shining through. President Obama was careful and thoughtful to highlight what the Black Church has persevered through and has come to mean to the faithful and to our communities writ large. Mr. President became “Mr. Preacher” (as we call those in the Black Church who become associated with the ability to inform and inspire from the pulpit platform). Bishop Barack stood squarely in the African American preaching tradition as he called the names of the nine victims who were murder at “Mother Emanuel,” honored the family, and lifted up the life, love, and legacy of the late Rev. Clementa Pinckney.
I also understand the ubiquitous platform whereby the President stood. He is, after all, the leader of the American empire. To that end, there were also a few things that drew my concern and attention. POTUS did not speak directly about how the cultural production of white supremacy has created an environment whereby even those raised in a “post-racial society” can carry out racial terrorism. Furthermore, the President explicitly stated, "[THE KILLER] DIDN'T KNOW HE WAS BEING USED BY GOD." I cringed.
As a public speaker who veers from my printed manuscript, I understand extemporaneous impulses and the dangers (and benefits) thereof. I'm not sure if POTUS prepared this statement or merely just, "went with it." Nevertheless, this statement coupled with a few others bordered on theological shortsightedness and misrepresentation. The “Reverend President” and Theologian-In-Chief ought to have, like all of us who attempt to articulate divine insight through human instruments, room to err. I grant him that. POTUS also can, like all of us, be subject to loving critiques (like the one I’m attempting to offer here).
The evoking of “grace” as a theme was present throughout the eulogy and rang true to the tenets of the Black Church historically. The grace we have extended and encountered is nothing short of “Amazing” (as was the movement led by POTUS to invite the congregation to celebrate in song as he led “in tune”). We love it and live it. And yes, the President called out very relevant topics of mass incarceration, poverty (a word many of his critics tried to condemn him for not saying), America’s “original sin” (racism), and the inadequacies of our current social structure. Yet, the type of grace POTUS asked us to extend (which is indeed part of the Gospel mandate) has the potential to border on cheap. Bill Maher asked, “Should we forgive them so quickly?” Maher went on to suggest that right wingers like Fox News may use the Charleston Massacre as a means of condemning any (black) victims who don’t forgive “like the good people of Charleston did.” Is there space in the Presidential rhetoric of tragedy to affirm black rage? Can black folks both sincerely forgive and be sincerely angry? It is not a far reach to surmise that POTUS requested that Black victims employ grace to a violent white supremacist in ways POTUS himself is reluctant or unwilling to extend to Islamic Jihadists like ISIS. Again, he is the leader of the American Empire. I get it!
I also get our conflicting and complex relationship with civil religion. For instance, many of those who bought POTUS’s eulogy wholesale as the sermonic second coming, spent the same morning condemning the SCOTUS ruling on Marriage Equality that POTUS has been championing for a few years now. I can understand (and to some degree appreciate) the support and critique from both sides of the congregational aisle. What I hope we can all glean from this is the need for us to pay close attention to the ways in which rhetorical theology – the association with and appropriation of religious rhetoric as a means of theological, political and/or social affirmation and persuasion – and our political leader’s religious sensibilities can do us harm or good. It is ultimately up to us to study and show ourselves approved.
-Rev. Earle J. Fisher