The President Sings Amazing Grace: A Song About "Our Nation's Original Sin"

Monday, July 06, 2015

President Obama delivered an emotional eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney and the other victims of the AME church shooting in Charleston. If you have not yet heard it yet, you can it watch above, as well as read the full transcript of the President's speech.

Offering thoughtful reflections on themes such as institutional racism, gun control, and the epidemic of mass shootings in America, what was perhaps most remarkable about Obama's speech was that it was not delivered as a political speech at all, but as a gospel sermon

The central theme that the President kept returning to was the subject of grace. Grace as a gift of God. Grace in the face of loss and pain. Grace in the face of evil and hate. 

The President spoke of the grace that opened the church doors and invited a stranger in. The grace the families of the fallen showed when they saw the alleged killer in court, and in the midst of unspeakable grief, met him with words of forgiveness

The sermon reached a crescendo when the President paused. 

It was a long pause. 

Then President Obama began to sing in a low baritone the words to the familiar gospel hymn Amazing Grace.
Amazing grace how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found.
Was blind but now I see.
Amazing Grace is a song we all know well. It has been called our country's "spiritual national anthem," and has become a song that inspires hope in the wake of tragedy. But there is a significance in the words of this song that are particularly significant in the immediate context of the AME shooting, and its connection to the continuing effects of what Obama referred to as "our nation's original sin." 

Amazing Grace was written by John Newton in 1779. When he penned the words "that saved a wretch like me" he was not expressing remorse for some personal failing - such as intemperance or infidelity. John Newton came to see himself as a "wretch" because of his participation in the African slave trade. This was Newton's great sin. When the words of this song exclaim "I was blind, but now I see" Newton's blindness was specifically to the damage of systemic racism, and his participation in it for economic gain. This was what his eyes were opened to, leading to his conversion and outspoken advocacy for abolition.

Amazing Grace is a song about repenting of systemic sin. We typically think of "sin" in individual terms, as personal failings. Systemic sin is often not on our radar at all, but it needs to be. They say "all sins are the same in God's eyes," but that simply isn't true. Newton's involvement in the slave trade clearly affected and damaged more lives than any of his individual failings could have. What makes it all the worse is that systemic sin often hides under the mantle of political or religious authority, claiming as the system to represent "the good." That is the nature of systemic sin, and it is indeed wretched. 

In recent years there has been a move to soften the words of the hymn, replacing the line "that saved a wretch like me," with more palatable verse, such as"that saved and strengthened me" or "that saved and set me free." While it's easy to understand the desire to move away from the song's negative theological roots of self-loathing, at the same time, there is a power in those words that perhaps we should seek to face, even if that's hard to do, even when it's hard to face and own up to.

Even now, in a time when we have become almost numb to the news of yet another mass shooting, weary of all the vitriol, tired of nothing changing -- as we stare into the depths of our nation's addiction to violence, and its deep scars of racism -- perhaps especially now we need to rediscover as a country, as a community, the kind of grace that John Newton did.

Amazing Grace is a song about one man's real and ugly sin. The sin of slavery. At the same time it is a song about the power of forgiveness, a song about looking into the depths of very real evil and, even there, especially there, finding grace that is bigger than all the hate.
That light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

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At 5:02 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Wow. Derek this is really helpful. Where is systemic sin mentioned in the Bible? Is this a present day way of saying generational sin, ie the sins of our fathers? Or is their more a national sin sense? Other books that do a good job of delineating the difference between personal sin and systemic sin might be helpful.

At 7:59 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi Brad,

Systemic sin is an entirely different concept from generation sin. If you are looking for books on it, I discuss it in chapter 6 of Healing the Gospel. I'd also highly recommend Walter Wink's Engaging the Powers.

Systemic sin means evil that is caused and perpetuated by systems and institutions. It is structural evil which holds people in cycles of poverty, racism, abuse, and injustice. White conservative evangelicals tend to believe that if individuals repent, the system will automatically change. But changed lives do not automatically change structural problems. Think for instance about a sweatshop: Even if many individual managers in the sweatshop become compassionate people, this alone will not change that system, which forces children to work grueling hours in unsafe conditions. There needs to be structural reform, as well, which affects the system itself. Changed individuals need to work to change their world. The Lordship of Christ needs to be applied to the larger evils of poverty, racism, starvation, violence, and corporate greed on a structural level.

It's an idea that is all over the place in the Bible, but as Westerners we usually miss it (especially as white American males), in part because of our individual focus, but also because the system largely works for us so we don't suffer its injustice. The black church is much more aware of systemic sin, and Obabma's speech draws on this awareness. That's why for me as a middle class white male its important to listen to minority groups (women, POC, gays, etc) to empathetically understand what they go through, which has a lot to do with systemic evil.

At 4:01 PM, Blogger Susan said...

I used to love Amazing Grace until I heard Jessye Norman sing the whole song. I thought it was a universal ecumenical song, but it isn't. It is just another song telling me that I'm going to Hell, because I don't believe in Jesus. Amazing Grace is a song for Christians only.

At 8:10 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Your right its hard to see what works for you. It's the fish in the fishbowl. I realize I have been so blind to the systemic influence of evil. I believed that personal revival, community revival like Charles Finney would change the world. But even in the Transformations videos of cities impacted by God's power as people prayed, only beg more questions. What is necessary to see real change? More deep prayer and intercession? Yes and... confronting the cruel task master over people perhaps.

At 8:28 AM, Blogger Owen said...

perhaps it's a song about us godless folk who encounter God and recognize our godlessness ..


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