Magazine article The Christian Century

Obama Evokes Niebuhr, Black Church

Magazine article The Christian Century

Obama Evokes Niebuhr, Black Church

Article excerpt

Expecting a speech, Americans instead heard a sermon. Drawing on scripture, theology and the rising rhythms of black preaching, President Obama was more pastor than politician at a memorial service in Tucson for the victims of the January 8 shooting in that Arizona city.

It was an aspect of Obama that galvanized his 2008 campaign but had scarcely emerged since he entered the White House, according to some observers.

"I was glad to see it back," said Martha Simmons, coeditor of Preaching with Sacred Fire, an anthology of African-American sermons. "I had missed that in his speeches over the last two years." There are a lot of good speakers in politics, she said. "But it's not the same as being able to hit that soul area. If you can tap into that, you tap into something powerful and important."

As with past presidents confronted by tragedy, Obama's pastoral side surfaced at a moment of national grief, when the commander in chief is called upon to comfort the afflicted and make sense of the senseless.

Obama both embodied and gently resisted that role on January 12. In the wake of the shootings four days earlier, partisans on the left and right sharply debated whether inflammatory political rhetoric inspired accused gunman Jared Lee Loughner to kill six people and wound more than a dozen more, including Rep, Gabrielle Giffords (D., Ariz.).

Wanton evil defies easy explanation, Obama said. "Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, 'When I looked for light, then came darkness.' Bad things happen, and we have to guard against simple explanations in the aftermath."

Instead, Obama called on Americans to be more humble, "expand our moral imaginations" and "sharpen our instincts for empathy."

Shaun Casey, an ethicist at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, said Obama's speech echoed the tenets of 20th-century Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who has been a moral touchstone for this president. For Niebuhr, pride and self-righteousness were cardinal sins, and evil an ever-present mystery. "Obama called for humility, the antidote to pride and self-righteousness," Casey said. …

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