— The choice of grace as the unifying theme, which by the standards of political speeches qualifies as a stroke of genius.
— The shifting registers in which Obama spoke—by which I mean “black” versus “white” modes of speech—and the accompanying deliberate shifts in shadings of the word we.
— The start-to-end framing of his remarks as religious, and explicitly Christian, and often African American Christian, which allowed him to present political points in an unexpected way.
* * *
When I finally watched the speech today, having been aware that it ended with Amazing Grace, I was increasingly surprised by the way in which Obama had built the whole preceding part of the speech toward that conclusion.
What were the advantages of his emphasizing grace—and not “justice” or “compassion” or “equity” or “opportunity”—as the recurring note of this speech? There were many:
— The president, the most powerful man in the world, could put himself in the closest thing possible to a stance of humility. “We don’t earn grace. We're all sinners. We don't deserve it. But God gives it to us anyway.”
— It allowed him to recast one part of the shooting’s aftermath in the most glorious way. When the families of the nine murdered churchgoers told the killer that they forgave him, one undertone of their saintliness was that we might be in for another “noble victim” episode. Black people would be killed or abused; their survivors and community would prove their goodness by remaining calm; and in part because of their magnanimity, nothing would change.
But by characterizing their reaction as a reflection of grace rather than mere “forgiveness,” Obama was able to present it as something much different than patient victimhood:
[The killer of Reverend Pinckney and eight others] surely sensed the meaning of his violent act. It was an act that drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches, not random, but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress. (Applause.) An act that he imagined would incite fear and recrimination; violence and suspicion. An act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation’s original sin.
Oh, but God works in mysterious ways. (Applause.) God has different ideas. (Applause.)
He didn’t know he was being used by God. (Applause.) Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group—the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle. The alleged killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court—in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness. He couldn’t imagine that. (Applause.)
The alleged killer could not imagine how the city of Charleston, under the good and wise leadership of Mayor Riley—(applause)—how the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America would respond—not merely with revulsion at his evil act, but with big-hearted generosity and, more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life.
Blinded by hatred, he failed to comprehend what Reverend Pinckney so well understood—the power of God’s grace. (Applause.)
— It allowed him to use a genuinely brilliant rhetorical device through the “policy” portions of his speech. The president recited the words to Amazing Grace midway through the speech, before singing them at the end. Including these crucial, closing words: “was blind, but now I see.”