I was struck most by the way Obama rooted John Lewis’s life, and by extension the civil rights movement, in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the vision of the founding fathers, and our failure to live up to these universal ideas. Here are some thoughts:
0:00: Obama begins with James 1:2-4. It is good to hear again from one of the most explicitly Christian presidents in American history.
1:28: Let’s remember that Obama is talking here about John Lewis, a graduate of American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville and an ordained Baptist minister. Lewis’s Christian vocation–his calling, if you will–was to fight racial injustice in a non-violent way. There is something deeply Christian about Obama reminding us that Lewis considered it “pure joy” to suffer as a result of his call from God.
2:17: Obama says, “This country is a constant work in progress. We are born with instructions. To ‘form a more perfect union.’ Explicit in those words is the idea that we are imperfect.” Here Obama is reflecting the founders’ view of human nature. They knew that humans were imperfect people who needed to rise about their passions and imperfections to create a just democracy that celebrated the dignity of all people.
Much has been made of the way Reinhold Niebuhr has influenced Obama. We definitely see some of that influence here as the former president reflects on human nature. Obama’s eulogy combines both a belief in the limits of humanity and a belief in the hope of humanity. As a Christian, I can never fully embrace Obama’s optimism, but like Niebuhr taught us, we should never stop confronting sinful actions, institutions and leaders. (I prefer to see this task in the way theologian N.T. Wright explains it. The work for justice and our defense of human dignity in this world is required of all citizens of the Kingdom of God. Our work in this world is building and preparing that Kingdom, a Kingdom that is “now,” but also “not yet”).
5:00ff: Obama’s discussion of Lewis’s life and his moral courage is so refreshing in the context of our current presidential administration. Obama’s eulogy has pulled many of us, at least for a moment, out of the cynicism of the Trump presidency. It certainly lifted my own daughter out of her cynicism. We watched the speech together. What Obama said has pervaded the conversations taking place in our household over the last twenty-four hours.
13:50ff: Obama connects the Civil Rights struggle to American values. If I hear him correctly, the problem is not with the values themselves, but with the failure to apply them to African Americans.
14:21: Obama references 2 Corinthians 4:8-10. It is worth remembering the context surrounding these verses because the larger passage says a lot about Lewis’s Christian faith and the way it manifested itself in the fight for justice and the dignity of all of God’s human creation. Here is 2 Corinthians 4:
Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2 We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. 6 For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
7 But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. 11 For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.
13 But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—“I believed, and so I spoke”—we also believe, and so we speak, 14 because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. 15 Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
16 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
15:00: “The troopers [on the Edmund Pettus Bridge] parted.” (Or perhaps this).
15:30ff: Here Obama starts dabbling in civil religion. This is a kind of Christian nationalism. He uses theological words like “redeem” to describe Lewis’s, and by extensive all American’s, faith in our founding values. As I argued in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, this kind of Christian nationalism was a dominant theme in the rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr. and much of the early civil rights movement. While men like John Lewis put their faith in the God of the Bible, they also put their faith in the Enlightenment ideals that informed the founding of the United States of America.
Obama says Lewis lived an “exceptional” life–a life representative of an exceptional nation. He embodied:
that most American of ideals, the idea that any of us, ordinary people without rank or wealth or title or fame can somehow point out the imperfections of this nation and come together and challenge the status quo and decide that it is in our power to remake this country that we love until it more closely aligns with our highest ideals. What a radical idea. What a revolutionary notion–this idea that any of us, ordinary people–a young kid from Troy–can stand-up to the powers and principalities and say ‘no, this isn’t right, this isn’t true, this isn’t just.
Obama’s reference to “remaking” America echoes Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom.” He is suggesting that the American Revolution was radical in the sense that it allowed people like John Lewis to stand up to racial tyranny. This entire section of the speech reminded me of the recent discussion of the American Revolution sponsored by the World Socialist Web Site. Obama reminds us that the American Revolution is not an event fixed in time, but rather a constant struggle to apply its principles to our daily lives. Each generation must take-up this struggle.
23:00ff: Obama channels Lewis here. His attack on Trump speaks for itself. He says that democracy requires us to “summon a measure–just a measure–of John’s moral courage to question what’s right and what’s wrong and call things as they are.”
25:57ff: Obama quotes Acts 18:9: “One night the Lord instructed Paul, ‘do not be afraid, go on speaking, do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you for I have many in this city who are my people.” While Paul was not referring to the right to vote, the idea of using the ballot box to fight injustice and defend human dignity is a fair application of this verse.
36:40: Obama connects the black lives matter protests in the streets to the ideals of the American Revolution. He uses the words of Martin Luther King Jr:
“By the thousands, faceless, anonymous, relentless young people–black and white–have taken our whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” Dr. King said that in the 1960s and it came true again this summer.
The work continues…