Two weeks of amazing Grace

If you haven’t seen and heard President Obama’s amazing speech about amazing grace and the hymn “Amazing Grace,” his eulogy for the murdered minister of Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, please be sure to watch/ listen to it, here: No President of the United Sates has ever before given such a speech. I am quite aware that a speech does not on its own make major social change. I am quite aware that the same president who gave that speech has over and over given the order to kill people – even American citizens – whom he accuses of being criminals, but without a trial. I am quite aware that the same president who gave that speech has also issued permits for Shell Oil to begin drilling in the Arctic for more oil to burn the planet even more. Crazy, eh? Graceless, eh? Yet the speech was remarkable.  Like the families of the murdered calling out forgiveness to the (alleged) murderer, it turned these vile and disgusting racist murders into the possibility of redemption. Through God’s grace. Amazing grace. A terrifying truth – that the words and the deeds could seem so disjoined. Not the first such terrifying truth in our history. (See under: “Thomas Jefferson.”) Yet words matter. Words of passion, of passionate heart and passionate mind, matter.  And these were words of passion. The notion of God’s grace – the overflowing love that comes not as a reward for our actions but simply from the interbreathing of all life – is not just limited to Christianity. Jews are invoking gratuitous love, Grace, when we plead on Yom Kippur “Ki en Banu Maasim,  We have no deeds” sufficient to repair the hurt we have caused; please heal us anyway!! And when the Quran begins, Bismillah Er-Rahman Er-Rahim, In the Name of the One Who is Compassion and inspires Compassion,” it is celebrating God’s grace. As we look back at the past two weeks, we might imagine that the Muslim holy month of Ramadan has somehow radiated its spiritual message into the entire world. On the first night of Ramadan, the murders in Charlestown. But within hours, a Christian version of Ramadan-mind was turning it to grace. The first morning of Ramadan, Pope Francis with an encyclical letter affirming the interconnectedness of all life, honoring the Saint Francis who loved the poor and the Earth and who, in the midst of Crusades, sought peace between Islam and Christianity. That same day, the public sharing of a Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis, signed by 360 rabbis. Within a week, the Supreme Court of the United States transcends its own political biases by confirming the legality of a law for far broader health care – a law carrying forward the command of all religious traditions to heal the sick. And next day, the Court finds a philosophic analogue and legal language – “Dignity”  -- to echo the God Who is compassion and calls forth compassion, Er-Rahman Er-Rahim – and decides that the rite of marriage –- celebrating Love and bearing Dignity -- is a Constitutional right that embraces two women and two men. And on the ninth day of Ramadan, the President not only speaks from the theology of God’s grace transforming sinful America, but leads the whole community in singing the hymn.   The hymn written by a British sea-captain who -- after transporting slaves in the murderous practice called the Middle Passage –-  let God turn him around, and joined the anti-slavery movement. He wrote the hymn to lift up his own transformation. This coming Shabbat is the Fourth of July. It forces us to confront a terrifying truth about the author of that Declaration: “ That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness; that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, -That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it,” –-- The terrifying truth is that the author of these words was a slaveholder, leading a society that held slaves and protected the slave trade. Speaking of slavery, Jefferson said – “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”  Yet he never freed the women and men he held as slaves. He never demanded that Virginia, or the United States, abolish slavery. This coming Shabbat is also the 17th day of the Jewish lunar month of Tammuz. On that day Jews traditionally have fasted from sunrise to sunset, in sorrowful memory that on that day, the Babylonian Imperial army broke down the walls around Jerusalem. (This year, since Jews do not fast on Shabbat, the fast will be practiced one day later.) After three weeks of dread, the Babylonians attacked and destroyed the Holy Temple. The breaking down of walls can be a prelude to invasion, occupation, destruction, death  -- or it could be the prelude to new connections, alliances, friendships, love. This Fourth of July, the United States can relapse into the actual life-path of Thomas Jefferson, renewing and repeating all the ills that are heirs to slavery -- ills born of racism, ills of domination and inequality and violence that continue to afflict not only African-Americans but many many others as well.  Or we could hear and speak and act on the ever-broadening words of the Declaration that Jefferson himself could not live out: --   All men, all women, all rich, all poor, all Blacks, all whites, all Christians, all atheists, all  Jews, all Muslims, all straights, all gays – ALL HUMAN BEINGS -- are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. Or we could go even further, and realize that our very ability to breathe these words, to live these words, comes from the Breath of Life that intertwines all life upon this planet, and that our failures to live the words of the Fourth of July are intertwined with subjugating not only human beings but Mother Earth herself, and bringing on ourselves the greatest crisis the human race has ever faced. Will we turn God’s offer of amazing grace into our own amazing actions? P.S. --  For a collection of  powerful transformative responses to the meaning of the Fourth of July by Americans like the women of Seneca Falls, Frederick Douglass,  Emma Goldman, and in our own day, see <>.   Donate Click here to forward this mailing to friends or colleagues. See us on Facebook Subscribe link