June 29, 2015

Only in America

This weekend the United States marks 239 years since the founders boldly asserted certain “truths to be self evident.” They stated early in the Declaration of Independence that “All men are created equal,” and are entitled to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

But as the awful events that unfolded on a sultry Wednesday evening at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina recently demonstrated, not every citizen subscribes to that elusive ideal of equality. Tragically, some choose not to pursue happiness, but rather pursue bigotry and hate — with murderous zeal.

A member of my staff happened to be visiting family in Charleston during that tumultuous time; his plane touched down in coastal Carolina about an hour after police apprehended the 21-year old alleged murderer. When David returned to work the following week, I asked him about some of his observations.

“It was surreal,” he said. “The entire community seemed shaken to its core. And there were so many emotions swirling: fear, anger, bewilderment, suspicion. And intense grief. But what was most remarkable,” he continued, “was the eagerness with which the victims’ families sought healing and reconciliation, and offered forgiveness.”

Several of us talked about a number of things that afternoon: gun control, the Confederate flag debate, race relations in the U.S. — a conversation that was rich and expansive and thought provoking, and which makes me grateful that we work and live in a place, a city, a state, and a country that places a premium on those kinds of discussions.

But we all seemed to gravitate back towards that striking demonstration of forgiveness and healing. I know we were not alone in that marvel. A day earlier New York Times columnist David Brooks told NPR’s Melissa Block that this gesture by the victims’ family members demonstrated a “depth of graciousness of spirit that's almost beyond fathoming.” Indeed.

Last Friday, June 26, President Obama delivered the eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who, along with eight of his parishioners, was senselessly gunned down nine days earlier in one of his church’s classrooms. It was clear that Obama, too, was moved by the community’s eagerness to heal, as “grace” was the dominant theme of his message. “The alleged killer,” the President observed, “could not have imagined…how the United States of America would respond: not merely with revulsion, but with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life.” In an extraordinary moment towards the end of his remarks, the President leaned into the microphone and began singing “Amazing Grace.” The thousands in attendance at the memorial soon joined in. Only in America.

July 4 marks another anniversary, one considerably lesser known but which also obliges me to say, “Only in America.” On July 4, 1826, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson — the second and third American Presidents, respectively — died within hours of each other. These two signers of the Declaration went on to become bitter political rivalries. Later in life, however, they largely set aside their political differences, and in their post-presidencies began a written correspondence that is unmatched in the history of American letters.

The exchange is fascinating, but one quote from Jefferson, writing from his home in Monticello, Virginia, stands out. “I steer my bark with Hope in the Head,” he wrote to the New Englander Adams, “leaving Fear astern.” I would argue that the contemporary version of Jefferson’s observation was heard from the pulpit at Pinckney’s memorial service. “Weeping may endure for a night,” said Bishop John Bryant, “but joy comes in the morning. Touch the person next to you and say, ‘Good morning.’”

It is my hope that, as our country once again celebrates its independence this July 4, we renew our commitment to leave behind the fear and hatred that was on such conspicuous, painful display recently. Instead, we should aspire as citizens of this extraordinary nation to heed the admonition of both Jefferson and Bishop Bryant to grow, to be better versions of ourselves, and to continue in our learning and self-discovery.