Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Obama and "Amazing Grace"

Of all the songs that gave momentum to the civil rights movement in the US, "Amazing Grace" stands out (for me) as one of the most repulsive.

For one thing, the Christian doctrine of grace is really reprehensible. "Grace" means that humans are "depraved" because of Adam's fall, that they cannot rationally respond to an offer of "salvation" from Christ, so the Christian god actually overrides man's will so he will "repent" and "be saved", and that Christ's offer is meant for the "elect", which is independent of one's moral character or good works. To the extent that this nonsense is meaningful, it is evidently quite sick: it denigrates human beings as worthless wretches, and it allows those who believe they are among the "elect" to feel superior to everyone else.

For another, the song was written by a slave trader, John Newton, who underwent a religious conversion after a life-threatening storm at sea (but nevertheless continued in the slave trade for several years afterwards). How this became a civil rights anthem is anyone's guess, but it seems wildly inappropriate.

Far better, in my opinion, is "We Shall Overcome", which is both lyrically and melodically superior.

So I have to admit that when President Obama sang "Amazing Grace" at the eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, I was not particularly moved at all. However, I certainly recognize that, for the community he was addressing, the song has strong resonance. But "We Shall Overcome" would have been a much better choice.

And even worse was Obama's remarks on religion:

"Blinded by hatred, [the killer] failed to comprehend what Reverend Pinckney so well understood — the power of God’s grace... This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace. The grace of the families who lost loved ones; the grace that Reverend Pinckney would preach about in his sermons; the grace described in one of my favorite hymnals, the one we all know — Amazing Grace. How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God."

I'm sorry, Mr. President, I think "grace" is one of the most repulsive of all Christian beliefs.

"The hands that help are better far than lips that pray." -- Robert Ingersoll


Joshua Zucker said...

I'm totally on board with We Shall Overcome being a much stronger song in a lot of ways.

I also don't really like the "We are not afraid" kind of message of that song -- I prefer a message more like "We are afraid but we're going to be strong and courageous and do it anyway in spite of the fears that come with it."

Also, I'm an atheist and I used to hate the word "grace" also for reasons quite similar to yours, but my usage of the word changed on reading Francis Su's talk about what it has meant to him as a Christian and as a human. He takes it more as meaning that we need to remember the inherent value of every human and offer *our* grace to people who are hurting or need support. I think it's well worth reading:

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Sorry, Francis Su's talk leads me cold. I think the word "grace" adds nothing to it (and is confusing because it's not the way most Christians understand it). He might just as well say, "Don't be an asshole" or "Practice random acts of kindness", and the message would have come through more or less the same.

Unknown said...

As a raised catholic I can tell you that for catholics this issue about the division of good and bad behaviour between God and men isn't so black and white, but is in fact rather nuanced. This means that for catholics there are about 50 shades of grace, so to speak.

Anebo said...

You must admit, however, that Amazing Grace has the signal advantage of being in the same meter as the Mickey Mouse Theme song and needs to be sung to that tune more often.

Takis Konstantopoulos said...

In Sweden, God has been replaced by Mickey Mouse. Four years ago, during our faculty Christmas dinner, someone stood up and played a tune on the piano that I did not recognize. I was then told it's the Mickey Mouse song. Why? Because it has become a custom in Sweden to sing a Mickey Mouse song during Christmas. In fact, on Christmas eve, people watch Mickey Mouse TV and eat lots of gummy bears.

Takis Konstantopoulos said...

Something else: is there any chance at all that someone may be elected as US president without appearing to be "god-fearing"? Without praying in public before the elections? Without mentioning god every time it's deemed necessary?

Statistics say no. At least, not yet.

So, Obama is playing along (regardless of what his true beliefs are he knows he *must* talk about god; after all, he's a politician, so he has to fake it even when he doesn't truly believe it.)

aljones909 said...

Seth Andrews has made a nice video about the christian idea of being born corrupt and a sinner. As one of the psalms puts it "surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me".
The video is here