President Barack Obama, who has drawn brickbats in the past for allegedly tiptoeing around mentioning and/or ignoring God in speeches, took a decidedly religious tack during his condolence message to tornado-ravaged Joplin, Mo., on Sunday and in his Memorial Day address at Arlington National Cemetery on Monday.
On Sunday in Joplin, Obama echoed the sentiments of Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who had likened the response of Joplin residents in helping each other — and the actions of others who came to their rescue — to the good Samaritan Jesus lifted up in parable as an example of love.
"As the governor said, you have shown the world what it means to love thy neighbor," Obama told the audience in the Taylor Arts Center on the campus of Missouri Southern State University in Joplin. "You've banded together. You've come to each other's aid. You've demonstrated a simple truth: that amid heartbreak and tragedy, no one is a stranger. Everybody is a brother. Everybody is a sister. We can all love one another.”
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In the days since the May 22 tornado leveled much of Joplin and killed nearly 150 people, Obama said, “you have lived the words of Scripture: We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken cast down, but not destroyed.’”
Obama told anecdotes of the sacrifices of Joplin residents during the monster storm and its aftermath, noting especially the heroic actions of Pizza Hut manager Christopher Lucas, a 26-year-old father of two who died even as he saved the lives of a dozen others, and Home Depot worker Dean Wells, who died when a wall collapsed on him even as he was guiding others to safety.
Acknowledging Wells’ involvement in his church choir and his penchant for whistling songs, Obama noted that Wells’ wife played a recording of him whistling one of his favorites, "Amazing Grace," at his memorial service on Saturday.
“The lyrics are a fitting tribute to what Joplin has been through,” Obama said before reciting the words:
‘Through many dangers, toils and snares
‘I have already come;
‘'Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
‘And Grace will lead me home.
‘Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
‘And mortal life shall cease,
‘I shall possess within the veil,
‘A life of joy and peace.”
In closing, Obama said, “May those we've lost know peace, and may Grace guide the people of Joplin home. God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.”
That theme of dying to save others resonated again at Arlington on Monday, when Obama also turned to Judeo-Christian Scriptures, invoking a verse from the Old Testament’s Isaiah.
The president, who was roundly criticized last year for delivering his Memorial Day address at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, Ill., instead of at Arlington, noted that the day marks the time when “We memorialize our first patriots — blacksmiths and farmers, slaves and freedmen — who never knew the independence they won with their lives. We memorialize the armies of men, and women disguised as men, black and white, who fell in apple orchards and cornfields in a war that saved our union. We memorialize those who gave their lives on the battlefields of our times — from Normandy to Manila, Inchon to Khe Sanh, Baghdad to Helmand, and in jungles, deserts, and city streets around the world.”
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Common threads inspired such heroes over the centuries, he said.
“What bonds this chain together across the generations, this chain of honor and sacrifice, is not only a common cause — our country’s cause — but also a spirit captured in a book of Isaiah, a familiar verse, mailed to me by the Gold Star parents of 2nd Lieutenant Mike McGahan. ‘When I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here I am. Send me!”
“That’s what we memorialize today: that spirit that says, send me, no matter the mission,” the president said. “Send me, no matter the risk. Send me, no matter how great the sacrifice I am called to make. The patriots we memorialize today sacrificed not only all they had but all they would ever know.”
Obama urged Americans to “remember that it is on our behalf that they gave our lives — they gave their lives. We remember that it is their courage, their unselfishness, their devotion to duty that has sustained this country through all its trials and will sustain us through all the trials to come. We remember that the blessings we enjoy as Americans came at a dear cost; that our very presence here today, as free people in a free society, bears testimony to their enduring legacy.”
As Obama had ended his Joplin speech asking for God's blessing Sunday, he did the same at Arlington, closing his address thusly: “May God bless the souls of the venerable warriors we’ve lost, and the country for which they died.”
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