THE BLOG
03/22/2013 03:24 pm ET Updated May 19, 2013

Amazing Grace

Each March 7, a special pilgrimage takes place in Alabama, retracing the steps of the great 1961 civil rights march. It keeps alive the memory of the courageous people who stood up and stood together for what they believed, and for what they knew was right. Around my dinner table two weeks ago, Burns Strider, a veteran of the pilgrimage (and of Capitol Hill politics), and Rabbi David Saperstein, who went this year for the first time, entranced us with the story of a remarkable moment they had witnessed days earlier.

Congressman John Lewis of Georgia was in Selma in 1961, and he was among those beaten up by the angry crowd as the police force on duty stood silently by. He returns each year for the pilgrimage. This year, the mayor of Montgomery could not come and his stand-in was an Alabama police chief, Kevin Murphy. As the speakers told their stories, Murphy's turn came. He chose the moment to apologize to Lewis, to say he was sorry that the police had not protected the marchers though that was their duty. The man was too young even to have been born when Selma took place but he apologized on behalf of his force, sincerely, with words that those listening will never forget. What's amazing, Lewis said, was that no one had ever apologized to him before.

Then Murphy took off his badge and gave it to Lewis. Lewis was moved to tears, as were those who watched this evidence that change can take place, that hearts change, and that groups that seemed locked in conflict can reconcile and live in peace.

It was eerie when a few days later the story of that same incident moved audiences at Georgetown University to tears.

Actress Anna Deavere Smith spent a week at Georgetown (with Cellist Joshua Roman) for something truly new and unexpected: a theater and arts residency organized jointly by the Georgetown University Theater and Performance Studies Program and the School of Foreign Service. Anna's theme was "Grace," a topic she is exploring both as a public intellectual, concerned for the direction of our country, and as an artist and actress. Her probing question is why grace seems so far away from Washington politics and diplomacy.

Anna heard the story about Lewis, the cop, and the badge at Selma during a panel at Georgetown. She pinned Lewis down for a talk, just as he was leaving town. Their exchange that evening entered into the skin of Anna's play "Grace," a work in progress, that was performed as a staged reading at Georgetown Monday night.

What is grace? God's favor or help is one definition. Notions of pardon and forgiveness are wrapped up in the word's history, as are kindness, gratitude, good will, generosity and charm. Grace conveys a sense of virtue that is not an obligation, not forced or contrived: a gift. Grace also suggests beauty, of face and movement. Grace was one of the three sister goddesses who bestowed beauty and charm. The old saying holds that a child born on Friday is full of grace. Grace suggests music, lovely lines, fluid movement.

So what does that have to do with Washington? The very notion of grace in today's Washington seemed to jar.

In Anna Deavere Smith's play, through her brilliant renditions of the voice and gestures of her varying characters, she returns constantly to the classic hymn, "Amazing Grace." Written by slave ship owner, later curate John Newton, the hymn thanks God for the gift of grace that saved him and allowed him to see the errors of his ways and the evils of slavery. "T'was Grace that taught my heart to fear. And Grace, my fears relieved."

"I once was lost but now am found, Was blind, but now I see."

The question that lingered over Anna Deavere Smith's reflections on Washington and American politics was: Is this indeed a place robbed of grace? If so, why? And what is the path to recover a gift that seems to have vanished into fractious unkindness and lingering grudge. The stories behind the fight against slavery, the struggle to secure women's equality, and the bitter battle for civil rights are reminders that all the virtues implied in that term grace are within reach. It takes grace, perhaps from God, or perhaps from the inspiration of art or examples of true courage, forgiveness and courage. That's why that story from Selma about John Lewis and the courageous policeman who saw what was wrong and acted on it with an act of true grace, sends such a powerful message. There's hope that we can that grace also.