Mass murder and the problem with prayer (COMMENTARY)

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Chaplain Rob Reyes, second left, prays with relatives of a worker who was not injured, but expected at the Rudy Hernandez Community Center, after a shooting incident at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California on December 2, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Alex Gallardo
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-MERRITT-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Dec. 3, 2015.

Chaplain Rob Reyes, second left, prays with relatives of a worker who was not injured, but expected at the Rudy Hernandez Community Center, after a shooting incident at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California on December 2, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Alex Gallardo *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-MERRITT-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Dec. 3, 2015.

(RNS) By now, everyone with an Internet connection knows about the San Bernardino, Calif., shooting that claimed the lives of at least 14 people.

A tragedy like this, while deeply troubling, should not be surprising to those paying attention. As Christopher Ingraham of The Washington Post reported in August, “we’re now averaging more than one mass shooting per day.” But the reaction on social media was less predictable.

Twitter and Facebook were peppered with comments from conservatives from Sen. Lindsey Graham to former New York Gov. George Pataki,  who promised their “thoughts and prayers” to the victims affected by the shooting. In response, many advocates of gun reform fired back with a round of “prayer shaming,” claiming that their sentiments were hollow because they were not backed up by tangible legislative proposals. The liberal watchdog website Think Progress even accused these well-wishers of having been bought by the National Rifle Association.

It is impossible to judge these leaders’ true motives or whether they have actually been on bended knee since the news broke. But the problem with prayer is that it cannot be offered in isolation. Not when action is possible and necessary. This idea did not originate on social media. It is a biblical idea sewn throughout the New Testament, and those who oppose even the tiniest reforms to our gun laws must now reckon with it.

The Apostle John made this argument in his first epistle regarding the issue of poverty. If someone sees a person in need and has the means to help but “has not pity on him,” John said the love of God is not present in that person. “Let us not love with word or tongue but with actions and in truth,” he said.

The New Testament writer James makes a similar statement in the second chapter of his epistle: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

Jesus is not quite as explicit as these New Testament writers, but he is by no means silent on the matter. He described the religious leaders in his community as people who “preach, but do not practice.” While he did not condemn their words, he asked them to give more — to do more.

When it comes to resisting violence, conservatives are not cowards. Indeed, one thing seems fairly certain: If it turns out that this tragedy was perpetrated by ISIS or a similar group, conservatives will be talking about action, not merely offering prayers. We must now ask why it is that only certain types of violence inspire action among some.

Leaders will debate what should be done in the face of an epidemic of violence, but something must be done. A life of faith is a life of prayer and action, but never one without the other. Action without prayer is merely activism, and prayer without action is useless piety.

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Merritt

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Merritt

So today, I too will be in prayer. For the victims of this terrible tragedy and that justice will be served among the perpetrators, yes. But I’m also praying that those who fold their hands will put their hands to work for the sake of the common good. Let our words be coupled with action.

Amen.

(Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and is the author of “Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined” and “A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars.” He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.)

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  • alison

    I know you say to take action, but in situations like this, what can we do but pray? There is an undercurrent of rage and violence in the United States. There is road rage, but there is also air rage. I noticed it for the first time when I flew to Ireland in August. People feel devalued and are quick to act and react in anger. In fact, I’ve intervened in a few episodes of rage when I have attended political rallies. In other instances I have stepped into the middle of bullying situations. In one instance my daughter had to hold me back from jumping a set of railroad tracks when businessmen in Belfast were harassing a cross-dressing prostitute. Other than that, what can we do? If I know something is about to happen, I will do whatever is in my power to prevent it. But how do we know who will take rage to the next level and what they will do. We feel powerless and your words of “do something” ring hollow. Do what?

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  • I agree that prayer and action are both essential. One side in this is dismissive of prayer altogether, at least from the headlines…
    The question of action immediately brings up the disagreement on which action to take.
    Those mocking prayer propose a certain solution, while those they attack disagree and propose the problem requires a different solution, not no action at all.

    What is not clear, is that the solutions proposed on either side, gun control, closer law enforcement surveillance, mental health policy…will have the desired effect.
    Rushing in to a solution that does nothing to solve the problem, or worse, is foolish. Action for the sake of action may as well be running around in circles screaming…I prefer prayer to that

  • John

    Once again RNS takes political speech and generalizes it to apply to the larger Christian community. You people are too tied into the culture and letting it drive the nuances of the issues. So you have the immediate response of a few politicians who seem to be sincerely concerned and expressed their heart, but you want something else. Make no mistake – action will come, and you will still be in the perfect position to criticize it all. Do us a favor and use the N in RNS by giving us something other than your cynical opinion. How about you delve into the real complexities of these issues – criminal intent, black market and legal gun availability, current state of gun laws, ability and inability to identify terrorists, 2nd amendment concerns, police state concerns, freedom and responsibility, etc. Opinions are easy, do some real reporting for a change.

  • Larry

    The big criticism in prayer here is the complete insincerity of it from people who have a vested interest in keeping gun ownership mostly unrestricted. Its a phony pretense to avoid the appearance of callousness, if not the actuality of it.

    Nothing was ever fixed by praying for a solution. Prayers are not actions, or even sincere expressions of emotions in most cases. Nowadays it is simply a way to interject one’s self into a given event without participating in it in a meaningful way.

    “What is not clear, is that the solutions proposed on either side, gun control, closer law enforcement surveillance, mental health policy…will have the desired effect.”

    Except if one looks at the results of all those who have made efforts in that direction.
    http://www.armedwithreason.com/

  • ben in oakland

    Here’s what I think about prayer in regard to any tragedy.

    I don’t want to help, but I feel bad for not helping. So I’ll pray for you.

    Save my house from the lightning. Maybe the lightning will hit HIS house.

    I’ll pray for you is just a way of saying I want what’s best for you as long as it takes no real effort or sacrifice on my part.

    Certain football players make a big show of praying, and thanking god for answering with a touchdown. Children in Africa pray for food every day. Then they die.

    Both sides of World War I, good Christians all, prayed to god for victory over their enemies, also good Christians all. One lost and one won, proving the power of prayer.

    6 million Jews prayed to god to save his chosen people. “How about choosing someone else for a change?”

    You’ll pray for me? Wonderful! I’ll talk to my cat for you, because they used to be worshipped as gods.* You can expect the same results.

    * cats have NEVER forgotten this.

  • larry

    “Wonderful! I’ll talk to my cat for you, because they used to be worshipped as gods.* You can expect the same results.”

    Untrue. Unlike God, cats acknowledge you are worshiping them and make demands on you as a token of devotion (feed me when I want you to, play with me on my timetable, clean my literbox…).

    Failure to comply gets bites, claws, things knocked off of shelves, poop left in visible locations, loud meowing… We know when our cat is unpleased with our efforts. We only guess that some bad event is a token of God’s wrath. (Unless you are Pat Robertson, to him anything from a hangnail to nuclear annihilation is the result of removing prayer from schools)

  • larry

    Untrue, unlike God, cats acknowledge you are worshiping them and make demands on you as a token of devotion (feed me when I want you to, play with me on my timetable, clean my literbox…).

    Failure to comply gets bites, claws, things knocked off of shelves, scat left in visible locations, loud meowing… We know when our cat is unpleased with our efforts. We only guess that some bad event is a token of God’s wrath. (Unless you are Pat Robertson, to him anything from a hangnail to nuclear annihilation is the result of removing prayer from schools)

  • Ben in oakland

    If you think cats care about you worshipping them, all I can say is, you know some very odd cats. ?

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