Columns Opinion Richard Mouw: Civil Evangelicalism

After Sutherland Springs, pray … and do something

Photo courtesy of Mattias Karlsson, Flickr Creative Commons

(RNS) — Back in the South African apartheid era, I helped organize anti-apartheid efforts in our local community in Michigan. At one of those gatherings we heard a stirring address by a visiting black Christian leader from South Africa. She helpfully proposed some specific actions that we could take to promote the cause of justice in her country.

At the conclusion of her talk she also urged us to keep praying for an end to the apartheid policies. In the discussion period following her talk a young man stood to register his irritation about the call to prayer. “I’m sick of just praying about this. I want us to do something!”

Her response was for me memorable. “I’m not recommending ‘just praying.’ I gave you a number of things that you should also be doing.” But then she added: “Don’t knock praying, though. Prayer is doing something. It is petitioning the highest authority in universe. That is an important kind of action!”

Photo courtesy of Anne Hope, Flickr Creative Commons

I have been thinking about her comment as I have seen many online comments responding to the call for prayer on behalf of the victims of the latest church shooting in Texas. I personally was pleased that President Trump called for prayers on this occasion — as I was when previous presidents made similar pleas in times of national crisis.

Prayer is indeed an act of petitioning. And it is more. The Hebrew psalms also include many prayers of lament — which is also “doing something.” The Bible — and the Quran — give us permission to lodge our complaints with God. “Where are you, Lord? Were you asleep when all of this was happening? Why are silent when these horrible things are happening?”

It is good to pray in these ways. And I have no objections to a president’s urging us to pray. There is a “pastoral” aspect to presidential leadership. Abraham Lincoln performed that role well, as did more recent presidents: for me some prominent examples are President Clinton’s words after the Oklahoma City bombing and President Obama’s eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, pastor of Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

But the South African speaker was right: “Just praying” is not enough. In asking us to petition the highest authority in the universe about mass killings in our country, President Trump was, in effect, pointing us to a level of authority in the universe higher than his own.

Having done that, he would do well to encourage us to reflect upon — and even to argue with each other about — what God wants us to do about the accessibility of weapons of violence in our society. We might start with what an ancient Hebrew writer reported about his own sense of what God thinks about such matters:

“Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts (Zech. 4:6).

It would be good to hear a word from our president now about how we can find the laws and practices that will counter the ways we have come to rely on the instruments of violence to provide our security, both at home and abroad.

About the author

Richard Mouw

Richard Mouw is Professor of Faith and Public Life at Fuller Theological Seminary, where he also served as president for twenty years. He is the author of twenty books, including Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World. He earned his PhD in Philosophy at the University of Chicago.


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  • Prayer is what you do when you don’t want to do anything at all. Sending your prayers is almost as good as sending your thoughts and prayers, except that you get twice as much as nothing at all.

    I. Petitioning the highest authority in the Universe? First prove there is one, and then, let’s prove that your HAITU is the actual HAITU.

    I have a better idea. Let’s talk about gun control, and getting the AR-15 and every other weapon of mass murder off the market in this country. I saw a gif earlier today which indicated that the AR-15 has been used in mass murder after mass murder in this country

  • Pray, Pray, Pray….then maybe buy an assault weapon for protection…better yet bring it to church !! Throw a few bullets in the collection plate too…pastor always needs some extra ammo.

    The prayer-mongers never give up, do they.

  • Petition the highest authority? So when are we going to hear what god wants? Can’t god over rule our government or even us? But god never seems to do anything we ask him or her to do except for the simple stuff that’s we can do ourselves. Since Sunday living in my big 10 city there have been 3 shooting deaths. So when is it going to happen? Is god so blind that he can’t act first before we have to pray? Prayer is an after the problem petitioning-a too little too late bandage. So god stop the murders for a week everywhere-see if you can do that.

  • I wonder what Christians would do if God answered back their prayers with a “Get rid of your guns”? I bet not even 5% would obey God. Americans love their guns more than life itself. And we love violence – we expose our kids to it at very young ages, and think nothing of it.

  • I am an atheist with the recent massacres in the USA and elsewhere supporting this belief but I find the following of interest:

    o From Schillebeeckx, Church: The Human Story of God,
    Crossroad, 1993, p.91 (softcover)

    “Christians must give up a perverse, unhealthy and inhuman
    doctrine of predestination without in so doing making God the great scapegoat of history” .

    “Nothing is determined in advance: in
    nature there is chance and determinism; in the world of human
    activity there is possibility of free choices. Therefore the
    historical future is not known even to God; otherwise we
    and our history would be merely a puppet show in which God holds the strings.

    For God, too, history is an adventure, an open history for and of men and women.”

  • How about do something first and then pray in thanks to God for giving us the ability to do as we don on Earth.

  • “It would be good to hear a word from our president now about how we can find the laws and practices that will counter the ways we have come to rely on the instruments of violence to provide our security, both at home and abroad.”

    I cannot imagine anything coming from our current president that would be even remotely helpful in this regard.

  • “Do something”? Okay, you tell us specifically what political gun-control scheme you got in mind. Good luck (which I don’t believe in luck) !

  • ” And we love violence – we expose our kids to it at very young ages, and think nothing of it.” Absolutely true