Mourning in Texas. Photo: via The Christian Post
I remember when tragedies brought even political opponents together in what seemed potentially like a learning moment about our shared humanity being larger than the differences of opinions, beliefs and ideas that divide us.
Certainly that happened after 9/11. It seemed that whatever renewed sense of unity and solidarity members of government shared, appearing with locked arms before the nation in those days soon after; and whatever complete strangers shared, with bowed heads and tear stained cheeks on the steps of churches and cathedrals as the crowds poured out the doors for days after that horror, would last long enough to change our nation for the better. It didn’t last that long.
In January 2011 Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and eighteen others were shot in a Tuscon, Arizona supermarket parking lot during a routine gathering of citizens meeting their congressional representative. One of the six people who died in that shooting was a nine year old girl who was born on September 11, 2001. President Obama referred to her several times in his speech at the Together We Thrive: Tucson and America memorial on January 12, 2011. He also referred to the Bible.
Obama's speech for the Tucson victims
Preparing for that speech, Obama conferred with a Pentecostal clergyman, the head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. White House staffers in turn conferred with religious advisers about biblical passages the president might use in the speech to speak to a nation jarred to the core. But there was still – at that point in our relatively recent history – the need to connect worldly events with spiritual aspirations.
Obama decided to quote from the Book of Job and Psalm 46.
He did so to acknowledge and grieve the occasion when six people were killed and Rep. Giffords was shot in the head while “gathered outside a supermarket to exercise their right to peaceful assembly and free speech.” That is clearly close to the occasion of the Texas massacre last week when people were gathered inside a church to exercise their right to peaceful assembly and freedom of religion.
In his remarks after the tragedy in January 2011, Obama remarked that people were seeking to make sense out of the senseless by debating issues like gun safety laws and the breakdown of the mental health treatment system.
He urged that the polarized national debate be conducted “in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.” Referencing Job 30:26, Obama said “terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding.” Urging Americans to avoid using the tragedy as “one more occasion to turn on one another”, he called for a new civility in the nation and in political and public discourse. He recommended humility, empathy and especially reflection, urging people to consider whether they have “shown enough kindness and generosity and compassion to the people in our lives.”
Obama said “we are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this Earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame -– but rather, how well we have loved, and what small part we have played in making the lives of other people better.”
And he closed the speech with a blessing. And then received nearly universal acclaim for it.
So 'thoughts and prayers' are now 'deplorable'?
This is good to remember as we go through tragedy after mind-numbing tragedy, and political discourse is growing more unkind, uncharitable, accusatory, harsh, intolerant, divisive, and scornful of religion.
As Wall Street Journal columnist Bill McGurn sees it, many politicians in President Obama’s party, and media sympathizers now consider the fact of GOP leaders offering “thoughts and prayers” after the Texas massacre “deplorable”.
“Thoughts & prayers are not enough, GOP,” wrote the Massachusetts Democrat (Sen. Elizabeth Warren). “We must end this violence. We must stop these tragedies. People are dying while you wait.” In short, if you are a Republican praying instead of passing gun control, you’ve got blood on your hands.
The Huffington Post devoted an entire piece to the phenomenon, under the headline “People Fed Up With ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ Demand Action After Texas Church Massacre.” It featured tweets from celebrities and gun-control advocates who believe they had discovered something big: Prayers aren’t always answered…
Surely it is possible to make the case for gun control without mocking prayer. But as with Mrs. Clinton and her infamous remarks about Trump voters—not only deplorable but irredeemable—those denouncing Messrs. Trump and Ryan’s offer of prayers don’t really want an argument. They want to express their feelings of moral superiority.
Michael Brendan Dougherty said something similar in his National Review Online piece, asserting that prayer is not a distraction. But the outrage expressed by progressive politicians is.
The effect is increasing the ambient background level of contempt and hatred in American society.
This is precisely what we need less of, especially, exactly, now.
In the moments after a tragedy, the fact is we have no idea whether the killer would have been deterred by stricter gun-control laws, whether he broke existing ones, or whether he would have sought to circumvent them the way mass killers do in other countries. We often have no idea how any particular gun-control policies we would like to see implemented would have changed these events. And so attacking the prayers of politicians in fact substitutes for thought and reflection. It is a way for those who favor more gun control, as I do, to express a sentiment about gun violence, without actually putting forward a policy that addresses the issue at hand. If anyone is using “prayer” as a distraction in the wake of a mass shooting, it is those who want gun control but have no idea how their policy preferences could be implemented, and how those policies would have changed the events.
He zeroes in on the point.
The anti-prayer tweets aren’t encouraging a debate about gun control; they are discouraging expressions of shock, sympathy, and mourning. That is, they are discouraging statements about the inherent value of the lives lost that address the real grief of the bereaved. Often that is the only thing we can sensibly offer in the minutes after awful news breaks across our screens. By discouraging these expressions, they are also inadvertently boxing pro-gun-control politicians into talking about the victims of mass shootings in a purely instrumental way, a less human way — thereby reducing such deaths to having no other public meaning beyond another reason to pass legislation that these politicians already wanted to pass. Without being able to offer a plain expression of sorrow and anger, even pro-gun-control politicians are deprived of a means of offering human respect before engaging in politics. This opens them to the charge of disrespecting the dead by using their deaths to promote views to which the dead would object.
So even if you are frustrated with America’s permissive gun rights, it isn’t the prayers offered to the dead that are the problem. Let people mourn the dead. Let them say the human thing first. And then engage in vigorous political debate afterward.
Columnist Bill McGurn reminded us:
…Barack Obama offered his “thoughts and prayers” as often as any president, such as after a 2013 shooting in Washington when he said, “We send our thoughts and prayers to all at the Navy Yard who’ve been touched by this tragedy.” No one complained then, either because they were comfortable that Mr. Obama didn’t really believe in prayer or his faith in gun control was absolute.
Over the next few weeks, the surviving members of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs will wrap their fallen in love and lay them to rest. What these survivors may individually believe about gun control is anyone’s guess. But it’s hard to believe that the way to their hearts is by mocking offers of prayer, even from Republicans.
Over the past few decades the right to life has become an extremely partisan issue, for the most part. That battle will continue to be fought in the legislature, the courts and the arena of public ideas. In the Texas massacre, one of the victims whom authorities counted among the dead was an unborn child — a natural inclusion.
Let prayers be offered in peace and goodwill, by all who claim to care the most for the true good of humanity.
As President Obama urged, in a time of tragedy, conduct public debate “in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.” Democrats would do well to remember his words: “we are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this Earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame -– but rather, how well we have loved, and what small part we have played in making the lives of other people better.”