To Pray, or to Politicize?

The recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino have functioned as a wake-up call to the dangers of radical Islamic terrorism. Yet more surprising than the attacks themselves (in many ways, not shocking at all) was the backlash on social media to the idea that we should pray for the victims.

Expressing thoughts and prayers in times of tragedy used to be pretty safe territory, sort of like saying “thank you” for a favor or “I’m sorry” for an offense. It is – or at least used to be – the standard response.

Not this time. While thousands offered thoughts and prayers in solidarity with the victims, others disparaged such prayers as meaningless and condemned their offerors as hypocrites. A better response, they argued, would be to politicize the tragedy to push a gun control agenda before the blood had even time to dry.

Consider for a moment the rudeness of such behavior. Few would reject a gift offered in good faith. But accusing those who pray for others is like ripping a gift out of the hands of its recipient and stomping on it in front of both the giver and receiver. When someone has just been injured or lost a loved one, they usually don’t solicit your policy analysis. A woman whose son has just died on the operating table isn’t interested in your opinion on what the surgeon should have done. A man whose wife has just died in a car accident does not care to hear your thoughts on car safety, at least not as he holds her hand for the last time.

Now that the victims of San Bernardino terrorist attack have had the chance to speak out, many have specifically requested prayers. As far as I know, none have called for gun control – the knee-jerk liberal response to all violence where guns are involved, even if bombs are also used or planned to be used, as was the case in both attacks.

Why is prayer preferable to politicization?

First, prayer unites, whereas politics by its very nature divides. We should all condemn violence – whether it is the result of a terrorist attack, a criminal act, or a mass shooter. We should all comfort grieving victims. But we don’t always agree on the underlying causes of violence, much less what specific laws or policies would best prevent it.

Second, prayers are offered from a position of humility, whereas tragedies are politicized from a position of arrogance. The Oxford Dictionary defines prayer as “a solemn request for help or expression of thanks addressed to God or an object of worship.” Thus, someone offering prayers makes the following assumptions:

  1. I need (or somebody else needs) help.
  2. I am blessed in many ways.
  3. I am not able to do this on my own.
  4. God is the source of all blessings, and He alone can fulfill our needs.

Every step of this assumption tree requires humility. In the final step, we acknowledge that we are not the most powerful beings in existence, but rather subject to God’s authority and the recipients of His divine mercy. Perhaps this irritates the politicizers most of all, who like to consider themselves the all-powerful, all-merciful elites. They would prefer we come to government with our problems and thank government for our deliverance. Their assumption tree looks something like this:

  1. I need (or somebody else needs) help.
  2. I am (or the government is) more intelligent than the average person.
  3. People can’t be trusted to make decisions on their own.
  4. Government is the source of all blessings, and it alone can fulfill our needs.

Notice how the first step is the same, but every subsequent step requires an abundance of arrogance.

It is no secret that we tend to pray the most when going through particularly difficult situations. In moments of extreme stress or danger, even atheists are likely to be caught praying that God exists and that He respond to their need. Intuitively, even non-believers understand that government is not going to help them find their lost car keys, get that new job, or make it through surgery successfully. But God just might.

While we need God’s help all the time, we are most likely to realize it when we are feeling particularly helpless. Praying for others when we ourselves are not directly threatened is a way of both acknowledging our blessings and asking God’s help for our fellow man. Circumstances have already brought them to their knees, be they friends, acquaintances, or complete strangers. When we pray, we get down on our knees with them.

Prayer is not magic. We do not believe that the right combination of ritual or incantation will give us the power over nature that only rightly belongs to God. However, prayer is not fatalist, and it is not passive. When we pray, we are not sitting on our hands waiting for God to do the job. “I’ll pray for you,” does not imply, “Stop whatever you’re doing; God will fix it!” Rather, prayer inspires action. Christians believe we are called to use our time and talents to serve one another, and every year millions of Christians around the world do just that.

Ironically, it is the Twitter and Facebook “slactivists” who seem to think that voicing their opinion on gun control and calling for more government regulation absolves them of the need for further personal action. While Christians open their pockets every year to support thousands of deserving charities, secular liberals lobby for government redistribution.

That we have differing responses to tragedy is to be expected, but why are the politicizers so irritated by the pray-ers?

First, many people are actively hostile to religion, and to the Christian faith in particular. They have succeeded in driving religion out of public life and prayer out of our schools, but it is still not enough. The fact that they can’t control what is going on in our minds – the possibility that we might be thinking “wrong” thoughts beyond their power to correct – bothers them in a way that should truly frighten supporters of the First Amendment.

Second, some people seem to think that by praying for one person or group of people, we are leaving out others who might be more deserving. When people started voicing prayers for Paris, some condemned them for not praying for Beirut (as if they somehow knew this was not the case).

Should we pray for all victims of tragedy, whether they be in Africa, Europe, or the Middle East? Of course, and many American Christians do just that. Last Easter, my church prayed for the victims of the Garissa massacre in Kenya long after its news slipped from the headlines. Certainly if prayer fell under the authority of the federal government, there would be an entire bureaucracy set up to evaluate whose need was more deserving. Fortunately, God’s grace is infinite, thus obviating the need for man to regulate it. Unlike government largesse, there is always enough supply to meet the demand.

But the real reason for the prayer-shamer’s distress is competition. For while Christians worship God, many liberals worship the State. They are the high priests and followers of a secular religion, the new magicians claiming a power over nature that Christians long ago left to God.

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The Common Cause Of Nearly Every Mass Shooting

Like everyone else, I was horrified by the recent murders of Alison Parker and Adam Ward. I didn’t know Adam personally, but many of my friends did. Though separated by a few years in school, we sat in the same classes—learning from the same teachers and cheering on the same Spartan football team. My pain is not the deep and lasting pain of Adam and Alison’s families; I can only imagine the magnitude of their loss. But it is always a shock when violence strikes so close to home, delivering such an unexpected blow to the community I know and love. It is a small, tight-knit community that has already been affected by senseless violence.

The storyline has become sickeningly familiar. I remember hearing about the Virginia Tech shootings while at work back in 2007. I rushed to my desk, pulled up Facebook, and tried to check in on my many friends currently attending that school. They all survived, thank God, but were deeply impacted by the tragic events of that day. Everyone in southwest Virginia remembers 4/16/07.

Eight years later, the attention of the world has once again turned to our region. This time I have to explain to my seven-year-old, home from his third day of school, why he wasn’t allowed to go outside during recess. It breaks my heart that he will grow up in a world so full of evil. It makes me long for a return to innocence—for a world where people go about their lives simply, content to enjoy God’s many blessings without the need to dominate and destroy. But at a certain point in our childhoods, we all lose our innocence. Humanity lost its after The Fall, and only through Jesus Christ are we redeemed.

After the Charleston shooting, I wrote this, though I never published it:

There will be much talk in the coming days and weeks about racism and guns and mental health. As with most mass shootings, the American public will be more eager to know why the perpetrator did the unthinkable—what childhood trauma stunted his moral development, what rejection fueled his rage—than to understand the lives of his nine innocent victims. People will rush to blame something, anything to give their anger and pain and despair a target more deserving than the weak, cowardly man we have been seeing on TV and social media. And then the story will fade. Those of us who can go on with our lives will: waiting for the next tragedy to strike, hoping that when it does our loved ones will not be counted among the injured and the dead. The cycle is depressing in its predictability.

It is only natural to seek answers, but our first priority should always be to remember the victims and comfort their families. I hope I will be forgiven for sharing a few of my thoughts, as writing is the only way I know to deal with this tragedy at this time. I write them not in the spirit of debate, but rather in the hope of unity and healing.

Over the past two decades, our country has been rocked by a succession of shootings that go beyond the typical motives of murder. They resemble acts of terrorism, though they are usually committed by isolated individuals with no real political agenda. People have always killed each other out of greed, vengeance, and personal animosity. We see this in the very first known murder, that of Abel by Cain. But we recognize something different at play in Columbine. Virginia Tech. Newtown. Aurora. Charleston. What is the common thread?

I do not believe these crimes are primarily about guns, racism, or mental health. All three of these factors can and do play a role, but they are not the primary drivers.

My theory is not based on any expertise in sociology or psychology, just simple faith and reason. But when I look at the perpetrators of these crimes, I see losers. I see weak, pathetic men who deeply desire respect, as all men do, but do not find it—not in women or society or the economy. They often lack even a crowd of fellow misfits to validate their frustrations. They want to be known. They want to matter. But their failure and insignificance weighs on them until it is transformed into rage. They blame society and others for their problems. Instead of turning to God and finding acceptance and purpose in His love, they are consumed by evil. They lose their ability to empathize, and thus become capable of anything.

Is evil a mental illness? I suppose that depends on how you define what it means to be mentally ill. But my intuition says we are dealing with separate problems. Evil resembles mental illness in that it defies reason; it makes no sense. Evil possesses no internal logic of its own, as it is but the negation of God and Truth: a convoluted web of lies and contradictions. The only thing evil knows how to do is destroy. It has no creative power. This is why the Nazis lost. This is why we so often see the perpetrators of evil take their own lives. The lie consumes them until they are no more. But they were lost long before their bodies died, as evil demands the sacrifice of one’s God-given individuality in exchange for false promises of power. The Devil drives a hard bargain.

The person who killed Adam and Alison claimed to have been motivated in part by the Charleston shooting. But yet he glorified the killers of Columbine and Virginia Tech in his “manifesto?” What strikes me the most about this crime is not the race of the killer or victims, but how it was staged to attract maximum publicity. The killer waited to commit the murders on the air. He went through the trouble of filming himself while committing the crime and then posted the footage while evading arrest. The killer likely hoped the fame of his crime would give his life the meaning and importance he had thus far failed to achieve. Technology has made it easier to kill innocent people and then gain international notoriety, but technology alone does not explain the sickness of human cruelty.

People will talk about guns and racism and mental health, but the primary problem is that of human evil. Let’s not make this another tragedy where we rush to politicize the causes and demonize entire groups of people. Instead, let’s celebrate the memories of the two brave young people whose lives were cut tragically short. Let’s reach out to their families and come together as a community. Let’s remember that in the end our only hope is in God, our only salvation is through His Son, and our only weapon against Hate is Love.

R.I.P. Alison Parker and Adam Ward