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“Thoughts and Prayers” Are Not Enough for San Bernardino

Let the pundits reflect on the shooting in San Bernardino.

We will let others look at how outrageous and out of touch violent American deaths are — all 30,000 of them each and every single year, when compared with any other country. Or just how many mass shootings we have had since Sandy Hook. Or how we have had more mass shootings this year than days in a year so far.

We will let the experts debate, yet again, whether the authors of the Second Amendment could ever have imagined the kind of assault weaponry used to kill 14 people, or for that matter whether the Second Amendment was ever intended for individuals.

The New York Times has deemed the whole situation urgent enough to have an op-ed called “The Gun Epidemic in America” on the very front page — the first front-page editorial since the 1920s.

No, I want to come back to where my own heart’s focus is now. The victims. Their families. And a frightened public, including frightened Muslim citizens of America who fear a backlash against them, particularly in these days of Trump and Carson hysteria towards them.

I am thinking about prayer, about how when our hearts break, they also break open to God. I think about how potent and urgent prayer is. Real prayer from a broken heart rises all the way to God’s throne, and shakes it to its foundation.

I have been sitting with this question: What’s the role of prayer in a time of ongoing, daily atrocity like San Bernardino, Paris, Nigeria, Beirut, Syria, Palestine/Israel, Ferguson, Chicago, and more?

It’s a morbid ritual. Unarmed, defenseless people are killed by gunmen armed with semi-automatic weapons. Bodies fall. Families mourn.

Politician after politician rises, and ritually repeats these words:

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.”
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.”
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.”

The president turns yet again into counselor-in-chief, the mourner-in-chief, and says all the presidential things.

In his comments, the president stated, beautifully, that he begins not as a president but as a parent. The president’s words were powerful, moving, inspiring.

After the Sandy Hook shooting on December 14, 2012, the president said:

“Can we truly say, as a nation, that we are meeting our obligations? Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children — all of them — safe from harm? Can we claim, as a nation, that we’re all together there, letting them know that they are loved, and teaching them to love in return? Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?

I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer is no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change.

Yes, the President reminded us that this was not the first time that we had come together as a nation to comfort one another:

“We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law — no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society.

But that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely, we can do better than this. If there is even one step we can take to save another child, or another parent, or another town, from the grief that has visited Tucson, and Aurora, and Oak Creek, and Newtown, and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that — then surely we have an obligation to try.

In the coming weeks, I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens — from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators — in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this.”

And he says it again in June 2015, after the Charleston mass shooting. And again, after the October 2015 shooting in Oregon. And again after the November 2015 Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado.
And here he was after San Bernardino saying it again.

After San Bernardino, we saw a parade of politicians offering the same, tired “thoughts and prayers,” “thoughts and prayers.” Mitch McConnell tweeted the following:

The senseless loss of innocent life in #SanBernardino defies explanation. Our thoughts are w/ the victims & their families — @SenateMajLdr

How devastating to learn that the same politicians tweeting their “thoughts and prayers” have received in some cases thousands of dollars, in others millions, from the NRA to oppose every gun control measure.

Mitch McConnell himself received ,000 from the NRA during his re-election campaign.

Think Progress, a left-leaning think thank, compiled the NRA’s contribution to have politicians express “thoughts and prayers,” while fighting every measure to enforce background checks. The tweets by Igor Volsky were a must-follow.

Let’s be clear about this: These are bought out, sold-out politicians who are being paid to tweet out “thoughts and prayers” messages after each mass murder, and vote against changing the very background checks that would have prevented many of them, even for people on terrorist-watch lists.

I see something related to this on my own social media page. I have many people who write to me saying: “I really liked what you had to say, until today.” The message, time and again, is: “Stick to love, leave gun policy to the experts.” I wonder how it is that these readers do not see, do not wish to see, that it is the same urgent and passionate love that leads us to act for the most vulnerable and defenseless in our midst.

Love is not a mere emotion. Love is not a private matter. Love is not love unless it is unleashed into the public spaces, putting itself as a shield before all who are weak and vulnerable. Love is not love unless it rises up from the broken hearts of everyday, ordinary people who do service each and every day.

If we care about love, if compassion is real, if service has any meaning, how can we not be moved about issues like poverty, refugees, occupation, war, and the environment? How can love not be also about ethics, about society, about politics, about humanity, about nature?

As Martin Luther King, Jr. and so many others have told us, how can we fail but see the link between love and nonviolence? This exiled sense of love, this privatized sense of love, is pathetic, weak, and bereft of the reality we need for it to have for us to be truly human, truly concerned about each other’s welfare and safety.

I do not know of a God who remains an unmoved mover. The only God that I can worship is, in the words of our sages, who is the Most Moved Mover.

Every one of the victims, every one of the 30,000 Americans killed annually, is somebody’s baby. If we claim to love them, how can we not act?

Let’s come back to prayer.

All of this conversation about #ThoughtsandPrayers has had me thinking. It makes me think about how prayer truly works, and how prayer is always linked, and needs to remain linked, to efficacious action.

We pray not to change God, but to transform ourselves. We pray not to appease God, but to awaken our own hearts.
It is as Pope Francis said:

“You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. This is how prayer works.”

It is as the Prophet said:

“If you see an evil, first try to change it with your hands (action), then with your tongue (words), and if you can’t do either, then with your heart (prayer).”

Congressman Chris Murphy of Connecticut, home to Sandy Hook, got it right:

“Your ‘thoughts’ should be about steps to take to stop this carnage. Your ‘prayers’ should be for forgiveness if you do nothing — again.”

He went on to elaborate during an interview on MSNBC.

Yes, there is need for thoughts and prayers, linked to action: action to stop the carnage. Prayers to repent from our own complicity. Prayers for healing in this world, healing that will protect us all, starting with the most vulnerable.

I am haunted by the words of one of the people inside the facilities in San Bernardino, who texted her father:

“People shot.
In the office waiting for cops.
Pray for us.
I am locked in an office.”

Yes, pray for us. Pray for us all.

Pray that this prayer changes us, transforms us. Pray that this prayer heals us of our collective inaction, our callousness and our apathy. And let us pray that these urgent prayer leads us to efficacious action.

Otherwise, “thoughts and prayers” without action make a mockery of thought, and a farce of prayer.

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