Once again, the hashtag “#dontpray” is trending after a tragedy.
Please remember that the people who use that hashtag are as scared and angry as anyone, and feeling helpless makes it worse. Why not blame religion for massacres? If the only religious people I knew were politicians who use God as a tasty bit of voter bait, I’d be angry at them, too. If the only religious people I knew were verse-quoters whose lips constantly moved in prayer as they stockpiled ammo, I’d be angry at them, too. If the only religious people I knew were the ones who say that Starbucks hates Jesus, and who then call for assassination, I’d be angry at religious people, too. If the only religious people I knew were people who said that God told them to kill, I’d be angry at religion, too.
If people like this were God’s true spokesmen, then I’d be saying “don’t pray” with the rest of them.
But I know that these are not God’s true spokesmen. And I do believe that it’s always time to pray, always.
So let’s acknowledge this one more time: no, prayer doesn’t “fix” things – not directly or obviously, not most of the time, and not right now. When we pray, we don’t expect God to prick His ears up and go, “Yessir! I’ll make the gun violence and terrorism stop ASAP. Gosh, I thought you’d never ask.” If “God isn’t fixing this” — well, He never said He would, not yet. He gave us free will, which we may use for good or for ill. He gave us free will, and He Himself personally suffered because of it.
God won’t “fix” gun violence or terrorism by fiat. If we expected that, we could also reasonably expect that He’d fix Zika and starvation and weevils in my vegetable garden. But we do tolerate many kinds of evil, large and small, because we understand that it is humans who bring it into the world voluntarily. If we believe that God gave us genuine free will, we have to accept that people are free to abuse it.
But isn’t it true that we shouldn’t be content to just pray? That we should take action of some kind?
Of course it is. “Ora et labora,” wise St. Benedict told his monks: “Pray and work.” We have the duty to work and we have the duty to pray, neglecting neither one.
What does “work” look like in the face of a massacre, though? That’s the real question. Many of those who are now “prayer shaming” think that the only meaningful work or action at this moment is gun control. I think it’s reasonable to restrict the legal sale of the kind of gun that makes it very easy to slaughter 50 people in minutes. Beyond that, I’m not sure how to strike the balance between freedom and safety. I see a grotesque fixation on guns in some quarters, and I see an equally grotesque trust in the power of government in other quarters, and both fixations lead to their own kind of murderous disaster. I don’t know what the legislative solution is. Neither presidential candidate has a solution, I know that.
So what other kind of work or action can we take, besides legislative action?
When someone asked Mother Teresa what we can do to promote world peace, she said, “Go home and love your family.” This from a woman who left her own home, who emptied herself out for people who had no home, who suffered monstrous attacks on her character all during and even after her life’s work. This from a woman who did promote world peace in a tangible way, working with John Paul II to bring down Communism. She was not given to speaking in platitudes.
So how will it help to go home and love our families? How will that prevent gun violence or terrorism?
Again: not by fiat. It is true that people who were raised with love are less likely to fit the profile of mass murderers, who have in common a burning desire for stability and meaning in their lives. It is true that people from stable, loving families are more likely to have the strength of character and confidence to sacrifice themselves for other people, both victims and perpetrators. People who are fluent in love do sometimes disarm the violent, talking them down from harming anyone, or using their own bodies as shields, as some of the LBGT clubbers in Orlando did. These are actions that can only come from love. There is no evolutionary reason to behave this way.
But also again: free will. People can come from the stablest, lovingest family in the world and still succumb to mental illness, or they can be perfectly sane and simply choose evil. People do this every day and then some.
And every day and then some, my job is the same as it was yesterday and the same as it will be tomorrow: to go home and love my family. If we go home and love our families, we will be doing what we can in our small, personal worlds, in our “inner rooms,” for the sake of the world as a whole. The only sensible way to behave is to go home and teach love. Increase love. Model love for your children. Pray for love. This is the only thing we can do. This is the one thing we must do.
A family praying together is like the marrow deep inside a bone, working away to produce red and white blood cells. It may seem like the hands and the brain and the muscles are doing all the work, but there in the marrow – there is where the necessary work is done.
Prayer gives us the courage to act in the face of panic. Pray gives us the wisdom to stay calm in the face of fear. Prayer gives us the strength to love in the face of evil. Prayer binds us to Christ so that, no matter if we live or die, we will find our way to Him, and to our true home in the end.
This is why we pray in the face of massacre. Not because God will fix things, but because we are asking God to fix us.
If you encounter someone who angrily rejects your prayers, then go pray in your inner room, where your Father, who is unseen, will hear you. Prayer that insists on being heard by other humans isn’t prayer at all, it’s just using God’s name to boost your signal.
Some people are still searching for their sons and brothers, hoping against hope that that endlessly ringing cell phone just got left in a taxi, and isn’t in the pocket of a shattered corpse. That’s where we’re at right now.
My friend Liz Schleicher calls us to ask ourselves:
Is my first action to pray for the living and the dead, and mourn the fact that FIFTY souls that God loved and died for are no longer on this Earth? Or is my first action to make a big figurative pile of the dead, lumping them together and standing on top of them so I have a better platform for broadcasting my pet political and religious issue? One of these is exactly how the terrorist treated people. One is not.
Truly, if you consider yourself a praying person, yet the death of 50 people is your cue to start crowing about your pet cause, whatever it is, then I have to agree: #dontpray.