After the shooting at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood last weekend, many insisted we have a national conversation on “dangerous pro-life rhetoric.”
Commentators openly suggested individuals who challenge Planned Parenthood’s policy of receiving money for fetal parts were to blame for the murders and actually wanted such a shooting to occur. Because of their words, the pro-life movement “inspired a shooting” and “have blood on hands.” (Never mind Officer Garrett Swasey, the pro-life evangelical who rushed to the scene to save lives.)
Then pro-choice individuals began writing think pieces that insinuated or blatantly said, those who oppose abortion are inconsistent and hypocritical if they don’t support the killing of abortion providers. (Never mind this has been explained—repeatedly—and is rarely asked of other groups.)
But the narrative was established. The words of pro-life individuals matter and were to blame for the shooting. (Never mind the numerous times murderers with a seemingly progressive perspective said they were inspired by left-wing rhetoric, like the Family Research Council shooter or the man who killed a pro-life activist.)
As a writer, I happen to agree words matter. The things we say, particularly in our public discourse, are important. How we say things is significant. But they don’t matter selectively, only when they suit a particular ideology or perspective.
If words matter in Colorado Spring, then they matter everywhere, including San Bernardino. And if words matter, prayer matters—even if you don’t believe it works.
In the aftermath of the San Bernardino shooting (which news organizations instantly tried to link to a Planned Parenthood clinic miles away), many rushed to declare prayer was not enough. (Never mind there not being anyone who specifically stated all we need to do is pray.)
For many, public expressions of prayer provided the chance to attack Republicans for their refusal to enact additional gun control measures. We should have a reasoned, rational debate on what type of legal measures our country can enact to reduce gun violence and mass shootings as much as possible. But it seems odd, and dare I say, hypocritical, to declare just how much words matter after one shooting and then immediately declare prayer to be meaningless.
For the atheist or irreligious who see no real value to prayer, your response to prayers should be proportionate to your belief in their effectiveness. If you see them as inconsequential, why treat them as if their utterance was violently offensive. Just ignore them.
If you believe our rhetoric should be more affirming and less violent in the wake of the Planned Parenthood shooting, why would it be troublesome to see people offer positive prayers on behalf of the victims and the situation?
But more than that, if you believe prayers are worthless, why do you believe your tweets or blog posts carry any more significance? If you haven’t convinced a politician to change their mind with your social media updates before, what makes you think this time will be different?
Here’s how Hemant Mehta, the “friendly atheist” blogger, responded to the shooting and the offering of prayers.
I guess we didn't pray hard enough after last time.
— Hemant Mehta (@hemantmehta) December 2, 2015
I could easily respond, “I guess we didn’t tweet hard enough last time, either.” In his and others’ mind, nothing has changed for the better after previous shootings, but yet his response to the shooting is the same.
This not to denigrate Mehta or anyone else who responded on social media with a call to action or voicing their opinion. But it does reveal the refusal of many to hold themselves to the same standard and treat subsequent shootings in the same manner.
They may respond, “But we are tweeting and speaking out because we want to enact change by making sure those who have the power to do something hear our voices. We believe that eventually things will become better the more vocal we are about the problems and the solutions. We don’t want to merely tweet. We voice our opinion and then we act.”
To that, I say, then we agree. That’s why I and millions of others pray.
I choose to pray because I believe prayer has more value than outrage. I pray because I want to enact change. I want things to be different, so I talk to the One I believe has the power to do something. I don’t merely pray, but I pray first because there is nothing greater I can do.
You may not believe people should pray because, as Mehta insinuated, it didn’t “work.” We’ve had another mass shooting. But that belies a fundamental misunderstanding of prayer—treating it as if it were an automatically granted wish spoken to a genie instead of a request offered to an infinitely wise Person.
As C.S. Lewis wrote about the efficiency of prayer, having it always “work” wouldn’t prove the Christian concept of prayer.
The essence of request, as distinct from compulsion, is that it may or may not be granted. And if an infinitely wise Being listens to the requests of finite and foolish creatures, of course He will sometimes grant and sometimes refuse them. Invariable “success” in prayer would not prove the Christian doctrine at all. It would prove something much more like magic – a power in certain human beings to control, or compel, the course of nature.
We see this distinction in our lives and in Scripture. A good God doesn’t always answer our good prayers. Jesus didn’t immediately respond to Mary and Martha’s request for the healing of Lazarus, instead He waited until after Lazarus had died because He had a better perspective on the situation than they did.
We ask and we pray with confidence, knowing He hears us and loves us, but also recognizing we do not have His perspective on things. Most of all, we pray and trust Him to answer with wisdom our request given in ignorance.
While tweets and blog posts may go unread or be dismissed by those who haven’t personally confronted the pain of loss, prayer is not like that. We pray because Someone who knows what suffering and tragedy is like will hear us. We pray to a God who is personally acquainted with suffering.
Unfortunately, we often confront these times of tragedy and violence during the Christmas season. It has been that way since that first night in Bethlehem, which later inspired a tyrant’s murderous rampage.
Violence regularly erupts even as we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace. Yet, this unfortunate reality is to be expected.
Christmas is the invasion of the rightful Ruler into a world that has been enslaved by a false king.
The birth of a gentle, helpless baby in an insignificant town in the Middle East almost 2,000 years ago is an open declaration of war. God is announcing His claim to this earth in opposition to Satan.
In response, Satan regularly unleashes violence, pain and death. This is the last throes of a defeated regime.
Unfortunately, he continues lashing out at those who bear the image of God. All humanity suffers under the final gasps of a power that has been overthrown.
The day is coming, however, when the hope unleashed on that first Christmas will be fully realized and the true King will usher in the days of peace.
We celebrate the birth of our Savior, not because we believe all things are right, but because we know all things will be right.
And we work toward that end, knowing that God will complete the work, but He has left us here as part of His kingdom He has ushered in.
One day God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, but that day is not yet. Until that time, we mourn with those who mourn — even and especially those who mourn this time of year.
That’s why we pray because, regardless of what the headline of the New York Daily News says, God will fix this. At the cross, He began the solution at great cost to Himself. One day, He will complete it.
If words matter, then prayers matter. We should continue to employ both as we work together to better value human life until He comes to make all things right.