Editor’s note: This article was originally published in response to the 2015 San Bernardino attack.
We can say with some confidence that all the following are true.
1.a. When news of a tragedy reaches us, almost all of us find our thoughts overwhelmed for minutes, hours, or days, depending on the scope, severity, and vividness of the loss. This is called empathy—our ability to put ourselves in the place of others and imagine their suffering and fear, as well as heroism and courage, and to wonder how we would react in their place.
1.b. Almost all human beings, whatever their formal religious affiliation, find themselves caught up in a further reaction to tragedy: reaching out to a personal reality beyond themselves, with grief, groaning, and petition for relief. Even those far from the church will find themselves, almost involuntarily, addressing God in these moments. This is, in a way, another and perhaps higher form of empathy. It reflects our instinct that our own experience of personhood, identification, and love must ultimately reflect something—or Someone—fundamental to the cosmos who is personal, who has identified with us, and who responds to us and all the world with love.
1.c. Unless the tragedy is literally at our door, this empathic response—call it “thoughts and prayers”—is all that is available to us in the moments after terrible news reaches us. If the tragedy is literally at our door and thus is happening to us rather than just being reported to us, we know that an astonishing number of human beings act with courage and resilience even in the face of the most terrible evil. They also, if given time to speak or otherwise communicate to others not facing their moment of terror, instinctively pray and ask others to pray.
1.d. It is unrealistic, and arguably cruel, to ask for fresh words in the moment that we are confronted with suffering and loss, let alone horror and evil. Every human being, in these moments, falls back on liturgies—patterns of language and behavior learned long before that get us through the worst moments in our lives. There is no need to come up with a new thought or new words when you stand in the receiving line at a funeral home; it is entirely fine to say, “I am so sorry for your loss,” even though the family will have heard those words a hundred times before. What matters is not your words, which cannot possibly rise to the demands of the occasion, but your presence and your empathy.
1.e. Politicians and public figures are fundamentally like all other human beings and have the same basic responses to tragedy. This is true no matter their position on controversial issues of policy (say, gun control). So it is no surprise that they respond immediately, like the rest of us do, with familiar words and phrases that express their human solidarity with those who suffer. Even the most accomplished speechwriters will take hours or days to come up with words adequate to great suffering. No human being, even the most articulate, can offer adequate words in the first moments after terrible news. To demonstrate that level of rhetorical fluency would in fact be to demonstrate an inhuman lack of empathy. Inarticulacy is the proper, empathic immediate response to tragedy.
2.a. To offer prayer in the wake of tragedy is not, except in the most flattened and extreme versions of populist Christianity, to ask God to “fix” anything. It is to hold those who were harmed, and those who harmed, before the mercy of God. In many traditions, it is to recognize that the human person is more than a human body, so that even death itself is not the final word on our destiny—so prayers are appropriate even for the dead, whose lives are held by a Life that transcends death.
2.b. An equally valid and instinctive form of prayer in the face of tragedy is lament, which calls out in anguish to God, asking why the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. Lament confronts God with his seeming inaction and distance. This is a profound response of faith. Far from being unchristian, it is actually the prayer offered by Jesus himself on the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
2.c. No honest accounting of history can deny that God, if there is a God, is terrifyingly patient with evil. And yet, over and over, astonishing goodness, holiness, and reconciliation have emerged from even the most heinous acts of violence. When Jesus himself voiced the psalms of lament and the anguish of every victim of torture and terror, Christians believe God was at work reconciling the world to himself, and that three long days later God demonstrated his power to bring life out of death. So even when human beings have done their worst, it is not too late to pray for redemption and healing.
3.a. To suggest that we should act (though usually without specifying how those of us not physically present could act in the immediate wake of tragedy or terror), instead of pray, therefore, is to ask us to deny our capacity for empathy.
3.b. At the same time, the Bible makes it clear that God despises acts of outward piety or sentimentality that are not matched with action on behalf of justice. The harshest words of Jesus recorded in the Gospels are directed at public leaders who pray extravagantly and publicly but neglect “the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23).
3.c. Therefore we must never settle for a false dichotomy between prayer and action, as if it were impossible to pray while acting or act while praying. Nonetheless it is vital, whenever possible, to pray before acting lest our activity be in vain.
3.d. To insist that people should act instead of pray, or that we should act without praying, is idolatry, substituting the creature for the Creator. It insinuates that goodness can be known, possessed, or done apart from relationship with the only One who is truly good. While our neighbors who do not share our faith will not agree, for people with biblical faith this prideful declaration of independence is idolatry, the original sin of humanity, and the ultimate source of the evil in the world and in our own hearts.
4. Therefore the victims of the shootings in San Bernardino, and all those who were caught up in the violence and live this very moment in its awful continuing reality and consequences, and also those who perpetrated the violence, are in our thoughts and prayers.
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