Candida Moss on “Thoughts and Prayers”

El Paso Thoughts

According to theologian Candida Moss, “thoughts and prayers” can be good things, but they alone cannot solve the gun violence problem in the United States.  To suggest otherwise is bad theology.

Agreed.

Here is a taste of her recent piece at The Daily Beast:

The idea that prayer demands action has a biblical basis. We tend to assume that characters who pray also take steps to have their requests met. Dr.Meghan Henning, an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton, Ohio, said, “When we read the story of Hannah praying for a child are we to assume that she stopped having sex?” Similarly most Christians (though not all) combine prayer with medical treatment when ill. When it comes to rectifying injustice and evil in the world the Epistle of James quite explicitly demands that we act: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (James 2:14-16). 

Both Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama agree. In a Sunday Angelus message in 2013, Francis said “Prayer that doesn’t lead to concrete action toward our brothers is a fruitless and incomplete prayer… Prayer and action must always be profoundly united.” Just last year the Dalai Lama tweeted that although he is a Buddhist monk he is “skeptical that prayers alone will achieve world peace. We need instead to be enthusiastic and self-confident in taking action.” 

The necessity of both prayer and action are recognized by pro-life Christians who both pray to end abortion and seek to re-legislate Roe v. Wade. As John Fea wrote this week, the thoughts and prayers excuse simply would not fly in the case of abortion. Thus, the question is not, “are thoughts and prayers sufficient?” but rather “when does the loss of human life necessitate action?” Surely, for the conscientious Christian, the answer has to be “whenever it occurs.” 

The truth of the matter is that even if miracles happen and prayer has miraculous (as well as psychological) benefits, it is simply bad theology to suggest that prayer alone can solve the problem of gun control. Petitionary prayers (prayers that ask for things) do not always deliver what a person wants. There are countless people who have faithfully prayed to God and not received the thing that they asked for. This isn’t just historically true, it’s theologically true. There are all number of reasons this is the case. In the first place, God might have other plans. So we might “ask” but not “receive” in the way that we expect or want. Arguably the best example of this is Jesus himself. According to the Gospel of Mark, in the Garden of Gethsemane, the night before his death, Jesus kneels down to pray and asks his “Abba (Father)” to allow “the cup” (i.e. death) to pass from him. It is what he wants, but Jesus recognizes that the outcome will be what his father wants. It’s an example of obedience. but it’s also a story about a frustrated request in which through prayer Jesus discerned what he was supposed to do. It’s an important example because otherwise people who pray and don’t receive help are led to believe that they are spiritually failing.

Read the entire piece here.

I am Glad to See That the President’s Meetings with Survivors Today Had Such a Big Effect on Him

 

When Does a Life Issue Demand Political Action and When are Just “Thoughts and Prayers” Enough?

abortion

In the wake of the El Paso and Dayton shootings, conservative evangelicals are offering lots of thoughts and prayers.  Many of them are saying that we need to solve the problem of mass shootings through a spiritual reformation.  The real problem, they preach, is the moral degradation of our culture.  Guns don’t kill people, mentally disturbed and sinful people kill people.

Here are a few recent tweets:

R.R. Reno, the editor of First Things magazine, says that the problem is not guns, but marijuana, out-of-wedlock births, relativism, multiculturalism, progressivism, and a general “cultural collapse.”  In a strange turn in his piece, he randomly defends the late Southern Baptist segregationalist W.A. Criswell.

In some ways, these conservative pundits are correct.  We do live in a coarse culture.  I imagine future historians, if they are good, will see the rise of violent video-games, toxic social media, unprecedented access to unhealthy material online, intense political partisanship, and the presidency of Donald Trump as contributing to a culture that might lead to mass shootings. David Brooks is correct when he says that we have a culture problem.  And let’s not forget that the renewal of white supremacy and racism is also part of this cultural decline, something that Reno and most court evangelicals do not mention.

I agree that prayers are important.  We Christians have a spiritual responsibility to pray for those suffering in the wake of these horrendous shootings in El Paso and Dayton.  I am not entirely sure that calls for prayer and spiritual renewal will bring deep change in the culture (I am with James Davison Hunter on this point), but I do think that these things are important and our churches and pastors should be encouraging them.  I am enough of an evangelical to believe that anything is possible with God.

But I also worry that appeals to thoughts, prayers, and spiritual revival are often an excuse for not doing anything real and practical about guns in America.

Many Christian nationalists like to claim that our rights come from God.  They jump from Thomas Jefferson’s line in the Declaration of Independence about our rights coming from our “Creator” (1776) straight to the Bill of Rights (1791).  They assume that because Jefferson said it, it must be true for both founding documents.  But does the Bible really affirm a “right” to bear assault style rifles?  Did James Madison write the Second Amendment to reflect some kind of biblical mandate about self-defense, or was it written in the context of the colonial militia system practiced in eighteenth-century America, as historian Saul Cornell has argued?  (For the record, it is the latter).

The idea that the Constitution is a sacred document, ordained by God and informed by biblical principles, is popular among many American evangelicals.  As a result, sensible reforms in the area of gun control pose a threat to what is affirmed in a document that, for many God and country patriots, carries a level of cultural authority that is barely one notch below the Bible.  We can’t let those liberals take our guns!  Our right to bear arms comes from God and we must defend the document that makes us a Christian nation!  (See Carol Kuruvilla’s recent piece at HuffPost.  I was happy to contribute to it).

So we offer thoughts and prayers and calls for spiritual awakenings.  The problem is not guns, it is the people who use them.  Legislation will not solve the problem, so why bother with it?  Let a thousand assault rifles bloom.  It is our right to have them.  What did Charlton Heston say about his “cold, dead hands?”

I think most Christian nationalists would say that human life is valuable.  If this is true, then mass shootings are a “life issue.” Christians of all stripes believe that life is precious because God created us in His image.  This idea is at the heart of the anti-abortion crusade in America, but it has not gained any traction in the area of gun control.  When babies are aborted the Christian Right rarely talks about praying for the mothers who have the abortion or the families who have suffered through the decision.  Instead, they seek to solve the problem of abortion by trying to legislate morality through political organization, proposing bills, and voting for the right political candidates who will appoint the right justices who share their sacred (and borderline idolatrous) view of the Constitution.  (I have critiqued some of this approach in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump).

In other words, when it comes to abortion, conservative evangelicals act.  But when it comes to gun control, we just get thoughts, prayers, and calls for revival.

Over 600,000 babies were aborted in 2015.  What if evangelicals took the same approach to this large number of abortions that they do with mass shootings? If they took this route they would cease thinking creatively (and perhaps even legislatively) about this moral problem and retire to their prayer closets.  Why take the fight for the dignity of human life to the public square when you can just ask God to send another Great Awakening?

As Christians we must pray for God’s presence in our lives and culture.  May He heal our land and give us a glimpse of a coming Kingdom defined by love, peace, and justice.  But American history teaches us that reform usually happens when Christians act.  The two are not mutually exclusive.  Let’s pass sensible gun laws.

ADDENDUM:  A shorter version of this post appeared, with a different title, on August  7, 2019 at The Washington Post.

Trump Has Failed to Stop the “American Carnage”

Trump inauguration

Conor Friedersdorf gets it right at The Atlantic:

President Donald Trump declared in his inaugural address that the “American carnage” some in the nation were facing “stops right here and stops right now.” At his rallies, he speaks to supporters as if he has lived up to his pledge to “make America great again.” But it’s hard to feel that the United States is “great again” when men born and raised here keep going on mass killing sprees.

Read the rest here.

This is What a Presidential Speech Looks Like in the Wake of El Paso and Dayton

Obama immigration

From Barack Obama’s Facebook page today:

Michelle and I grieve with all the families in El Paso and Dayton who endured these latest mass shootings. Even if details are still emerging, there are a few things we already know to be true.

First, no other nation on Earth comes close to experiencing the frequency of mass shootings that we see in the United States. No other developed nation tolerates the levels of gun violence that we do. Every time this happens, we’re told that tougher gun laws won’t stop all murders; that they won’t stop every deranged individual from getting a weapon and shooting innocent people in public places. But the evidence shows that they can stop some killings. They can save some families from heartbreak. We are not helpless here. And until all of us stand up and insist on holding public officials accountable for changing our gun laws, these tragedies will keep happening.

Second, while the motivations behind these shootings may not yet be fully known, there are indications that the El Paso shooting follows a dangerous trend: troubled individuals who embrace racist ideologies and see themselves obligated to act violently to preserve white supremacy. Like the followers of ISIS and other foreign terrorist organizations, these individuals may act alone, but they’ve been radicalized by white nationalist websites that proliferate on the internet. That means that both law enforcement agencies and internet platforms need to come up with better strategies to reduce the influence of these hate groups.

But just as important, all of us have to send a clarion call and behave with the values of tolerance and diversity that should be the hallmark of our democracy. We should soundly reject language coming out of the mouths of any of our leaders that feeds a climate of fear and hatred or normalizes racist sentiments; leaders who demonize those who don’t look like us, or suggest that other people, including immigrants, threaten our way of life, or refer to other people as sub-human, or imply that America belongs to just one certain type of people. Such language isn’t new – it’s been at the root of most human tragedy throughout history, here in America and around the world. It is at the root of slavery and Jim Crow, the Holocaust, the genocide in Rwanda and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. It has no place in our politics and our public life. And it’s time for the overwhelming majority of Americans of goodwill, of every race and faith and political party, to say as much – clearly and unequivocally.

It’s almost as if Obama, out of love of country, could not just stand by and let Trump have the last word.

On Whataboutism and Moral Equivalence in the Age of Trump

trump-condemn-hatred-shootings-racism

Tony, a regular commentator at this blog, an evangelical Christian, and a lawyer, writes in response to my post on Trump’s speech this morning (I copied it from the comments section below):

“Trump needs the teleprompter because he does not possess the moral resources to be able to speak extemporaneously or off-the-cuff about shootings like this. He needs others to give him the words of empathy, sympathy, compassion, righteous indignation–the stuff that comes from the soul of a virtuous man.”

This is an amazing critique — let’s accept, solely for the sake of argument, that it is true — given that the guy who preceded Trump, and about whom John had nary a negative word to say, and who John deems infinitely more virtuous in every way — was wedded to his teleprompter. The most carefully scripted president we have ever had. In good times and bad. But that was then, when habitual, almost comical reliance upon other people’s words (and he sure could deliver them) told us nothing about one’s soul, and this is now, when it signifies a sucking moral vacuum.

The selectivity of the dudgeon is its most noteworthy characteristic.

And let’s be clear: John’s objection is not really to the “pathetic” speech. It’s to Trump himself. Meaning: Churchill could pen the oratory, and John would still object, because Trump is unworthy to deliver it. This is precisely what John is attacking when he dismisses Trump’s appeal to bipartisanship and his comments about human dignity. Those would be acceptable words from anyone else, but not from Trump, because his malevolent character renders them clanging gongs and clashing cymbals. The argument is: no matter how worthy or aspirational the sentiment, the words are empty coming from this man, and must be rejected.

Fair enough. But then let’s stop pretending that there is anything — literally, anything (other than: “I am a wicked, orange man, and I resign.”) — Trump could say which would satisfy John. So why even the pretense of evaluating what has been said? Simpler to write: “Trump gave a speech. I did not listen to it, for there was no need. It was by definition awful, noxious, gormless and without any redeeming quality, because Trump uttered the words.”

John has become the mirror image of those who found every spoken word, every mannerism, every single thing about Obama — including his heinous lack of lapel flag pins — teeth-grindingly intolerable. Yes, yes, I get it: their loathing was based on vile –Isms and without basis, whereas the all-pervading, Manichean Trump animus is entirely justified.

I decided to post about this comment because Tony’s remarks allow me to clarify a few things.  Here is how I responded to Tony:

“Here is where we differ Tony. You presuppose some kind of equivalency between Trump and all other politicians. This is why you are constantly saying “Well, what about Obama?” (And this is why I consistently reject this whataboutism). You believe that Trump and Obama (or any other recent president) are playing on the same moral field and thus must be evaluated in the same way.  I do not. Trump has sacrificed the moral integrity necessary to deliver a speech like he did today. I agree with Jeff from Maryland when he says: ‘Trump could recite the Gettysburg Address’ and I would not believe him.

So Tony–at what point does a person lose all credibility in your mind? At what point does a person’s actions damage his or her attempts to deliver moral rhetoric to a public audience? I admit that different people will come to different conclusions about when a public figure has reached this level, but I find it hard to believe that it would not happen at some point. I have reached my point of no return with Trump. You, apparently, have not.”

A Quick Take on Trump’s Pathetic Speech in the Wake of El Paso and Dayton

Trump airport

20 dead in El Paso.  9 dead in Dayton.  This weekend Trump was largely missing.  He gave a few comments on an airport tarmac.  He tweeted a few things.  But he did not address the American people in any substantial way.

Finally, this morning at 10:00am, he spoke to the American people from a teleprompter.  Trump needs the teleprompter because he does not possess the moral resources to be able to speak extemporaneously or off-the-cuff about shootings like this.  He needs others to give him the words of empathy, sympathy, compassion, righteous indignation–the stuff that comes from the soul of a virtuous man.

But even the people who write Trump speeches seem to have no clue.   Consider:

Trump talked about the “perils” of the Internet and social media.  Indeed, white supremacists use the Internet and social media to propagate hate.  But Trump seemed incapable of understanding that he does the same thing.  There was nothing in this speech about how Trump might be empowering these white supremacists through his own use of the Internet.

Trump calls for “bipartisan” efforts in solving gun control.   This is a nice idea on paper, but as long as Donald Trump is in office this will not happen.  Trump demonizes his political opponents.  He tells them to go back to their own countries.  He mocks the Democratic debates.  He calls the Democrats names.  He trashes people from Baltimore.

Trump says that video games glorify violence in America.  Whatever one thinks about the violence of video games, it is pathetic that Donald Trump is talking about glorifying violence.  Trump incites this violence at every rally.  He laughs when a white nationalist in his audience says that we should shoot immigrants in El Paso.

Trump talked about the “dignity of every human life.”  Seriously?  How does Trump’s commitment to the “dignity of every human life” inform his views on immigration, refugees, his political opponents, Muslims, people who are not white, etc…?

He also said that the shooting took place in Toledo.  How hard is it to get the right city in Ohio?  The shooting took place in Dayton.

This speech was a national embarrassment.  But hey–the economy is doing well.

ADDENDUM:  I used the term “pathetic” in the title of this post.  According to Merriam-Webster, the term “pathetic” has four definitions:

  1. “having a capacity to move one to either compassionate or contemptuous pity”
  2. “marked by sorrow or melancholy SAD”
  3. “pitifully inferior or inadequate”
  4.  “ABSURDLAUGHABLE”

Just to be clear, Trump’s speech was a mixture of definitions 3 and 4.