Every time there is a mass shooting, as there was yesterday in San Bernardino, California, we see the same rhetorical pattern. Some Americans demand more gun control; other Americans ask how any of the proposed measures would have prevented the latest attack. Because that question is never answered satisfactorily -- which in turn is because most people screaming about gun control after these shootings are mostly interested in pushing for restrictions they have wanted all along, regardless of whether they would be effective -- the first group has taken to ratcheting up the rhetoric in ways that are not constructive.
Yesterday, this escalation took an unexpected turn: against prayer.
Suddenly, people who on social media offered or suggested prayers for the victims, their families, police pursuing killers who were still on the loose at the time, were bombarded with a rejection of this time-honored response to atrocity. Prayer -- the exact same response that many of the very same critics yesterday offered after the terrorist attacks in Paris just weeks ago -- was dismissed as mere "platitude," on par with putting teddy bears at a makeshift memorial shrine. Taking the cake, however, is today's cover-page headline from the New York Daily News:
"Whether your believe in him or not, God is not 'fixing' the problem of mass shootings -- or any other policy issues that we face here in America and around the world. That is properly the province of men and women in the political and private spheres. And the fact of the matter is that when it comes to gun-related violence, the situation today remains far better than it was 20 years ago. A couple of truly disturbing and deadly events don't change that."
Gillespie goes on to note statistics reported by the Pew Research Center just six weeks ago which show the U.S. rate of homicide deaths by firearm fell by half between 1993 and 2013 (a relatively flat rate of suicides by firearm is the reason the rate of all deaths by firearm was down by "only" one-third), while the national rate of nonfatal violent firearm crime victimization was down by 76 percent during that time. He continues:
"To be clear: God did not reduce the gun-violence rates over the past two decades any more than he drove rates up in previous years. Human beings and better, more-open policies toward gun ownership helped to accomplish that."
Having let Gillespie deal with one half of the Daily News' headline -- and that frequent response yesterday to prayer offerings -- let me deal with the other one. If God isn't fixing the problem that remains, why not?
To attempt an answer to that question, I'm going to agree with the critics, but not with their ostensible reasoning.
The problem is not that we need tougher laws instead of appeals to God. The problem is that too many of our appeals to God very likely are mere platitude.
How many of the "prayers" offered on Facebook or Twitter or blog comments or whatever precinct of cyberspace are accompanied by genuine prayers? Real, heartfelt prayers, the kind described in the Bible as offered by those rending garments, wearing sackcloth and ashes , fasting -- in short, surrendering themselves to God and his will? I will confess here that at times I have been guilty of not doing that. (For the purpose of my question, I don't think it matters whether one prays to the God of the Christian Bible or another; I'm no expert on other world faiths, but I would be surprised if most of them didn't call for something similar.)
In 2 Chronicles 7:13-14 , the Lord tells Solomon the following after the king finished building the temple:
"When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land."
How much humbling, how much seeking of his face, how much turning from our wicked ways is really going on in our land? Because if we are going to invoke the God of the Bible, at least, He has told us that's what He requires. To be clear, I am not saying "we've had this coming," as divine punishment, in a Falwell-and-Robertson way of thinking.
I understand many of my readers do not believe in God, or at least the Christian God. I am sure some of you will say we are not a "Christian nation." That's your right.
But here is a reminder for those of us who do believe: For prayer to be powerful, it has to be done right. Maybe if more of us did it the right way more often, more non-believers would take more comfort in our words when we offer them.
(Note: The third paragraph from the end was edited to clarify my meaning.)