I wrote a piece a few weeks ago, shortly after the recent Paris attacks, when one of my very conservative friends blasted away that we should forget about praying for Paris and start bombing. I argued for the efficacy of prayer, and the need to think prayerfully before taking military action. In the aftermath of San Bernardino, those same right wing friends are outraged that they are being chastised for their prayers for the victims by “radical leftists” demanding immediate action on gun regulation, which they vigorously oppose. Prayer seems little more than a badminton shuttlecock no one wants to own, and is batted back and forth only to score pious sounding points.
It’s hard to judge the motivations of candidates and others who have publicly offered their thoughts and prayers for the victims in San Bernardino, but my suspicion goes in the direction of hypocrisy, and here’s why. Prayer, understood as honest conversation with God, in which we strain to hear what God might be saying, is the most powerful tool we have in life. But it is a tool that God uses to work in us, with us, through us, and for us. It is not a tool we use to get what we want, to pass the buck, or to express comforting sentiments as a substitute for actually doing anything helpful. The efficacy of prayer is in the work we do as a result of our engagement in conversation with God.
I don’t see much evidence of that in the prayer language currently being batted back and forth. In a way, that’s not so bad. At least most of my friends on the far right are not using superficial claims of prayer as a justification for doing something about which God has had very little to say, or worse, something that is morally repugnant to scripture, tradition, and reason. It’s more like an attempt to express visceral anger and sadness in the same breath without having done much thoughtful reflection or possessing the right words to do it well.
The same cannot be said for some of those with access to highly visible public platforms. Luke’s John the Baptist rudely called some of those who came to him a brood of vipers. In Matthew it’s not only John, but Jesus also who lays that on certain religious and community leaders. A brood of vipers. I’m inclined to think that Mr. Falwell, Jr., the current president of Liberty University, could be included in that brood, as can any other public figure who claims to offer prayer for victims in one breath, and demonizes an entire population in the next, or who proposes inhuman revenge for inhuman actions perpetrated by others.
If any of my far right wing friends (and I do have some) read this, I imagine they will object with a “Same to you, buddy!” Am I not demonizing them? Am I not accusing them of gross hypocrisy when it’s obvious that I am the one who is being naive, if not disingenuous? My answer will not satisfy them. I know that. But here goes.
No, you are not being demonized, but I can see little in what you have said that is consistent with what Christ has taught, and he outranks you by a long way. I can’t let that pass without saying so. Moreover, as a Christian realist (yes, I know it’s Niebuhr’s term) I have no illusions about the Realpolitik being played out with whatever tools of power are at hand, regardless of how violent or immoral they might be. Is that a game we want to engage in? For moral reasons, I hope not. For pragmatic reasons, those tools don’t work in any lasting way that leads toward a better world in which to live. And please, please don’t bring up WWII as your example. We don’t live in 1941.