Dec. 2 became another day in American history that is not tallied in a calendar sent out to place on your desk. It was not a date that people will ask themselves, “where were you on Dec. 2?” It’s not a moment in history that is something worth celebrating, but when this date is recalled for the events that took place, it will be remembered as bloody and tragic.
At 11 a.m. Pacific Standard time, Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik opened fire on the Inland Regional Center killing 14 and leaving another 21 wounded. The discovery of homemade bombs and thousands of rounds of ammo stockpiled in their home indicated something more ominous than the media’s first reaction, which was to label this as workplace violence.
On cue, advocates for stricter gun control began showing up in Twitter feeds and media interviews, calling for curtailing Second Amendment freedoms for the greater good. No bother that several gun and weapons laws were already broken by the couple bent on killing and terrorizing as many as possible.
Republican presidential candidates tweeted out in unison that their thoughts and prayers were with the victims and families of the shooting. A vitriolic backlash ensued against those offering thoughts and prayers to the victims. Tweets and social media posts stating that “prayer won’t fix this,” “stop praying and start acting,” and sundry other criticisms saturated cyberspace. Capping off this drama was Thursday’s New York Daily News headline which blared in bold caps “GOD ISN’T FIXING THIS.”
Social media respondents failed to realize that the offering of thoughts and prayers is not a policy proposal. And those who think it stands in place of that are sorely mistaken. To demean the petition of Divine help in a situation that is not fully understood is an expression of humility, not of political standoff. No presidential candidate, congressman, or legislator imagines that prayer is the only road to solving crucial issues of our day but rather a prerequisite for many before they take action.
Offering thoughts and prayers is not a stand-in for action, but rather a posture of patience, seeking to be less influenced by the emotionalism of the situation and asking for the clarity it takes to make decisions. Prayer is much more than a policy fix as it centers the person, expresses an awareness of dependence, and allows for a sense of clarity to take action in light of current events. There’s also rich political precedent for prayer during trying times.
President Roosevelt turned to prayer when he led the nation on the eve of D-Day and President Bush called for a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance in the wake of 9/11. Prayer is where many turn for comfort in times of shock and overwhelming grief. But such solace seems out of bounds in the age of a secularized public square and social media which has short-circuited temperaments if not attention spans.
Tragedies in the social media age can often bring out the worst versions of ourselves. It’s simple to hide behind a screen where tone, frustration, anger and despair cannot be seen. Screens only relay words. They cannot convey tonality. They’re also easy to hide behind as a sense of anonymity fosters an environment where accountability is lost. When coupled with an ever-moving news cycle, social media often becomes noxious.
Frustration opens the door for judgments before all the facts are in and this often leads to rallying around mantras that people fail to fully understand: “stop praying and start acting.” As if they are mutually exclusive. Even the late Chris Hitchens, who was a militant atheist, thanked his opponents for praying for him after he was diagnosed with cancer.
People who pray aren’t the culprits in times of tragedy. So when personal sentiments of prayer become an offense that is made a public spectacle perhaps its time for the critics to engage in some self-analysis and take inventory on what’s eating at them. It might even turn them to prayer.
Bryan Baise is an assistant professor of Worldview and Apologetics at Boyce College in Louisville. Richard Nelson is the executive director of the Commonwealth Policy Center.