San Bernardino and the Power of Prayer

December 2, 2015 at 5:15 am 3 comments


Daily NewsIt all started at a holiday party. Syed Farook, who worked as an environmental specialist for the San Bernardino County health department, was celebrating the season with his coworkers when, at one point during the festivities, he left in a fit of anger. When he returned, he did so with his wife Tashfeen Malik, both of them clad in black tactical gear and heavily armed, and opened fire. By the time the hail of bullets had fallen silent, 14 were dead. 21 were injured. And the couple had left behind explosive devices, which, thankfully, they failed to be able to detonate. Officers pursued the pair and, following a shootout with at least 20 law enforcement officials, the couple was killed.

Police reports indicate that these attacks must have involved “some degree of planning” because of the military style in which they were carried out. Indeed, many experts now believe Farook was radicalized by Internet propaganda from Al Qaeda and meant this to be a terror attack.

Between what happened at Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs two weeks ago and what happened in San Bernardino last week, it’s becoming difficult to make sense out of these mass shootings. One BBC reporter stated the insanity of all this succinctly: “Just another day in the United States of America … Another day of gunfire, panic and fear.”[1] This is most certainly – and sadly – true.

As has become the ritual in moments of tragedy and fear, politicians tweeted their “thoughts and prayers” for those of San Bernardino.  The New York Daily News, however, was not all too happy with the “thoughts and prayers” of some Republican politicians, running this headline: “God Isn’t Fixing This: As latest batch of innocent Americans are left lying in pools of blood, cowards who could truly end gun scourge continue to hide behind meaningless platitudes.” Writing for the Daily News, Rich Schapiro explains the headline:

Prayers aren’t working.

White House hopefuls on the Democratic side of the aisle called for stricter gun laws in the wake of the shooting in San Bernardino that left at least 14 dead.

But after yet another mass shooting in America, GOP presidential contenders were conspicuously silent on the issue of gun control.

Instead, the Republicans were preaching about prayer.[2]

On its surface, and probably in its intention, this is a sensationalized political rant about Republicans and their stance on gun control and gun rights. But beyond the headline and behind the politics, a very troubling worldview emerges. In this regard, the Daily News headline is worth parsing.

“God Isn’t Fixing This”

How does the Daily News know this? How can the Daily News claim this? In Christian theology, sovereignty and eschatology go hand in hand. Sovereignty promises us that God has the power to wipe out evil and evildoers. Eschatology reminds us that God has a timeline, which He has not revealed to us, by which He will finally and fully defeat evil while redeeming and perfecting evildoers who put their faith in Christ. Christians, then, believe that God is fixing this, just not on the timeline that we might prefer.

Moreover, how does the Daily News account for the attacks that have been foiled? Like the one in Paris? Millions of people were praying for Paris in the wake of the highly coordinated terror attacks there. Did the prayers of the faithful work when a second terror plot never came to fruition in an attack? Or is the discovery of this terror plot simply to be chocked up to the work of law enforcement officials alone? If so, the Daily News has presented Christians with a lose-lose proposition: when terror attacks do happen, they prove that prayers do not work and God is not fixing things precisely because they have happened. When terror attacks do not happen, prayers still do not work and God is still not fixing things because a government just happened to get ahead of the attackers.   Thus, the Daily News has already determined prayer does not work and God does not fix things, regardless of what does or does not happen.

If this is the case, then what does or does not happen cannot be marshaled, at least according to the rules of logic, as evidence for or against the efficacy of prayer and the activity of God because it has already been assumed that there is no correlation between prayer, divine activity, and terror attacks. What evidence does the Daily News offer, then, to back up its assertion that prayers are not working and God is not fixing this? None. We are simply to believe it because the Daily News wrote it.

“As latest batch of innocent Americans are left lying in pools of blood, cowards who could truly end gun scourge…”

If prayer does not work and God is not at work, what is the solution to these shootings? Politicians are. Politicians, the Daily News says, “could truly end gun scourge.” Really? What evidence is presented for this claim? Like with the effectiveness of prayer and the activity of God, none is. We are simply to believe it because a journalist wrote it.  In point of fact, I’m fairly certain that California lawmakers have worked quite tirelessly to enact some of the strictest gun control legislation in the nation. Why didn’t it work? And if it did not work, what will?

The claim that politicians can end gun scourge is disingenuous and, quite frankly, ridiculous. Can we take steps to curb it? Of course. Can we enact legislation that addresses it? Absolutely. Can we actually end it? If we can, I would like to see that plan. And I would like to test that plan by seeing how many mass shootings and terror attacks we suffer after such a plan is enacted. The number should be, according to the Daily News headline, precisely zero. Call me a pessimist, but I have a feeling it wouldn’t be.

“…hide behind meaningless platitudes.”

On the one hand, I can understand how the phrase “thoughts and prayers” can become a meaningless platitude, especially when it is tweeted by millions. When a phrase is tossed around long enough and carelessly enough, it tends to become meaningless enough. On the other hand, if the Daily News thinks prayers themselves are meaningless platitudes, then it has made an explicitly theological claim, which, once again, it has not bothered to explain or defend. It simply assumes its view on prayer to be true and assumes its readers will uncritically agree.

As I wrote earlier, the editors of the Daily News more than likely meant this as little more than a sensationalized political rant. The very fact that they attack Republicans for tweeting out “thoughts and prayers” for those in San Bernardino without acknowledging that Democratic politicians have done the same smacks of partisan grandstanding.  If they wanted to argue for tougher gun control laws, they could have done so without attacking Christian theologies of prayer and God’s activity.  They could have been critical of Republican lawmakers – and even of their tweets as compared to their actions – without recklessly and baselessly announcing, “Prayers aren’t working.”  But in my mind, what the Daily News probably did not intend to do with its headline, but what it nevertheless did do, matters much more than its political posturing.  The Daily News essentially argues for a secular agnosticism. The Daily News asserts that God, if He does exist, will not help us. It also asserts that God, if He does exist, does not answer our prayers. Therefore, a spiritual answer to a national crisis is stupid and foolish. Only secular answers are realistic and effective. By the end of the article, it is difficult to walk away with anything other than this impression.

As a Christian, it probably comes as no surprise that I cannot accept the underlying premise of the Daily News headline. To offer only a secularly political solution to the spiritual evil of terror attacks makes no sense to me, in large part because it simply will not work. Gun control legislation is worth discussing. Politicians should be discussing it.  And keeping firearms and explosive devices out of the hands of would-be terrorists and other mass murderers should be a top political and national security concern. But even our best efforts will, at least in part, fail. We can be prudent, but we cannot usher in perfection. To believe otherwise is to assume for ourselves a power that belongs only to God.

I also can’t help but wonder: even if a piece of gun control legislation could wipe out all terror attacks and gun violence, how do we help the community of San Bernardino heal in the wake of the attacks that have already taken place? Does God’s power play no role? How do we give those who have lost loved ones hope? Does God’s promise of salvation through faith in Christ mean nothing to those who grieve? Does the Daily News have a better idea than Christ for offering hope for something beyond this life? Or are the people of San Bernardino to be victimized twice – once by the bullets and bombs of terrorists and again by an acidic secular agnosticism that burns away at any worldview that espouses something beyond the days of this life?

The Atlantic, which, interestingly enough, used to be owned by the same man who now owns the Daily News, published the touching story of a text conversation between a daughter and her father that took place during the San Bernardino shooting:

“Pray for us,” a woman texted her father from inside the Inland Regional Center, while she and her colleagues hid from the gunfire. Outside the building, evacuated workers bowed their heads and held hands. They prayed.[3]

The writers at the Daily News may believe that only legislation will solve our problem with gun violence, but those who actually have a gun pointed to their heads still turn first to prayer.  Maybe we should follow suit.

________________________

[1] The Editorial Board, “Another (mass shooting) day in the USA: Our view,” USA Today (12.2.2015).

[2] Rich Schapiro, “GOP presidential candidates offer prayers — not solutions on gun control — after San Bernardino massacre,” New York Daily News (12.3.2015).

[3] Emma Green, “Prayer Shaming After a Mass Shooting in San Bernardino,” The Atlantic (12.2.2015).

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Entry filed under: Current Trends. Tags: , , , , .

Some Thoughts on Thankfulness Mizzou, Truth, and What Pleases Us

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jim Solinski  |  December 4, 2015 at 5:56 am

    Thanks for your sage thoughts on this Pastor Zach. The prayers will continue unabated by secular media.

    Reply
  • 2. Donald Trump’s Sandbox | Pastor Zach's Blog  |  December 21, 2015 at 5:31 am

    […] Certainly, there would be challenges in any honest theological discussions between Christians and Muslims.  I am no Islamic theologian, but as far as I can tell, Islamic theology does not conceive of an Augustinian distinction between a City of God and a City of Man like Christian theology does.  It is this distinction, outlined for us beautifully in Romans 12 and 13, that has allowed Christians to work comfortably and conscientiously in all sorts of governmental systems, including in American democracy, because they understand that no matter what the system of government, the City of Man that is human government is ultimately, even if hiddenly, under God’s control.  The Christian’s call, then, is not to try to create a Christian government, but to be the Christian Church. In Islamic theology, such a distinction between the City of God and the City of Man does not feature nearly so prominently, if, some might argue, at all.  Mosque and government go hand in hand.  Even so, many Muslim majority countries have figured out ways to create at least some distance between their religion and their rulers.  In this way, then, Christians have Muslims have plenty to talk about, for we both struggle with how to live out our respective faiths in our societies, even if our theologies of how our religions relate to our rulers differ.  Furthermore, we agree that traditional religious categories like orthodoxy, heresy, truth, revelation, prophecy, and deity are important, even if we disagree on how each of these categories, right down to the category of deity, should be filled.  But at least we agree that questions about theology are more important and, ultimately, more enduring than questions of politics and power.  This is more than can be said for some in the secular left. […]

    Reply
  • 3. 2015 In Review | Pastor Zach's Blog  |  January 4, 2016 at 5:23 am

    […] A couple opens fire at a holiday party in San Bernardino, California killing 14 in an apparent act of […]

    Reply

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