The divide is growing. In the wake of another mass shooting, the US has entered a now familiar liturgy: people demand changed policies; politicians offer prayers; nothing changes.
This time, rather than placating constituents, the prayers of politicians has been met with backlash. The New York Daily News released a bold cover: “God Isn’t Fixing This.” On twitter, #thoughtsandprayers was trending, with use ranging from a recognition of congress’s inactivity to blatant mockery of prayer practices in general.
Which of course created a backlash against that backlash: Christians defending prayer and speaking against such “prayer shaming.”
Part of what causes my heart to break so deeply in the midst of this conversation is that, across the illusion of the chasm between them, both sides have something beautiful to offer the other side. The Christians are correct in saying we should be praying; the secularists are correct in saying that there should be action.
What made Christianity radical is its anti-theist understanding of prayer, that prayer is never complete until it is followed by action. There are lots of articles and Bible-verse lists about how Jesus prayed: usually alone, often on a mountain or in a desert. But often the sentence about Jesus’s prayer is followed by a sentence about his action. Jesus prays and immediately after, he gathers and teaches. Jesus prays and immediately after walks onto the water to the disciples in a boat. Jesus prays and then raises Lazarus from the dead. Jesus prays and then is arrested and goes to the cross.
For Jesus, prayer seems to be the inhale he takes before exhaling into action. He is filled through the inhale prayer so that he may exhale into action through preaching and miracles. For Jesus, prayer and action are so interwoven as to be inseparable; the prayer is not complete until exhaled into action.
We Christians often end our prayers with the words “in the name of Jesus Christ” or “through Jesus Christ.” We pray in and through Jesus. We receive eucharist that metabolizes us in and through the Christ. We receive baptism that has brought us in and through the church, which we also call the body of Christ.
In these ways, we are living members of the Christ to whom we pray in and through; we pray ourselves into being part of Christ, and pray ourselves into becoming part of the answer to the very prayers we speak. Christian theologian Ronald Rolheiser reminds us that “to pray as a Christian demands concrete involvement in trying to bring about what is pleaded for in the prayer.”
For an everyday example: consider someone who prays for healing for a sick neighbor, but never brings a meal or offers to drive to the doctor. She does the inhale of the prayer, but never completes it in the exhale; she prays as a theist and not as a Christian.
The dynamics might be similar in our nation-wide conversation about gun violence and prayer. Non-Christian people are calling Christians to action; they are calling us to exhale our prayers into action. It is not always done tactfully, kindly, or lovingly, but if we are open to their criticism in the way that Christ received death, perhaps we can develop ears to hear how deeply, prophetically Christ-like their call to action is.
Likewise, Christians are calling the country to prayer. We are right to say that it is impossible to exhale indefinitely; we must inhale in order to receive the Spirit that Jesus breathed upon us. In our inhale, we begin to grow in the ability to discern God’s will for humanity. In our inhale, we begin to let go of what our own desire may be for the future of our country. In order to act lovingly, our actions must originate in prayer.
Secular society is calling the church to action; the church is calling secular society to prayer.
Both sides have something beautiful to offer. We should be praying. Prayer is not complete until followed by action.
Each could be a blessing to the other, if we all soften our hearts enough to hear it. It’s risky. A soft heart is a much more easily broken heart. But perhaps broken heartedness is not an inappropriate response to such circumstances.