This evening I saw some of the footage from the smartphones of those in Las Vegas who were in or around the site of the music festival that was attacked from a hotel window by Stephen Paddock. As I write this 59 people are confirmed dead, more than 500 injured. The footage was surreal, the sounds associated with a war zone: automatic gun fire. It is horrific. And sadly this is one of almost 300 mass shootings in the USA in 2017.
When safe spaces, such as a music festival or a gay nightclub (remembering Pulse nightclub in Orlando last year) become killing fields our reaction should and must be horror and, surely, a desire to take action that this kind of thing cannot happen again.
So take all that for granted, please. The person who caused the horror last night in Las Vegas was Stephen Paddock. On him lies the blame.
We live in society, we do not live in isolation from each other. We live together with responsibility for each other. And part of that responsibility is creating laws that enable our protection of each other. This is what the Ten Commandments were about for a wandering tribe millennia ago: a means to help protect one another.
Listening to Donald Trump speak about the atrocity, and thankfully restricted to reading remarks from a teleprompter so that he did not veer off, I was struck and depressed to hear how much he called on the name of God and referenced multiple times how he was praying for the people involved.
Surely this is a good thing? I would say yes in the case of any sincere person. But Trump is self-evidently not sincere, and when he tries to talk God-talk it is painfully obvious that he has no idea what he is talking about. Someone else wrote the words he spoke.
Yet I am not really going to blame Trump for the way he instantly reverted to language of prayer in response to this attack. For he is far from alone. How many times do we read politicians in response to terrible events pull out the prayer card? How many times do we read a tweet from a politician saying something like "Sending thoughts and prayers to the people of...". I think I may even have used similar language in the past, for it has become a shorthand for "I am helpless, but feel like I have to say something positive."
What was I thinking? What does that even mean? Sending prayers? Are we really thinking that prayers are like telegrams? Sending a prayer is sending a little packet of condolence across the world? Or do we thinking sending prayers is like waving a wand to make things better?
Let's be honest here, and especially when it comes to politicians, it is often lazy language. To say "I'm sending thoughts and prayers..." is a way to appear concerned and compassionate, but without any cost. Am I being too cynical? I don't think so. For so many of these politicians in the USA that are talking about sending prayers, such as Donald Trump, will do absolutely nothing to take active action that might help prevent another such atrocity from taking place. Yet it is in their power to actually change laws that would make such an event far less likely to happen. It is in their hands to save lives, to make a difference, but they don't want to admit it.
I can guarantee, just as in the past year since the shooting in Orlando, Florida, nothing will be done to put checks on gun ownership or reduce the sea of guns that exist in the United States. Even worse than that, while sending "thoughts and prayers" many of these same politicians will be taking money from gun companies and lobbyists and passing laws that make gun ownership more easy at home and abroad. Just last week we heard the Trump administration was wanting to free up the rules to allow more guns from domestic manufacturers to be sold abroad, and there has been talk about making the purchase of gun silencers easier. Trump earlier this year removed a change Obama had introduced to try to prevent gun sales to people with mental health issues.
So what I hear when many politicans say "Sending thoughts and prayers..." is "I want to appear compassionate but I am going to do nothing to stop this kind of thing from happening."
That really makes me sad and frustrated, and, with the more cynical politicians, angry. Because it is a fundamental misunderstanding of prayer. Indeed it is an abuse of what prayer is about. It likens prayer to a magic wand, or worse it makes it just another meaningless warm, friendly word. I believe prayer is powerful and necessary, but not in the way that is meant by the thoughtless use of the word in these statements.
What is prayer? There are whole books on the subject, so I cannot do it full justice in this blog post, but here's the crux of it for me: prayer is our active engagement with aligning ourselves to the will of God. Prayer, in all its many forms, is a way for us to come closer to God, and for God's will to become clearer to us so that we, in turn, can then do something about it. So when I pray to God about a particular situation I am doing so with some trepidation because the answer to that prayer I expect to be thrown back into my hands: 'here's what you should be doing about it, Peter!' What will God want of me? If I lift up in prayer the situation of homeless people in our country, I am not doing it to hand over the situation to God, like it is some divine game of Pass the Parcel, I do it with the expectation of conviction towards action.
Prayer does not exist in isolation, as I hope you see. For me, it exists as part of a relationship with God through Jesus. It is intimately tied up and connected with a greater knowledge of God's ways, as revealed to us in Jesus, and through the Spirit of God's nudging and guiding. We need to know more about what Jesus was doing, what he taught, how he lived, why he did what he did, in order to understand the way of God. All this then doubles back on us takign the time to pray and reflect, to bring to God our own situations and think through with God what this means for us. In that process of bringing to God situations and people that concern us what we are really doing is bringing ourselves humbly before God with our concerns about these situations and people in order that we uncover how we can best help those situations or those people. Prayer is fundamentally about changing us, it is about bringing us, our thoughts and our actions, into greater alignment with God. You see this with Jesus as he talks to his disciples about prayer and offers up his model of prayer, the Lord's Prayer. It is a prayer that brings us closer to God that we may live out God's way in our lives.
This is partly why I am confident in the insincerity of Donald Trump when he quotes scripture and talks of praying for situations: he has no clue what Jesus was about, indeed I am certain that if Jesus' life and the reason why Jesus did what he did was explained to Trump his reaction would be: "What a loser!" It is the language Trump has used about the Mayor of San Juan Puerto Rico, Carmen Yulin Cruz, as she desperately has been trying to help, actively, her own people survive the onslaught of two hurricanes by appealing to her President for assitance. He mocked her leadership by tweet on Saturday.
This is why hearing politicians use the language of prayer as a cover so that they can avoid taking action makes me so mad. What they are doing is the opposite of prayer. If they were really praying about it and thereby opening themselves up to God, I have no doubt we would see far more action to alleviate the causes of so much heartache and sorrow in the world.