A MESSAGE FROM THE REV. J.C. AUSTIN: ALIGNING OUR WILL WITH GOD’S
Buffalo, NY. Laguna Beach, CA. Uvalde, TX. These three communities have almost nothing in common: Buffalo
is a small city struggling to revitalize itself in the “Rust Belt,” the old industrial corridor that straddles the
Northeast and the Midwest. Laguna Beach is a wealthy community in glitzy Orange County, just outside of Los
Angeles. Uvalde is a sunbaked small town in the rural area west of San Antonio, about halfway to the Mexican
border. Pretty much everything you can think of, from geographic location to racial/ethnic diversity to
economic opportunity to local climate, is radically different.
They only seem to have one thing in common: they’ve all been the site of a mass shooting in the United States in less than a 10-day span. Uvalde, in particular, is hitting hard, because it’s the second-deadliest school shooting in history (and, appallingly, there is a lot of competition for that title, eclipsed only by the horrors of Sandy Hook ten years ago, of which it is all too reminiscent.)
Part of what is so hard about all this is the familiarity of it. The entire world should stop when 19 elementary school children and their two teachers are murdered by a gunman while sitting in their classrooms. But, while this one is getting more attention than most, the world isn’t stopping, because these events have become part of the fabric of American life since Columbine in 1999.
In fact, there is a predictable public liturgy that is already being followed instead: a news cycle in which dismay and grief are expressed, and “thoughts and prayers” are offered by public figures; a vigorous debate over the causes and solutions to rampant gun violence in the United States; and a failure of any meaningful leadership or action or even experimentation in addressing those causes or pursuing those solutions. And then the liturgy is concluded until the next time.
It is so consistent that, for many people in the United States, prayer has become a dirty word in the aftermath of these events. That is because prayer is so often used as a substitute for meaningful engagement or action or intentionality in these circumstances: people pause and offer “thoughts and prayers” for those who were tragically killed, and then go about their business, shaking their heads at the terrible but seemingly inevitable carnage. And so more and more people have said “enough”: we need to stop praying and do something about this unusually American problem of mass gun violence.
To that, I want to say two things for us to wrestle with as Christians. First, as disciples of Jesus Christ, prayer is always an appropriate response. Jesus filled his earthly ministry with prayers: prayers for guidance, prayers of lament, prayers of thanksgiving, prayers for people to be made well and for unjust systems and circumstances to be judged and transformed, even when it seemed almost impossible that anything could really be changed. So we must reject any call to stop offering prayers, especially in times like these.
And second, as disciples of Jesus Christ, prayer is never the only appropriate response. That’s because prayer is not a coin that we toss into the fountain while making a wish. Prayer is not about getting God to do what we want, much less getting God to do what we don’t want to do ourselves; prayer is about intentionally seeking to align our wills with God’s will.
That is why Jesus taught us to pray by saying, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” because human beings spend a lot of time going against God’s will on earth, and there can be no question that the mass murder of children is against God’s will. In fact, the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with examples of God warning God’s people not to follow the gods of other peoples, and particularly not the ones whose worship included child sacrifices to idols.
And what that means is that prayer is supposed to be the prelude to faithful action in line with God’s will for human well-being on earth, not a substitute for such action. We pray for what we think and hope God’s will is for something in the world, and then we commit ourselves as faithful followers for taking concrete action to help build up the kingdom of God in that way in the world. Prayer and action are not conflicting alternatives; they go hand in hand for us as Christians.
So, yes, let us pray in response to these shootings: pray for comfort to those who are experiencing the almost-indescribable grief of losing a child; pray for an end to these patterns of violence; pray for a better world that is in line with God’s intentions and promises for us. And let us pray for ourselves and our leaders, as well: pray for wisdom and imagination, courage and humility, strength and resilience, guidance and vision, because we will need all those things and more as we also answer the call and expectation to help find and take the action that is so elusive and overdue in ridding our society of this plague of senseless violence.
But that action, and our participation in it, is necessary and faithful, because a world that accepts these sorts of terrible events as inevitable is doing nothing less than flouting God’s will for our children, for our world, for our very humanity.
Do I know what that action is? What the path to finally solving these seemingly intractable issues are? No. But that is why it is all the more important to both pray and act out of faith. For as Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” So let us, at least, commit to that: to praying and taking a first step, trusting in God to guide us and lead us as we go. Because the one thing that is certain is that we cannot, must not, stay where we are any more.
Grace and Peace,