The supposition that policy change according to Caesar’s politics is somehow more powerful or effective than the Church’s politics of prayer and worship of the Crucified Christ, I believe, is exactly what’s wrong with the Church and it’s witness to the wider culture:
We live in a time when tragedies are often remembered by the simple name of a place, like Columbine, Ft. Hood, or Virginia Tech. We mention them in conversation like, “After Columbine, we needed metal detectors at schools;” or “We used to be able to ignore some behaviors; but that was before Virginia Tech.”
Other traumatic events are either less institution-specific or more widespread, so we refer to them by the name of the town in which they took place: Charlottesville, Charleston, Houston, Barcelona, Brussels, and now “Las Vegas.” This is not something reserved to the modern era… remember The Alamo? And for a long time, wars have been memorialized simply by the names of the nations in which they were fought: Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq. But, the depressingly high rate of new place-name-memorials has felt historic to many of us.
Regularly, the news reports casualties of gunfire, war, or natural disasters which can be counted in the dozens, the hundreds, and even, God help us, the thousands. And I’m met with the one-two punch of, on the one hand, shock and grief; and, on the other, numbness and avoidance as I sip my morning coffee calculating how today’s casualties will stack up to yesterday’s.
Was this hurricane bad enough to warrant a benefit concert or telethon?
Were today’s IED casualties enough to warrant a press conference?
Will we find out the motivation of the gunman?
Will legislators feel called (or tempted) to turn this into actionable legislation that will change the tide of disaster response, military engagement, international aid, or gun policy in America? How long until they use it to solidify their re-election)?
How long until writers, bloggers, and pastors come out with their commentaries, and retorts, and soap boxes? (In my case, the answer is about a day, 2 cups of coffee, and 1 beer, then a week of prayer and editing)
Tragedy, trauma, and indescribable suffering are becoming ordinary. Perhaps because more tragedy is being reported more quickly. And, perhaps that is because the 24-hour shit-stream of news and information has us hooked on sensationalism.
Whatever the cause, the effect is that I found the sheer violence of the past month (Harvey-Irma-Maria-Las Vegas) both exhausting and routine.
Of course it’s depressing and sad… but I’m kind of too tired to lament, or think critically. And, it all comes so frequently now, I feel like you and I don’t have time to fully react. So, we take short cuts. We fall back on the modern liturgies of tragedy.
News strikes of tragedy.
We listen to hear just how bad it is, to figure out which part comes next.
If it’s bad enough (and the victims are like us enough) we say/post/tweet something about our thoughts and prayers.
If we don’t want to do that, we say/post/tweet something about how thoughts and prayers aren’t enough, and we want people to act.
If we ourselves want to (appear as if we want to) act, we say what “someone” ought to do:
Often the someone is Trump.
Otherwise, it’s a call for more gun-control.
Or less gun control.
For mental health services.
Or better home training.
For more from FEMA.
For more from Trump.
For a local way to help.
For an organization to which we should donate.
Basically, we virtue signal.
Because, in many cases, we have and/or want virtue! In almost all cases, though, regardless of actual virtue, we do this because it makes us feel better.
The liturgy of tragedy makes us feel better.
And it’s not over.
If we haven’t already, we blame someone.
Or blacks in Chicago.
Or Global Warming.
Or “the gays.”
Sometimes we tell someone we want to do something about this, even after the news-cycle moves on. And sometimes we actually do.
We read a book.
We recommend a book.
We write blogs.
We engage in hard conversations.
Many of these actions are genuinely good, or at least come from a place of genuine desire for good. And, they probably should not be mocked.
But, here’s my main thesis…
The thing I hate most about the liturgy of tragedy, is that it eclipses the liturgy of life.
The latest tragedy–Las Vegas–the shooting of hundreds of people resulting in a rising death-toll of 50 or more–I learned about it from a Facebook post that said “Take your thoughts and your prayers and shove them up your ass. It’s time for gun control.”
I’m not upset about the call for gun control. I’m not upset that someone used the word ass.
Honestly, I’m upset at the devaluing of thoughts and prayers.
And I can’t believe how ridiculous writing that makes me feel.
But truly, I think this is something that may actually be worth saying. I am convinced of the power of thought and prayer.
I’m not saying I think thoughts and prayers are going to make this all better, or all go away. And I’m not–I mean very much so not– the kind of Christian who typically says, “I believe in the power of prayer,” where they might as well be talking about the power of a rabbit’s foot to ward off evil spirits, or an amber necklace to make their infant less irritating–I mean irritable.
No, I’m not tritely saying, “Prayer will get us through this.”
I’m saying that I think thought and prayer protects us from tragedy every damned day.
Not all of us. Not enough of us. But most of us.
Thought and prayer, particularly in the form of religious life, and even more particularly (in my case) in Christian worship of and devotion to the Way of God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, is the most profound form of anti-terrorism, anti-violence, anti-hate, anti-poverty, anti-death, anti-tragedy, and down-right-anti-evil that humanity has at its disposal. I say this because, when I really think about it, I’m more than confident that, were it not for the church, there would be more gunmen, terrorists, hate groups, homeless, and dead.
In the age of social media and protest encouraging us to #resist and #persist, I don’t want it to be lost on us that the routine liturgy of life which Christians repeat week in and week out in prayer, study, sacrament, and service is resistance and persistence!
Our thoughts and our prayers are what stop us from killing each other!
And, depending on who is reading this, our thoughts and prayers may be what stop us from killing you! The prayer of confession which we pray gives us the gift of forgiveness for little things like lying and cursing which empower us to resist bigger things like cheating on our spouses, burning down our office building, or staging a violent coup.
The story of a garden, and a snake, a flood, and a holy family; of slavery and freedom, of power, and abuse of power, of injustice and righteousness, of God-with-us even in death, and Love raised to Life, it gives us a courage to admit when we are wrong and to find a common bond of humanity even with our most dire enemy.
The sacrament of baptism gives us a community. No, a family, to guide us when we’re out of line, and notice when we’re gone. To call us on our bullshit, and teach us not to be assholes. The sacrament of Eucharist fills even our bodies with grace that was won through non-violent resistance resulting in the death of an innocent victim. It forms us as people, and as a community, centered on a story of a death that ultimately ends all death. And the life of service to which we are sent from that table–it teaches us that care for the other is truer and more important than competition with or even safety from the other.
The church is many things. Including, often, an utter failure.
But the church is also, at some level, holy. And, even in its holiness, it may be that the sum of the church’s holiness is lived out in little more than a long-standing, never-ending liturgy of thoughts and prayers.
Somewhere tonight, the church is why someone no longer owns guns.
Somewhere tonight, the church is why someone is no longer a member of the KKK
Somewhere tonight, the church is why someone has friends outside their race.
Somewhere tonight, the church is why someone who voted for Hillary invited a Trump supporter to coffee.
Somewhere tonight, the church is why a real estate developer refused to construct in a flood zone.
Somewhere tonight, the church is why a real estate developer built affordable housing in the same neighborhood they themselves would be willing to live.
Somewhere tonight, the church is why someone has a roof over their head when their family kicked them out of the house.
Somewhere tonight, the church is why a child of abuse is not destined to become abusive.
Somewhere tonight, the church is why someone was forgiven, and not killed.
Somewhere tonight, the church is why someone was imprisoned, and not killed.
Somewhere tonight, the church is why, in the moment just before someone died from a gunshot wound, they were unafraid.
In a world where the liturgy of tragedy has become all too familiar, still…
Thoughts and Prayers are the liturgy of life.
Thoughts and Prayers are resistance to the liturgy of tragedy.
Thoughts and Prayers are the persistent heartbeat of the church.
Thoughts and Prayers are the church exchanging the way of this world for the mind of Christ.
So, if you want to do something to mourn, to heal, to help, or to avoid becoming the terrorist you and I are all too easily capable of becoming, try some thoughts and prayers. Come to church. We will try it with you.
Because, in the end, the church is not actually why any of those good things happen. Those things happen through the church because of Christ. Because in Christ, Existence and Love took on flesh in Bethlehem and then Galilee happened and then Capernaum. And then Ganesaret. Then Samaria. Then Bethany. Then Jerusalem. Then Golgatha. Then the Garden. Then Emmaus. Then Jerusalem again. Then Galilee again. Then Damascus and Antioch. Then Corinth, and Thesalonica, and Ephesus. Then Jerusalem again. Then Patmos. Then Chalcedon. Then Rome. Then Nicea. Then Syria. Then Avila. Then Asisi. Then England. Then Norwich. Then Wittenberg. Then Oxford. Then Aldersgate. Then Baltimore. Then Birmingham. Then, eventually, in my life, Norfolk, and Richmond, and Williamsburg, and Winchester, and Upperville, and Alexandria, and Springfield, and St. Stephen’s.
Every event, in every place, in every time, is where tragedy has struck, is striking, or will strike. The only thing more definitive than that fact is that in Christ tragedy will not win. And it is to this truth, in honor of the victims of sin and death, that I devote my thoughts and prayers tonight.