A little over a year ago, on 19 June 2016, I wrote a column called “I Prayed Today for the Shooter,” in which I confessed that I was praying for Omar Mateen—who murdered 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Miami.
Today, looking at the aftermath of the Las Vegas, we stand here again. And perhaps like me, you are, again, appalled and numb, unable to turn away from the images of carnage and the stories of loss and brokenness. With tears in our eyes, we look at the images and read about Hannah Ahlers, the 35 year old sky-diving enthusiast from Murrieta, California; and Charleston Hartfield, the 34 year old off-duty Las Vegas police office, youth football coach, and military veteran. We read the story of Jessica Klymchuck, from Alberta, Canada, the single mother of four, who drove a bus and worked as a librarian, and had just became engaged to Brent Irla—who was at her side when she died. We see a beautiful anticipation in the face of Bailey Schweitzer, only 20 years old, followed by the wisdom and kindness of Susan Smith, 53. Looking at photograph after photograph—images from Facebook or Instagram, from official portraits or family gatherings—and reading the brief synopses—put together from bits and pieces told to reporters or from social media profiles—we can almost forget, just for a moment, what we are seeing, forget why these snapshots and biographies of ordinary people come up, one after another, on our computers.
But then it comes back: the loss, the suffering, the sense of worlds destroyed in a few minutes. As though the photographs burst into flame in our hands, we cannot put together the images on the screen or page with the facts told to us: that all of these people are dead. In a very real way, it is beyond human comprehension, beyond the capacity of human empathy—who could survive entry into all of these lives? Who could live while sharing the pain of all of those left behind? It would, I think, destroy us.
There have been so many horrible events, so many senseless acts of hatred and violence, that have occurred in the last years—against people at the movies or civil servants eating lunch, against a circle of prayer in Charleston or toddlers gathered in Newtown, against dancers in Miami and now against country music fans in Las Vegas—that we can grow dull and lose our sense of reality. We try to pray, but the words sound empty, powerless against an wave of rancor and resentment. Where is God, when we are exiled from all that we thought we knew? Where is God in the midst of so much destruction and death? We seek the true God, but are met, instead, with the simplistic divisions of our age, divisions that offer little solace, but deepen in us the sense that we are lost and powerless in a wilderness we cannot escape.
On the one hand, we hear the platitudes of politicians and the soporific ministrations of modern day Pharisees—worshippers at the altar of special interest politics or in the temple of money and power. In their mouths, the talk of “thoughts and prayers” is offered as a anesthesia, meant to dull us to the images of blood-stained streets and parentless children. As though ordained by God, the right to bear arms is proclaimed like an article of faith, an inalienable dimension of human freedom; and the “occasional” actions of a lone person are portrayed as an essential price of liberty. Implying that such deaths are inevitable, we hear whispered sighs of “tragedy” and of the “incomprehensible” anger of this well-off retiree—all meant to silence our deeper questions about the culture that creates such anger and the greed which arms it. “Thoughts and prayers,” is what we are offered, like a child being soothed back to sleep after a bad dream, so that, as the memories fade for all but those directly effected, the worship of the idol of death can begin again.
But if the language of “thoughts and prayers” is often co-opted by those who seek only to maintain the status quo, the merely opposite notion—i.e., that “thoughts and prayers” offer us nothing—only deepens the divide that separates our culture and leaves our hearts abandoned. Today, in the anger and sorrow of our land, we can be tempted to answer rage with rage, to listen to those voices who would call us to opposition without love, to a justice so pure as to forget that we are all sinners, in need of God’s mercy and care. In such an oppositional view, devoid of humility and compassion, we may become like the apostles, driven with Jesus from the Samaritan village: what we want is fire from heaven, the power of God poured out upon the destroyers and their enablers! In this desire for action, we become simply reactive, and as blind as those whom we oppose—for those we oppose are not our enemies, but our sisters and brothers; indeed, even the shooter is one like us, worthy of tears and deeply in need of the mercy of God.
When Jesus rebukes James and John, he is not taking the side of the Samaritans; rather, he is showing us that the fruit of true prayer breaks us free from the false dichotomy of acceptance versus rage, of the virtuous versus the sinner. In the example of Christ, evil is overcome through communion and sacrifice, through the self-emptying love of the Cross and not the self-justifying violence of the sword. So, too, in genuine prayer—not the bland repetition of tired words, but the prayer that comes from our soul, and cries out to the God of life and death—we unite ourselves to the world and to each person, healing the divisions both within us and between us, and allowing ourselves to know who we are, as we compassionately embrace the other. Contrary to the bland promises of “thoughts and prayers,” truly Christian prayer does not desensitize us, but carries us to those who suffer, encountering them as Christ himself encountered them. And as we become more and more one with the incarnate Christ, we do not hide from pain nor loss, but are called to embrace it with love and hope, called to hold to our own hearts the dead, the wounded, the mourning, and even the shooter—for all of these are our sisters and brothers, all of these are the ones for whom Christ himself came into the world.
True prayer, thus, always leads to action, but never to vengeance, never to the rage that would destroy the other in the name of some greater good. While we may be tempted to call down fire from heaven upon those we oppose, Christ rebukes us, and shows us a better way. For in his obedience to the love of God, Jesus overcomes the power of death, and in his sacrifice, invites us to become ministers of love. So it is that true prayer must lead us, as it led him, into the darkness of the world—not so that we might fall asleep nor so that we might rage blindly—but so that we might bring light into this darkness, the light we have been given, the light which overcomes division and separation, and draws us closer to the reign of God we are meant to share.
In the wake of the shootings in Las Vegas, we—as disciples of Christ—must avoid the twin-deceits offered by the enemy of our human nature; for neither surrender born of acceptance nor rage born of frustration will offer us or our world the true conversion we need. Rather, we must discern together: challenging this culture of hatred and violence, of ideology and extremism, this culture that fosters division and stokes the flames of resentment—even among those most objectively privileged. We must ask ourselves if we have not made idols of our fears: glorifying the gun and its false power, while failing to ground ourselves in the common good and the true virtue of loving dissent. We must, above all, come to embrace each other: not as ideas nor as interests groups, but as sisters and brothers, sinners loved by God in an absolute way. Let us be rebuked for the fire we have called down, and in our penance, let us sit together on the ground and talk as friends.