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Christianity Today executive editor Andy Crouch has a pitch-perfect response to the critique that “God isn’t fixing this” and that politicians and people of faith should stop saying our “thoughts and prayers” are with the victims of the San Bernardino shooting and that action is needed rather than prayer.
Crouch writes, “We can say with some confidence that all the following are true.”
[The bold headings are my summations. What follows are excerpts from each of Crouch’s points.]
[1. Almost all of us naturally express empathy in our familiar terms.]
1.a. When news of a tragedy reaches us, almost all of us find our thoughts overwhelmed for minutes, hours, or days, depending on the scope, severity, and vividness of the loss. This is called empathy—our ability to put ourselves in the place of others and imagine their suffering and fear, as well as heroism and courage, and to wonder how we would react in their place.
1.b. Almost all human beings, whatever their formal religious affiliation, find themselves caught up in a further reaction to tragedy: reaching out to a personal reality beyond themselves, with grief, groaning, and petition for relief. . . .
1.c. Unless the tragedy is literally at our door, this empathic response—call it “thoughts and prayers”—is all that is available to us in the moments after terrible news reaches us. . . .
1.d. It is unrealistic, and arguably cruel, to ask for fresh words in the moment that we are confronted with suffering and loss, let alone horror and evil. Every human being, in these moments, falls back on liturgies—patterns of language and behavior learned long before that get us through the worst moments in our lives. . . .
1.e. Politicians and public figures are fundamentally like all other human beings and have the same basic responses to tragedy. This is true no matter their position on controversial issues of policy (say, gun control). So it is no surprise that they respond immediately, like the rest of us do, with familiar words and phrases that express their human solidarity with those who suffer. . . .
[2. Prayerful lament is right and does not ask God to “fix” things.]
2.a. To offer prayer in the wake of tragedy is not, except in the most flattened and extreme versions of populist Christianity, to ask God to “fix” anything. . . .
2.b. An equally valid and instinctive form of prayer in the face of tragedy is lament, which calls out in anguish to God, asking why the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. . . .
2.c. No honest accounting of history can deny that God, if there is a God, is terrifyingly patient with evil. And yet, over and over, astonishing goodness, holiness, and reconciliation have emerged from even the most heinous acts of violence. . . .
[3. Prayer and action should not be played against each other.]
3.a. To suggest that we should act (though usually without specifying how those of us not physically present could act in the immediate wake of tragedy or terror), instead of pray, therefore, is to ask us to deny our capacity for empathy.
3.b. At the same time, the Bible makes it clear that God despises acts of outward piety or sentimentality that are not matched with action on behalf of justice. . . .
3.c. Therefore we must never settle for a false dichotomy between prayer and action, as if it were impossible to pray while acting or act while praying. . . .
3.d. To insist that people should act instead of pray, or that we should act without praying, is idolatry, substituting the creature for the Creator. . . .
[4. The victims are in our thoughts and prayers.]
4. Therefore the victims of the shootings in San Bernardino, and all those who were caught up in the violence and live this very moment in its awful continuing reality and consequences, and also those who perpetrated the violence, are in our thoughts and prayers.