Thoughts and Prayers: The National Ritual

By Bill Mefford

The first chapter in Isaiah is one of the most brutal and damning in all of Scripture. Though God desires relationship with all of creation, it is in this chapter God literally shuts off God’s senses to God's peple:

  • 1:13 – the smell of incense is an “abomination” to God,
  • 1:15 – God refuses to look when God’s people reach out their hands in prayer, and
  • 1:15 – God no longer listens to the peoples' prayers as their “hands are full of blood.”

God shutting all sensory contact with God’s people is a stunning image symbolizes the complete absence break in relationship. Further, God states that God “hates” the worship being orchestrated by God’s people. These times of worship “have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.” (1:14)

Why such intensity? There are many forms, but the root of this break is the injustice that pervades throughout society all the while God’s people intend to carry on as usual. People have become accustomed to violence and injustice committed against especially the most vulnerable in society and they have so compartmentalized it that they still expect God’s blessing even in the midst of it.

But God is not having it.

We always must be careful at too easily applying superficial interpretations of Scripture to our current context. Even with that said, it is hard not to see such relevance for the United States now when reading this passage, particularly when we see the common responses from faith leaders and politicians to the epidemic of mass shootings that have become the new normal.

We have created a new national ritual for mass shootings:

  • There is some kind of mass shooting: in a classroom, in a workplace, in a mall, in a movie theater, or even in a church
  • There is outrage at the brutality of the shooting (and becoming more commonplace, the shooting sets some type of "record")
  • Politicians send their “thoughts and prayers”
  • Faith leaders and faith organizations create statements calling for reform while offering “thoughts and prayers”
  • Media spurs a discussion on possible gun reform (with the obligatory NRA neanderthal calling for even more unlimited access to guns)
  • Nothing changes
  • Repeat the cycle

The sickest part of this cycle to me is that the offering of “thoughts and prayers” from politicians and even from faith leaders, faith organizations, and denominational offices gives it legitimacy; it allows us to assume that the violence has been addressed and we can carry on because the "experts" have recognized it. This is the role of civil religion. And this is the religion that God literally cannot stand; that God shuts down God's senses to.

When faith leaders and faith organizations write out their long church statements and resolutions expressing their grief at more unnecessary deaths, their rightful outrage that this killing continues unabated, and even their call for certain policy changes, these statements and resolutions are simply playing their part in the new national ritual that is the new normal. The statements and resolutions give us something to resonate with, but the killings continue and literally nothing is changed. There are no new forms of engagement. There is no new method of organizing to stop it. The same killings. The same political and ecclesial responses. And the killings continue.

God hide’s God’s eyes from our outstretched arms and God closes God’s ears to the prayers we offer because our hands – all of our hands are full of blood.

We cannot continue this cycle and pretend that God is listening. We, the church, cannot continue to grieve and pray, giving voice momentarily to our outrage through useless resolutions and statements, while nothing changes.

To break this cycle we have got to respond differently. I already know that the institutional church won’t do so. Though this might sound harsh, I believe it is true. The institutional church actually benefits from such injustices. Such injustices provide the opportunity for the upper echelons of the institution to speak eloquently and pastorally without having to actually pastor those whose lives are forever destroyed by gun violence. A little injustice is good for civil religion because those are the occasions when people want to hear something that sounds official and that rings with Christian familiarity. If it weren’t for these occasions of injustice, then the majority of people, even in their own denominations, would never know the upper echelons of the institution even existed. We only continue this deadly and dysfunctional ritual when we look to these institutions for leadership. 

So, where should we look for leadership?

I am glad you asked. On Monday, I joined a group called Gays Against Guns for a direct civil disobedience action in the Hart Senate Office Building. You can check out the video on Fig Tree Revolution’s Facebook page. It was powerful because a small group of us took over the lobby of the entire building, chanting (really yelling), stopping the business of all of the offices in that building for a short time, forcing them to hear our passionate cries to end gun violence. This wasn't a resolution they could file away or toss in the recycling bin, if it even got far enough to be noticed at all. We were in their face. We refused to be ignored. No more damn ritual, no more new normal.

A small group got arrested and I have to tell you, it was a holy time. I felt God’s presence. I felt God’s presence because we weren’t offering quiet prayers, or long-winded, biblically-laden statements. We weren’t fulfilling our role in the national ritual that legitimizes gun violence. I sensed God’s presence with us, listening to us, acting with us and not one of us was attached to a recognized faith organization or denominational office. Sometimes God must move outside the church to accomplish what the church should be doing. 

This shouldn't be surprising either. This is the prophetic role. This is what Isaiah and other prophets did. That is what Jesus did. Jesus absolutely refused to allow things to continue on as they had when the dysfunction allowed for the trampling of people, especially the most vulnerable. He threw a wrench into the institutional gears and this inconvenienced everyone, not just the Pharisees. Even those he loved.

As we look for God while we seek to do justice I think we might be surprised at where we find God.

God might be kneeling down on the sidelines during the national anthem.

God might be laying down on the floor of the lobby of the Senate office building waiting to get arrested.

God might be pulling over to record a white police officer giving a ticket to driver of color in order to ensure that no brutality occurs. 

God will be marching, chanting and screaming, committing civil disobedience, and causing everyone discomfort and inconvenience. God might even embarrass those who profess concern for justice because God doesn't care about waiting for the "right time and right place" to stop injustice. God will most certainly experience consternation and ridicule, especially from those in control of our institutions (especially church institutions!). God will move outside the church when the church refuses to exist on the margins.

There is one thing that we can be sure that God will not do. God will not send thoughts and prayers, nor will God listen to those who send thoughts and prayers. Let's leave that useless ritual behind.

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