Prayers and Politics

Unfortunately, this script is starting to become familiar.

A mass shooting takes place. A group of grieved and angry people react by calling for stricter gun control laws. A second group of grieved and angry people react to the first group by admonishing them not to politicize a tragedy. The first group says, “Well, your thoughts and prayers aren’t exactly helping.” To which the second group says, “But can’t we just mourn for a minute before bringing politics into everything?” And round and round they go until the tragedy is far enough behind us all that we forget about it and the argument fizzles out. Until next month, of course, when a new tragedy strikes and it all starts back up again.

Like most everyone else, I’m sick of it. I’m sick of how often this conversation has to happen. And I’m sick of how predictably repetitive it is. While we’re having the same argument over and over, people are dying. At concerts. In churches. At the movies. In schools. And here we are, playing the same track on repeat, hoping it might sound different this time around.

On either side of this debate, there are some fairly obvious political differences that separate the two groups. But during the most recent iteration of this discussion prompted by the massacre in Florida, I started to ask myself: Putting the politics aside, what is it that these two groups of people really want? What is it that drives them to take the positions they do?

Applying those questions to the first group, it seems fairly obvious that what they want is to honor the victims. They hate seeing senseless death, and they want to see these innocent lives that have been cut short actually count for something in the end – like effecting national policy changes which would prevent future innocent lives from being cut short in a similar manner.

Applying those same questions to the second group, it seems that their motivation is to honor the victims as well. They don’t want to see the names of innocent teenagers lugged through the mud of politics. They want their families and friends to be able to grieve without the memories of their lost loved ones being caught up in a game of tug-of-war that ultimately serves someone else’s political agenda.

Interestingly, the people on both sides of the debate have the same desire: to honor the victims. Even as they argue with one another, I would contend that deep down they want the same thing.

On the surface, this insight may not seem all that significant. But if we tease this out a bit, I think it’s possible that there’s a key here with the potential to move the conversation forward instead of leaving us stuck in the same old rut, continually spinning our wheels.

In debates like this, it’s easy to focus on the political allegiances that separate us. (It’s no coincidence that the group calling for gun control tends to be more liberal while the group criticizing them tends to be more conservative.) But what if we focused on what unites us instead of what divides us? What if we recognized and respected our shared motivations? In so doing, I can’t help but think that both sides of the argument would soon discover that they need one another.

On one hand, the “policy-change” crowd needs the “thoughts-and-prayers” crowd to remind them that we’re dealing with real human lives.

Living, breathing people are no longer living or breathing. Their desks at school will sit vacant. Their moms and dads will have to walk by an empty bedroom every day. Their college applications will be thrown in the trash. If we can’t lament these things, then we might as well give up on being human. We have lost valuable citizens of the national community. And whether you believe in a higher power or not, surely you can understand why prayer is an important (and genuine) expression of grief in such a time of loss. Surely you can appreciate how crying out to God on behalf of grieving families honors those whose lives have been lost.

But on the other hand, the “thoughts-and-prayers” crowd needs the “policy-change” crowd to remind them that, well, we’re dealing with real human lives.

We can’t sit around while senseless violence continues to exterminate our neighbors. If we truly care about the people in the crosshairs, change must happen. To let the cycle continue to repeat itself is to disgrace the legacy of every person who has been the victim of a madman with a gun. I’ve never heard the parent of someone killed by a drunk driver complain about stricter drunk driving laws. I’ve never heard the spouse of someone killed in an accident on the job complain about greater workplace safety policies. To prevent future victims from being victims is to honor each person who has become a victim.

In the end, perhaps we need a healthy dose of prayer and politics. Waiting and working. Crying out to God in dependence and tirelessly striving to alter inadequate laws. Thoughts and prayers? Bring them on. Activism and reform? We’ll take that, too. Genuinely honoring the victims of these tragedies means adopting a nuanced, comprehensive approach that allows for sorrow and silence, action and change.

This past week, 17 people didn’t come home from school. You may be conservative. You may be liberal. But unless you’re a monster, this reality leaves you heartbroken. You wish this didn’t have to happen. You hope it never happens again. And you long to see the legacies of the victims treated with dignity and respect. On this much we agree. And that’s no small thing.

Granted, simply giving each other a hug and recognizing that we ultimately want the same things will hardly solve all our problems. There are still plenty of disagreements and debates yet to be had. (After all, change never comes easily, especially when the NRA is involved.)

But perhaps by unearthing the common motivations beneath the divisiveness of this conversation, we can finally start to change the rhetoric that has been getting us nowhere.

So bring your prayers. Bring your politics. And let’s get to work.

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