America has never had an official religion, but it’s lousy with prayer. We pray for victory on the battlefield, victory on the football field, and victory in the business arena. We pray to be among the elect, to let our prosperity provide testimony to the world that we are special to God, and therefore better than others, a doctrine that has fueled the myth of American Exceptionalism, which has allowed, among other things, an amoral businessman on his third marriage to speak for the Evangelical Christians of America.
Practically every campaign speech you’ll hear during the run-up to the Presidential election will end with the words “God bless you, and God bless the United States of America”, words that in themselves form a brief prayer as succinct as the Hail Mary. Then there’s the passive-aggressive exhortation, “I’ll pray for you”, the most polite way yet invented to tell somebody that they’re going to burn in hell.
That’s American prayer: a contract with God that He will help us win, and the other guys lose. American prayer is best symbolized not by folded hands, but by a giant foam finger reading, “WE’RE #1”.
Following each of the mass shootings and incidents of violence that has swept America and the world in the past year, our political leaders have offered their “thoughts and prayers” to the grieving families of the fallen, while at the same time watering down or outright killing any meaningful gun control legislation. After the mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California this past December, the editors of the New York Daily News, fed up with this cycle of violence, prayer, and inaction, ran a front page declaring: “GOD ISN’T FIXING THIS”. And, they’re right, prayer alone hasn’t stopped the killings. The months since San Bernardino have seen similar violent incidents in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and at Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub, the deadliest mass shooting in American history.
So, yes, prayer isn’t stopping the violence, but is that even the function of prayer?
The Function of Prayer
Many faiths, including both Islam and Christianity, pray with their knees bent and their head bowed, an acknowledgment that what we pray to is larger than our own ego. By humbling ourselves, we become connected, in that way, to the collective spirit of human need. That is what prayer is supposed to stir inside of us, and it makes little difference which avatar of the divine we’re praying to when we pray in this way.
In whatever language God is speaking to us, with whatever cultural inflection, we’re called to mercy, and to act from mercy. To say that all that we can do for peace is pray is to put a dramatic limitation on our faith, and to make a tragic miscalculation of what God expects of us. To pray and do nothing is to transform prayer from a call to action into an excuse for inaction.
In the Pulse shooting, we see an example of faith gone wrong, twisted into a violent reflection of self-hatred. In the figure of Omar Mateen, we’re faced with an all-too familiar narrative: a young man, whose life was falling apart, warped into a killing machine by radical Islamic sects on the internet. That, at least, was the story at first glance, but in the days that followed the shooting, a more complex picture came into focus. Soon it emerged that Mateen had been a regular at Pulse, and was known to use gay dating apps.
So, was Mateen driven by religiously-inspired to lash out, in jealousy or self-loathing, at those who were able to live the life he desired on their own terms? Or, had Mateen simply been planning the attack during his frequent visits to Pulse? Or was Mateen just mentally ill? We don’t know, and his motive, if it is ever fully understood, is likely to be far more complicated than we might like, but whatever Mateen’s reasons, fundamentalist faith became either the inspiration for, or the conduit of, his anger, and the fact that the hateful theology of ISIS even exists allowed that to happen.
The Plank in Our Eyes
One of the few things that Muslims and Christians seem eager to agree on is that homosexuals are sinful, and deserve condemnation, or worse. Both faiths offer alarmingly specific instructions to their adherents, deriving from the passage in Leviticus that reads, “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be upon their own heads.”
In the days after the attack in Orlando, politicians, again, offered thoughts and prayers for those killed and their families, but conservative politicians, notably, did not mention the gay community. The silence of these Republican politicians, and the statements from the pulpit of conservative religious leaders, men frothing with bile and hatred, carry echoes of the same intolerant belief that fuels ISIS.
Christianity has struggled with its own violent fundamentalist impulses, unforgiving theologies that have inspired acts of domestic terrorism, such as the 2012 shooting of a Wisconsin Sikh Temple, and the murder of George Tiller, a doctor who performed abortions, not to mention to wholesale slaughter of homosexuals throughout the world, specifically in Nigeria and Qatar.
The Bible has been used to justify countless atrocities throughout history, from slavery to abusive behavior against women and children to the horrors of the Holocaust and the Inquisition, and so we cannot afford to view homosexuality as sin. If someone belongs in the LGBTQ rainbow, it’s because they were born that way, and if you’re religious, it’s time to accept that they were made that way, and if homosexuality is a natural part of God’s creation, then why should it be inherently evil? If we are to have peace, this sort of extreme rhetoric has no place in our society.
If we can’t recognize the ugliness in our own faiths, we have no place pointing them out in others, or, as it was once more elegantly stated, ”Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3). The GOP doesn’t get to offer sympathies to the families of the Pulse shooting victims, and then not have the courage to mention the community most affected by it, then add further insult to the gay community by crafting something as pernicious at their platform on LGBTQ rights(which seeks to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage, allow businesses to discriminate based on sexual orientation, and make abusive “conversion” programs legal).
And we can’t hope to stop radical Islamic terrorists if we aren’t willing to offer sanctuary to the victims of radical Islamic terrorism. The roots of hatred, the roots of violence, are fed by such acts of exclusion.
The Koran calls for followers of the Prophet to “wish for your brother as you would wish for yourself”. The Christian tradition shares that exhortation to love our neighbors and carries it a step further: “Love your enemy, and pray for those who persecute you”, Christ says in Matthew 5:44. The Greek word translated as “love” in that passage is agapate, or agape, which is a love that comes directly from God. That root word is also found in the passages of the New Testament that speak of God as love. So Christians are called to see their enemies as beings composed of the same universal love that God Himself is composed of, an often-ignored call to see through the false illusions that separate humanity, and to truly love one another, because if we truly loved one another, these killings wouldn’t keep happening.
If we truly loved one another, homosexuals wouldn’t have to fear for their lives based solely on who they were created to love. If we were truly loving, our world either wouldn’t produce, or would ignore, hateful rallying cries from groups like the Islamic State—and furthermore, if we were truly loving, we would ensure that no family would ever fall into the kind of economic desperation that allows Islamic extremists to recruit young men with no other prospects.
If we truly loved those among us suffering from mental disorders, we wouldn’t routinely slash mental health programs, ignore warning signs in those around us, and shuffle those afflicted with these disorders to the corners of our society. In a loving society, with no stigma on mental illness, those suffering would feel less afraid to seek help, and the help that they need would be there when they needed it.
And a society that was truly loving would not be flooded with the kind of weaponry that allows a man to kill 49 people in just three hours.
And finally, if our politicians truly loved the words of Jesus Christ, as they so loudly and constantly profess, they would have no choice but to use their position to create these changes. Only real love, not empty platitudes or hollow expressions of supposed faith, can transform this wounded world.
That is our call and our challenge, whether we are Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, or even if we have no faith at all. The function of prayer is to stir empathy, both for our neighbors and our enemies. True prayer activates our emotions, but the pathetic, hypocritical prayers of our political leaders are designed to do the opposite—they stifle emotion in a cynical attempt to placate their constituents.
Prayer gives us a language to speak of grief, and allows us to pass through these trials intact, but it’s what we do after we rise from our knees that defines who we are and shapes the world that we live in.
MATTHEW GUERRUCKEY is the founding editor of Drunk Monkeys. He lives in North Hollywood, California with his wife, poet S.C. Stuckey.