Americans have developed a set of rituals around mass shootings. Politicians who oppose gun control pray for the victims. Politicians and journalists who support gun control savage them for praying rather than acting. After the San Bernardino murders in December 2015, the New York Daily News reprinted four Republicans’ tweets about prayer on its cover alongside the words “God Isn’t Fixing This.” After Stephen Paddock killed 58 people in Las Vegas, Chris Murphy excoriated his Senate colleagues: “Your cowardice to act cannot be whitewashed by thoughts and prayers.” After Sunday’s murders in Texas, when Paul Ryan tweeted, “The people of Sutherland Springs need our prayers,” Democratic Representative Pramila Jayapal responded: “They don’t need our prayers. They need us to address gun violence crisis & pass sensible regulation.”
Prayapal’s anguish is understandable. But there’s a different—potentially more effective—response. Instead of castigating Republicans for praying rather than acting, gun-control advocates could suggest that, by praying but not acting, Republican politicians aren’t really praying at all.
Prayer serves various purposes. But in many religious traditions, it is designed to cultivate the spiritual and ethical qualities necessary for righteous action. “Prayer,” argued Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehood.” When he joined Martin Luther King’s 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Heschel famously said, “My legs were praying.” Joseph B. Soloveitchik, arguably the most important 20th-century American modern orthodox rabbi, wrote that, “Prayer tells the individual, as well as the community, what his, or its, genuine needs are.” Gandhi insisted that, “Prayer is not … idle amusement. Properly understood and applied, it is the most potent instrument of action.” Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, notes that, every morning, when Jews praise God who “clothes the naked,” “releases the bound,” and “raises the downtrodden,” they are also promising to do so themselves, since human beings are supposed to imitate the divine.