The great trap in the aftermath of a national tragedy is the impulse not just to do something, but to do anything. Action for action’s sake alone carries a number of risks, not the least of which is that it usually takes the form of government intervention.
It’s entirely possible to have sympathy for those who express this kind of sentiment — particularly if they or those close to them are among the victims — while rejecting their argument as being invalid.
Take the case of Chuck Diamond, a former rabbi at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. In the wake of the murderous, anti-Semitic attack on Saturday that left 11 dead, Diamond has been featured heavily in the media begging the government to do something and implying that prayer was impotent in this situation.
“I wish the politicians on both sides of the aisle would get off their rear ends and do something significant about it,” Diamond said, according to NBC News. “That’s what’s frustrating.”
“It happens over and over and over again,” he added. “What are the prayers going to do at this point? We need to take action, whatever that might be.”
It’s impossible not to feel sympathy for Diamond. However, that sympathy doesn’t lend truth to his prescriptions, vague though they may be.
First, let me reiterate that such suggestions don’t just happen in a vacuum. Congressional Democrats, wolfish as always, hovered over the Pittsburgh shooting with similar sentiments to Diamond. The difference was they were coming from a place of ambition, not frustration:
Every time this happens, we’re shocked – and say it mustn’t happen again. When will opponents of common-sense gun safety work with us? We need to get assault weapons off the streets and out of the hands of those who would do us harm.
— Senator Bill Nelson (@SenBillNelson) October 27, 2018
I’m heartbroken by the tragic shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. This is an act of hate, plain & simple. Hatred & easy access to assault weapons has left at least 11 dead & four police officers wounded. Only we let civilians so easily access weapons of war.
— Sen Dianne Feinstein (@SenFeinstein) October 27, 2018
Our hearts break & stomachs turn after these shameful anti-Semitic murders. My thoughts are with the families & brave law enforcement. Congress is complicit—by its inaction—in this loathsome epidemic of gun violence.
— Richard Blumenthal (@SenBlumenthal) October 27, 2018
Here is Diamond being interviewed by the media after Saturday’s shooting. His statement about prayer is not on this video, but his frustration with the situation is evident.
I understand Diamond’s frustration, but the fact is that government has proven its inability to do anything on this. In fact, gun murders have been on a downward trend since the expiration of the “assault weapons” ban and since the Supreme Court’s Heller v. District of Columbia ruling seriously restricted the ability of state and local governments to prohibit firearm sales.
But, let’s pretend the facts don’t exist. Go ahead and ban so-called “assault weapons.” How would you have prevented this sicko from carrying out the attack with handguns?
He wasn’t on law enforcement’s radar. No background check exposed his plan, and no proposed background check would have. Given the point-blank range he likely shot victims at, there wasn’t a particular advantage conferred by these “assault weapons.” Even if you ban them, mind you, it’s no guarantee that Bowers wouldn’t be able to get hold of such weapons. He certainly didn’t respect laws on murder — why would he respect firearm laws?
I don’t expect Diamond to be a policy expert. I do expect politicians to be. Using this heinous act as a pretext to force action for action’s sake — before anything but the most cursory investigation has been conducted — probably won’t make anyone safer. But it will be a great photo op for legislators whose opportunism in a moment of tragedy rivals that of Sen. Walter Chalmers from “Bullitt.”
Even if one were to assume that government action could somehow foil attacks — and nothing I’ve seen from the Pittsburgh investigation thus far indicates that case could be made — it’s unlikely that legislation that results out of political restlessness would produce a beneficial result. Laws are complicated things, and taking legislative action for the sake of legislative action, “whatever that might be,” will produce rushed laws which do nothing except add to our bureaucracy.
So, if government is a poor solution, what would be a good one? I hesitate to say with certainty, except to note that there are worse places to start than prayer.
Prayer isn’t just the act of asking God for a favor. It’s asking the Lord to come into your heart and the hearts of others in order to work a dramatic change. And, if there’s one conclusion anyone can discern at this early hour from the Pittsburgh shooting, it’s that our collective hearts desperately need to be changed.
Anti-Semitism, like the beliefs the Pittsburgh gunman espoused, is arguably the world’s oldest persisting form of bigotry. It’s also the most pernicious. When one finds an anti-Semite, one is also certain to find a nest of other mephitic opinions that, if and when acted upon, can inflict incalculable damage upon our society.
Alleged Pittsburgh gunman Robert Bowers was apparently a man who acted upon his poison; his Gab profile, according to the U.K. Independent, seems to indicate his anti-Semitism sprang from his version of Christianity. He apparently wasn’t a proficient reader of the Bible. As Galatians 3:28 notes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Could prayer have changed this sick man? Our faith teaches us that nothing is impossible. It could have moved him to give up his noxious hatreds. It could have moved someone around him to take action. It could have moved society toward eradicating anti-Semitism. It could have done any number of things — and our religious leaders should be moving us toward supplicating for God’s intervention, not begging the government to intervene.
No, prayer isn’t the answer to everything. It’s not a substitute for secular action — provided, of course, that action is wise and can be taken. In this case, however, the government cannot legislate the root cause of this crime. It cannot extirpate 2,000 years of prejudice. There isn’t any law that will change the hearts and minds of anti-Semites. There isn’t any evidence that gun control legislation can mitigate the damage such people might cause.
Prayer, on the other hand, can begin the transformation of our society. It can begin to sew up the lacerations that increasingly plague our society.
It may not be our destination, but it’s not a bad point of departure.
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