Listen to the dead. Violence, real, physical violence, is often the the first eruption when relational communication tangibly breaks down. Violence, gun violence, is the deafening, lethal megaphone that strikes fear and sorrow in our hearts. Violence is the material manifestation of the brutality of the heart and mind and soul and spirit. Institutional violence against black lives. Vengeful violence against police lives that represent a putrid system.
The killing is not ending.
It is not ending. And people, black lives and cops, are still dying. The screams of a video where a black man has just been shot fatally for attempting to provide his identification, his validity in the eyes of the State. On video, we hear the cold echoes of sniper fire in the canyons of downtown Dallas, mere yards from where John F. Kennedy was gunned down. We are brought there by video like never before. We are witnesses like never before. Guns. We are witnesses to guns and the fulmination of their purpose: to kill.
We witness, we continue to witness, that the killing is not ending.
And then, with gunfire and echoes in our ears, we shake and cry and mourn. And, again, we experience the failure of relational communication. Because who can understand our sorrow? Sorrow is that abject, wordless sound and spirit from that deepest part of our bodies we feel tangentially touches to the sublime, that reaches beyond our bodies, the fragile bodies cut through by bullets. And blood and tears pour out. And then we pray.
We have been praying for a long, long time. We pray for countless reasons, but a common, desperate one is for help and relief. We may believe that those prayers actually reach God, though we may differ significantly about who that God is and how that God acts. And some may quote the Psalmist, “How long, O Lord?” Or they may quote Jeremiah and his fellow exiles in lamentation as they cry by the waters of Babylon.
A friend once told me a religion joke that has always stuck with me. Two little girls were late for school and running to the bus. One girl says, “Let’s stop and pray that we aren’t late.” The other said, “Why don’t we pray and run at the same time.” It’s facile, but it gets at the matter that prayer without sustained, intentional action gains nothing. And until we reach a point where White America and Black America are in real dialogue to stop this violence, to transform not only laws and policies, but also attitudes and intentions, then what good is prayer.
And what good is prayer, anyway? If God is omniscient, then what’s the point of it? In what is commonly read in Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, Kierkegaard writes that
“A hasty explanation could assert that to pray is a useless act, because a man’s prayer does not alter the unalterable. But would this be desirable in the long run? Could not fickle man easily come to regret that he had gotten God changed? The true explanation is therefore at the same time the one most to be desired. The prayer does not change God, but it changes the one who offers it. It is the same with the substance of what is spoken. Not God, but you, the maker of the confession, get to know something by your act of confession.” (bold is mine)
Unless our prayers change us to act, then our acts of prayer are not meaningless, but in fact futile. And they do us and those murdered and oppressed no justice, but do, instead, continued violence and injustice. In our collective and individual contexts, we must work toward justice and peace. But as long as we glorify the divine authority of guns, the dehumanization of black lives, and the unchecked hegemony of an incarceration state, then our society shall only continue to hate and suspect and divide against itself.
Christian pietism is a cancer. It is a sanctimonious aggression that condescends toward the most vulnerable. Christian pietism is its own violence. And then when we are at a loss for words, our prayers are even cheaper than before. What good are the prayers for the countless lives lost around this country and around this world? They are worthless because they foment no effective change in society and in policy.
And it is because we ultimately do not want it because it requires a vulnerability we dare not risk to take. We feel the vulnerability in our act of prayer to God, and that feeling, that aesthetic of weakness is enough. But we cannot dare be vulnerable to the stranger, because that is a weakness we cannot risk. So our prayers continue to go unanswered because we refuse to answer the expensive requirements of the call.
So, in our country alone, from Sandy Hook to Ferguson to Charleston to Orlando to Baton Rouge to Minneapolis to Dallas to wherever next, we are shocked into futile silence. If God hears us, we certainly refuse to in such a way that we would do something about it. We simply refuse to hear ourselves and our neighbor. And the violence will continue to erupt just before the wails of sirens and sorrow do. If we do not confess that we will not listen to our own prayers and the prayers of those around us, then what good is our prayer in the first place? We do violence to ourselves and we will continue to suffer. All of us. And we will continue to die. Black Lives Matter. But our prayers really don’t seem to mean it.
Listen to the dead. Listen to the living. The killing is not ending. Make it stop.