It's the same thing after every shooting in the US. Outrage, heartbreak, and a hashtag. The latest of these is #prayforSanBernardino. Two assailants opened fire at a centre for people with disabilities in California yesterday, killing 14 people and injuring 17 others. The attackers, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, were later killed in a shootout with police, and America has been thrown into mourning once more. It was the 355th mass shooting to take place in the US this year alone.
Inevitably, and rightly, prayers have been offered all over the world in solidarity with the victims and their families. Support has poured out from across the globe, lamenting the tragedy and more innocent lives lost. It feels like yet another jolting reminder that we live in a broken world, and that evil is at hand.
But this time, something else has happened, too. There have been accusations levelled against people – notably Republican politicians – for offering prayers, but failing to act at a policy level against rising levels of gun crime. Gun violence has killed 428 more Americans than terrorism in the past ten years, and 462 have been killed in mass shooting incidents on US soil in 2015 so far. These are harrowing statistics, and ones that show no sign of slowing down unless real action is taken by Congress. Yet, time and time again, attempts to impose tighter restrictions on gun control are blocked.
President Obama gave an interview to CBS as news of the tragedy unfolded. He slammed the pattern of mass shootings in the US, which he said "has no parallel anywhere else in the world."
"We should never think that this is just something that just happens in the ordinary course of events because it doesn't happen with the same frequency in other countries," he added.
"There's some steps we could take, not to eliminate every one of these mass shootings, but to improve the odds that they don't happen as frequently."
Of particular contention has been the apparent split in responses from Republican and Democrat politicians. While Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie and others tweeted that they were praying for those involved, Democrat candidates including frontrunner Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders used the opportunity to condemn gun violence. Many others used social media to insist that prayers aren't enough – echoing Obama's statement following the October shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon.
— Stig Abell (@StigAbell) December 3, 2015
Your "thoughts" should be about steps to take to stop this carnage. Your "prayers" should be for forgiveness if you do nothing - again.
— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) December 2, 2015
The backlash has been branded 'prayer shaming', but to me it's understandable. I passionately believe in the vitality of prayer. I believe it's powerful, and I believe that it changes things. And yet when politicians offer their prayers but fail to back it up with any tangible action, something about it risks becoming hollow and meaningless. Imagine William Wilberforce simply offering his prayers to people trapped in slavery, instead of challenging parliament to change its laws. It's probably the same reason, whether you agree with him or not, the Archbishop of Canterbury yesterday reluctantly backed British air strikes in Syria. As Jonathan Merrit wrote in his excellent piece for RNS, it's crucial – and, indeed, biblical – that words are coupled with deeds.
This isn't to downplay the value of prayer. The evacuated workers at the site of the San Bernardino shooting yesterday gathered across the street hand in hand, and prayed. Communion with God is perhaps of no greater importance than when we are unsure of where He is or what He's doing, and our hearts ache as we see the atrocities carried out daily around the world. It is absolutely right that we cry out to our Creator in the midst of this turmoil. But until America faces up to its issue with gun crime, and takes legislative action to put an end to it, I struggle to see how we can take some of those prayers seriously.