Reflections from Praying the Great Litany after Two Mass Shootings in One Weekend
by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund | August 8, 2019Hi friends, this past weekend our country suffered two mass shootings in the same 24-hour period. Even by the appalling standards of the United States, this was a bad weekend for gun violence. This past Tuesday at Morning Prayer, we prayed the Great Litany to ask forgiveness and beseech God’s mercy. The Great Litany is penitential and humble in its language towards God, and the supplication at the end is particularly fitting for “times of war, or of national anxiety, or disaster,” as the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer say. The Great Litany begins on page 148. I commend it to you.
Prayer is an environment in which we receive comfort, forgiveness, and peace. It is also an environment in which we are confronted with difficult truths, rid of falsehoods, and convicted of unacknowledged necessities. My experience of praying the Great Litany this week was less of the former and more of the latter. Four petitions in particular hit me. One goes like this: “From all oppression, conspiracy, and rebellion; from violence, battle, and murder; and from dying suddenly and unprepared, Good Lord, deliver us.” [Italics original.]
To beseech God’s protection from “dying suddenly and unprepared” feels viscerally different after El Paso and Dayton. This prayer is no longer about dying suddenly from a massive heart attack, or a lightning strike, or a car accident. No, we see our sisters and brothers dying suddenly and unprepared during a trip to their local Wal-Mart, synagogue, church, school, or country and western bar. As a country, we are now on lists we are not usually on. Venezuela and Uruguay, for example, caution their citizens against traveling here.
Another petition that struck me begins with these words: “Remember not, Lord Christ, our offenses, nor the offenses of our forefathers….” In the past, when I’ve prayed this litany, that phrase about the sins of our forefathers has conjured not only my own family’s sins, but also those more systematic sins of my home state of Alabama and my country. Things like slavery, Jim Crow, Japanese internment, our treatment of Native Americans—the horrors of America’s past with which we’re familiar.
This week, however, I realized that, in twenty or forty or sixty years, when folks kneel before the altar and ask our Lord not to remember the sins of their forefathers, they will be talking about us. This Tuesday, I felt my perspective broadened, and I became aware that part of what future generations will mean by “the sins of our forefathers” is our current refusal to change our attitudes and laws about guns. I imagine that, when today’s second graders are grandparents, they will tell their grandchildren about going to elementary school and having to do active shooter drills alongside fire drills and tornado drills. When today’s second-graders tell those stories to their grandchildren, it is my sincere hope that those kids will be able to say, “Wow, grandma, that is so awful and weird. What changed?”
They will probably have to respond with something like, “A lot of people died. When my generation finally got to be in charge, we made changes. And now you can go to school without worrying about too much besides missing the bus or spilling chocolate milk on your overalls.” I cannot imagine this granddaughter will be angry that her grandmother’s generation cost her the right to own high capacity magazines.
The third petition that struck me was the prayer to be delivered “From all inordinate and sinful affections; and from all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil.” I was reminded that mass shootings need not remain inevitable simply because they are at least in part the result of our inordinate and sinful affections for weaponry. That’s a deliberate word choice. We are not simply a nation who enjoys hunting and sportsmanship and the shotguns that go with those activities. No, our affections are inordinate and sinful because we desire honest to God weaponry. Mass shootings are not acts of God; nor are they natural disasters. They are the bitter fruit of our inordinate societal affections. As such, as our affections change, so will our violence.
As for weaponry, you have heard it said, “We need weaponry to protect ourselves from a tyrannical federal government.” This is only a partial truth. I've written elsewhere that the subtlest lie is a partial truth masquerading as the whole truth and nothing but. This is the kind of lie we are telling when we assert our right to arm ourselves against a tyrannical government.
It is true that the world’s governments sometimes violently oppress their own people, and it is true that the United States is capable of oppression. But these are not the whole truth. It is also true that in the USA private citizens, not the feds, are executing people at concerts and nightclubs. It is also true that the federal government against which we are arming ourselves possesses Apache helicopters and nuclear submarines. Thus, either we believe that we, too, should be able to purchase these weapons at Cabela’s, or we must admit that an insurmountable arms gap between citizenry and the federal government is a perfectly normal condition in which to live. The former is insane; the latter is reality.
Another deceit of the world is the argument that a change to gun laws will have no impact on the frequency or severity of mass shootings. Surely it is correct to say that things would not change overnight, or even over a year. There are hundreds of millions of guns in the United States already. Plus, a change in gun policy alone would not address racism, mental illness, or violent masculinity. These are all true, just not the whole truth.
It is also true that firearms, particularly ones that fire lots of bullets in a short amount of time, are essential ingredients in mass shootings. It is unclear how changing our attitudes and laws about things that shoot could not to some extent impact the frequency and severity of shootings. Microwave popcorn does not get popped without a human being to push the buttons, but neither does it get popped without a microwave. Even if it is true that gun reform will have limited impact on our current situation, surely it will make public safety more possible for the grandchildren of today’s second-graders. We are acting on their behalf, too. A major cultural shift that requires decades is still a major cultural shift.
Yes, people would still stab each other with kitchen knives. Yes, people would still mail explosives. Yes, deranged persons would still drive their cars deliberately at pedestrians. But all of these involve misusing the items in question: kitchen knives are for preparing food; the postal service is for mailing birthday presents to relatives across the country; cars are for transportation. Putting bodies on the ground is exactly what a semiautomatic AK-47 is for. It is not a morally neutral object; its very existence depends on our desire to kill.
The fourth and final petition that hit me so hard was in asking God “to rule the hearts of thy servants, the President of the United States…and all others in authority, that they may do justice, and love mercy, and walk in the ways of truth.” This petition brought to mind not so much guns or gun policy, but America’s broader moral environment. Essentially, I was confronted with what feels like an utter vacuum of moral leadership in the highest levels of government. Whatever voices are pushing for decency and reason, they are not loudest.
Here’s what I mean. In May, while talking about immigration at our southern border during a rally, President Trump asked rhetorically, “How do you stop these people [who are trying to cross the border]?” When someone in the crowd shouted, “Shoot them!” the President turned it into a laugh-line. How does this square with the President’s saying after the racially motivated El Paso shooting, “Hatred has no place in our country?” Clearly, hatred does have a place in our country. One that cheers.
President Trump did not bring white nationalism to the United States, but he isn’t helping us be rid of it either. He has plenty of public critics in this regard. Given our rampant mistrust of each other, however, and given that the tone of the political left so often smacks not of righteousness but of (supposedly) enlightened disdain for conservatives, much of this criticism does not ring in our ears as true moral leadership or prophetic speech. Many of President Trump’s critics are trying to take his job, after all. However, when at least one state-level official of President Trump’s own party rightly decried complicity with white nationalism, he was accused of having never actually been a conservative in the first place.
Let’s be clear: we’re no longer talking about guns; we’re talking about white nationalism. This ideology is not behind every mass shooting, but it is behind many. It was at work in El Paso. We’re talking about the rhetoric of sending American citizens of color back to…well, wherever it is white nationalists think brown people come from. We’re talking about a country where jokes about murdering immigrants at a May rally hosted by the President of the United States are followed by actual murders of Latinos in August. In case you missed it, “jokes about murdering immigrants” was not the worst part of that entirely factual sentence. Most damning of all is that we are not allowed to criticize any of this unless it’s the other team doing it. And even then, we’re simply and predictably partisan hacks.
Please, God, rule the hearts of thy servants, the President of the United States and all others in authority, that they may do justice, and love mercy, and walk in the ways of truth.
“All others in authority.” I am one with a small measure of authority within a particular sphere of influence. I have written about guns previously, and in those posts I have tried to offer measured ways of thinking from a Christian theological perspective to address our various relationships to guns, including our emotional and spiritual experience of living in a culture of mass shootings.
I am less measured today and will speak more plainly from that same perspective: as a nation, we have an unhealthy relationship to weapons, and this testifies against us before the throne of the Prince of Peace. As a nation, we have a President whose ego-needs fuel many of our worst cultural demons. Because of our collective attachment to weapons, these demons are more viscerally powerful than they would otherwise be. As a nation, our mistrust of each other has injured our capacities for repentance, and therefore of unity and truth-telling for the common good. Even with this much blood in the streets, we are unrepentant and unwilling to amend our national life. This, too, testifies against us.
As the Church, we are the Body who possess the moral and spiritual resources required to work repentance, unity, and truth-telling in our country. What enlivens the Church is the Holy Spirit of the Risen Lord; we thus inhabit a narrative which empowers us to hope for, pray for, work towards, and even realize a common national life better than this—one more like the Kingdom. This Lord did not summon His legions against us when we crucified Him. He will not do so now, even as we continue to refuse amendment of life and to tolerate the deaths of innocents. But rest assured, if we would enter more fully into His kingdom, we must do so on His terms alone. I am not sure what it will cost us as Americans to enter more fully into that kingdom, but I imagine that it will be more than we would like.
May His mercy rest upon us as we who remain in our earthly pilgrimage work out our salvation in fear and trembling. And when next we meet them, may we not be condemned by the faithful departed of Dayton and El Paso—and Sandy Hook and Sutherland Springs and Orlando and Las Vegas and the too many other cities of this increasingly bloody plain.