Faith Leaders Encourage Prayer, Policy Reform After Shooting

December 4, 2015
Faith Leaders Encourage Prayer, Policy Reform After Shooting

Religion News ServiceThis week, a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, marked the nation’s 355th mass shooting of the calendar year. Defined as an instance of gun violence with at least 4 victims, there have been more mass shootings in the U.S. in 2015 than there have been days in the year, The Washington Post reports.

As debates on gun control continue in the U.S., 51 faith groups and organizations are uniting to endorse a “common-sense agenda” in response to gun violence. This December 10-14, congregations across the U.S. will be asked to meditate on gun violence and peace during their songs, prayers, and religious education as a part of the 3rd annual National Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath Weekend.

The World Sikh Council, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Islamic Society of North America, and Catholics United are just a few of the groups that have publicly endorsed the Washington, D.C.-based organization running the Sabbath, Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence. Participants in the event stress the unique role of faith leaders to change the national conversation on gun death prevention. Rabbi Susan Landau, whose synagogue Temple Micah donated a Gun Shabbat Prayer to the Sabbath’s website, told the National Catholic Reporter, “People of faith were not meant to mourn the loss of innocent life. We are meant to protect it. We stand together in reverence of human life and in genuine desire to honor and protect it. We must stop gun violence.”

The chair of Faiths United, Rev. Dean Gary Hall, sees gun violence as a natural topic of conversation for faith groups. “It’s such an obvious theological issue,” Hall told Religion Dispatches. “We need to find a way to make people care about it." 

Hall’s interest in religious responses to gun violence grew out of a unintended schedule change. When he was asked to take over teaching a colleague’s class, “The Problem of Evil,” to high school seniors in Cranbrook, Michigan, he realized that modern societies “now increasingly define ‘evil’ as something caused by human agency.” Comparing the American public’s responses to an earthquake and to a mass shooting, he realized that only the latter event would typically be characterized as an example of evil, a disaster “made by human beings.”

“Whether we think of evil as caused by cosmic or human activity, the problem of innocent human suffering is still a core religious question,” Hall said. “Every major religion attempts to explain (or at least respond to) suffering.”

Following this week’s San Bernadino shooting, some have questioned what an appropriate religious response to gun violence should look like. After many politicians exhorted the need to pray for San Bernadino via social media, New York Daily News published an issue whose front cover read, “God Isn’t Fixing This” and referred to the call for prayers as “meaningless platitudes.” 

While some have called the headline “prayer shaming,” others affirmed its sentiments. Christian author Jonathan Merritt wrote for Religion News Service that he viewed the headline as a call to action in addition to reflection.

“The problem with prayer is that it cannot be offered in isolation,” Merritt said. “Not when action is possible and necessary. This idea did not originate on social media. It is a biblical idea sewn throughout the New Testament, and those who oppose even the tiniest reforms to our gun laws must now reckon with it.”

This year’s Faiths United Sabbath encourages congregations toward both contemplative prayer and active engagement in policy reform. The Sabbath’s website provides resources for each of the major faith traditions to draw upon during their gun violence-focused religious services. Such resources include a collection of Islamic prayers for peace and links to videos of Buddhist leaders speaking out against gun violence.

In light of the growing interfaith movement against gun violence, sociologist of religion and author of The Politics of Evangelical Identity Lydia Bean weighed in at Religion Dispatches regarding what it will take for faith leaders to make real change. She said that the faith-based initiatives that have gained traction are those with “mobilized power, a base of organized supporters with intense policy demands, willing to engage in sustained conflict.”

As he organizes this year’s Sabbath, Rev. Hall maintains hope that gun control could be one such successful initiative. He remarked to Religion Dispatches that he believes clergy “haven’t educated their congregations about the nature of moral problems and how we as a community address those problems.”

“My hope with the gun violence issue,” Hall said, “is that it will galvanize enough clergy to begin to make the case with their congregations that this is something the congregation needs to weigh in on.”

Faiths United signatory Imam Talib Shareef, of the Nation’s Mosque in Washington, D.C., agreed that faith leaders’ involvement with the issue was urgent and necessary. “United we stand, divided we are falling,” he told the National Catholic Reporter. “Divided we are falling every day.”


--by Caroline Matas


Image Source: Interfaith Banner. Photo by Sean, Flickr Creative Commons.