Commentary: Thoughts, prayers and advocacy
On Feb. 14, 17 people were killed at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Many learned of the news as they were preparing to attend Ash Wednesday services, which mark the beginning of the season of Lent. This was also Valentine’s Day, and others were planning celebrations.
The murders penetrated the consciousness of our nation, as we began to learn of the deaths of students, teachers and staff. Not so long ago we had similarly learned of shootings at a Baptist church in Texas, a country music concert in Las Vegas and earlier at a nightclub in Orlando and an elementary school in Connecticut.
We were again in the tragic cycle of grieving and mourning, questioning and reflecting. United Methodists attend and teach at this high school and our churches are adjacent to it. How could we respond?
The repetitive cycle of mass shootings in public places had recently elicited responses that our “thoughts and prayers” were with the victims. And yet the repetitive nature of the trauma had begun to render this assurance, even if well-intentioned, as hollow.
In that moment I thought of one of my favorite chapters in the New Testament, 1 Corinthians 13, and a verse in that letter: “I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal…”
Some of you will recognize these words from scripture and the continuing refrain, "but do not have love…” It occurs to me that the critique of the language of "thoughts and prayers" is precisely the insight of the Apostle Paul. Thinking is one of God's great gifts to humanity. To think about someone is to allow them to enter one's mind. Prayer is one of God's great gifts to a Christian. To pray is to open our lives to the indwelling holiness of God.
The critique of "thoughts and prayers" is the perception that thinking and praying can be an avoidance of the response God is actually calling us to make. We were called to something more. Again, it was there in the scripture: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” How, I wondered, could we love the students of Parkland, and the one who murdered them, and the survivors around them? My thoughts and prayers, in the present moment, were compromised if they could not be integrated with a love that hoped and endured.
In other words, what did it mean to love our neighbors? The horrors of Parkland convinced me that we needed to move beyond thoughts and prayers. So we asked the people of the Florida Conference to supplement thoughts and prayers with two specific acts.
First, we read the names of the deceased in the Sunday morning worship services following Ash Wednesday, and lighted candles were set upon altars in memory of these lives and symbolic of the coming of Jesus Christ into our darkness.
Second, we wrote 5,000 letters to our political representatives, at every level, appealing to them to act in such a way that our children and grandchildren would know a safer future. We wrote as United Methodists, in the name of Jesus, and not as members of political parties. We wrote because we had heard the voices of Parkland and Orlando, Las Vegas and Sutherland and Newtown. We knew that God loved this world. We loved the world that God created. And we wanted our love to be more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. We linked this appeal to the United Methodist Church’s resolution on Gun Violence and documented them on the 5000Letters.com website.
We were seeking to build a non-partisan movement that would change our laws. Not one that repealed our constitutional amendments, but a law that would abolish assault weapons, a law that would protect our children and grandchildren, and a law that would make it as difficult to purchase a gun as it is to buy an automobile or a medication, or to rent an apartment.
My original concept of 5,000 letters had come in consultation with a few trusted leaders, but more deeply its origins were in the feeding of the 5,000. Amidst a large gathering of hungry people — and the rational response to the impossibility of feeding them all —
Jesus had said, to his disciples, “You give them something to eat!” And if Jesus cared about the hunger of his children, he surely cares also about their safety!
One month later, approximately 5,300 letters have been documented and mailed to political leaders. In this time, we have witnessed the moral clarity and courage of the students of Parkland High School. And laws in Florida related to gun safety have begun to change.
As I worshipped on Ash Wednesday, the evening of the murders in Parkland, I reflected on Jesus’ call to repent and believe the gospel. As his followers, we are being called to repent from our participation in a culture of death, to acknowledge the harm we do to others, and to claim the power of the cross that breaks the cycle of violence and retaliation.
In Lent, we have grieved. In Lent, we have taken steps toward our own healing, and the healing of others. And in these 40 days we have joined our thoughts and prayers with an advocacy grounded in a love than is more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
Carter is resident bishop of the Florida Area of the United Methodist Church.