Gene Nelson column

Gene Nelson 

Back in the early days of the civil rights movement, white activists from the north were often surprised to discover that the marches and protests began with gatherings in black churches that featured prayer and hymn singing. Yes, the movement was born and nurtured in the churches. Now the activists were ready to go — to take to the streets. They could not understand “wasting” so much time on singing and praying. But the church folks knew better. They knew they needed the prayer and the music — they needed their faith. For this was the source of the courage, the determination, the strength they would need when the time came to face the billy clubs, police dogs, fire hoses and unbridled hatred they would meet out on the streets. Prayer led to hope; prayer led to action; prayer was the powerful prelude to change.

But in 21st century America, all that seems to have changed. After the most recent episodes of horrific gun violence in Gilroy, Dayton and El Paso, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that he and his wife were holding all the victims and families in their thoughts and prayers. President Donald Trump said much the same thing, as did large numbers of other politicians and pundits. Thoughts and prayers all over the place.  The air was thick with them! But what was missing? Action! The people in those southern churches in the ’60s finished their prayers and took to the streets. Prayer and faith were engines of change. Today the pray-ers and well-wishers finish speaking and seem to think there is nothing more that needs to be done, as if words alone will stop the violence.

The Rev. Benjamin Broadbent, my successor at the Community Church of Sebastopol, calls all these promises of prayer and good wishes a kind of “toxic sentimentality.” To say to a victim of gun violence that I will pray for you and then refuse to take any concrete action to address the violence is really to say that I have no intention of doing anything else. I will not attempt to change anything. When it comes to guns and gun violence, the status quo is just fine. And if there are more people whose lives are ended or ruined by gun violence next week, well, McConnell and his friends will pray for them as well. It is a cheap prayer that requires nothing of the person praying; it is a cheap faith that requires nothing of the one who claims to be faithful.

Interestingly, the God proclaimed by the Old Testament prophet, Jeremiah, had no patience with people of faith who indulged in this kind of comfortable complacency in the face of injustice and violence.

“Let the prophet who has my word speak my word faithfully and act with justice … Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?”

The promise of God’s peace has always been accompanied with the demand that  people of faith take an active role in bringing about that peace and an end to violence. Pious words are meaningless by themselves. To paraphrase Jeremiah, old and tired excuses for inaction must be broken into pieces.

Let prayer and good wishes be not an end but a beginning. Let them become a prelude to something new, something bold, something fearless. We have worshipped at the altar of guns for too long. The time for beating swords into plowshares has come — not praying for them to become plowshares, but beating them into plowshares. Action is required; change is demanded. May our prayers and good wishes lead us into new ways of living, working and seeing. They sang it then … let’s sing it now: “We shall overcome!”

More comments on this and other subjects can be found on my blog:

The Rev. Gene Nelson is the retired pastor of Sebastopol Community Church.

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