After mass murder, prayer follows. Prayerful hashtags trend on Twitter. “Thoughts and prayers” are offered in politicians' speeches. In private spaces, people clasp hands and ask God to be present with the families and the victims, to look over us, protect us from harm. A quick glance at the record shows that this last request is almost uniformly denied. Prayers are not enough. There is always another loner, another crowded place; usually the same gun; always the same result.
God is not a human man, but Omar Mateen was very much one. He is being called a Muslim, but he was a Muslim in the same way that Charleston church killer Dylann Roof is a Christian. Rather than practicing Islam, it appears that Mateen was more practicing American Masculinity. Between 2003 and the San Bernardino attacks of 2015 there were 160 active shooters in America, killing 1,043 people and wounding 557. Only six of those assailants were women. Shooting large groups of strangers with guns appears to be a primarily male activity.
Omar Mateen was one of these men. He was born and raised in the United States. A former coworker says Mateen espoused hate toward blacks, Jews, and women, and was openly homophobic. He was a registered gun owner with an active conceal-and-carry license. He longed to be a cop. Through his murderous assault on Pulse, he attempted to hang his violence and ignorance on his faith, but he was nothing more or less than an American man.
I know my prayers are powerless against all of that. My prayers are not a solution, yet I pray daily despite this. One of my favorite prayers is the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi: "Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love." St. Francis asked God to help him become a peaceful person, the kind of person who brings faith to places where there is doubt, who brings hope to places where there is despair. Francis supplicated for the willingness to give and understand, and to be remade daily in the image of God — to not be a frightened, greedy asshole when shit gets real.
In the public prayers of the politicians, they effectively dump the responsibility for protecting the people they serve on God, as if God is a henchman doing the work they seemingly refuse to. In the St. Francis prayer, God is a benevolent force that supports you as you do the heavy lifting. The trick is that God is in the prayer itself. The act of speaking it is how the speaker acknowledges, humbly and out loud, that they need to behave in a better, more loving way. In 2016, it seems, everyone can benefit from behaving in a better, more loving way.
You don’t have to believe in God in order for this kind of prayer to work, because you’re not asking God to fix anything. You’re simply admitting that you have shit to work on. And doing so flips a switch in your brain that reminds you that it is you who must do the work of being good. God will not do it for you.
The shooting in Orlando is an act that picks at the scab of America’s most infected wounds. America has a complex and historical set of problems that are underscored by racism and homophobia and exacerbated by violence and guns. Since John Winthrop’s “City upon a Hill” sermon in 1630, Americans have used religion as a smoke screen to feed our egos and romance our fears. The contemporary tenor of this idea is Americans thinking that they are the only ones who are “right” and that everyone who disagrees with us is not just wrong, but is a threat to be targeted and annihilated. The mistake here is believing that the bad guys are always someone else.
A racist American citizen with a history of domestic violence, a Middle Eastern last name, and a legally obtained gun license committing the mass murder of people in a gay club is everything we have a problem with. It is not someone else’s problem. We cannot call on God to fix it. But we can call on prayer, if we do it correctly. If you pray for something, pray that you, yourself, can change in a way that makes Orlando less likely to happen again. If you are afraid of losing your Second Amendment rights, pray that you are relieved of the fear that keeps your eyes shut and your heart frozen while children are murdered. If you are afraid of people who are Muslim, pray that you are relieved of that fear, to see and value the humanity in all people. If you are a politician who cannot possibly talk gun reform with the constituency that elected you or the lobbyists that gird your power, pray that you develop the courage to be freed of what stifles your humanity. If you are angry and despondent and hopeless and helpless in the face of all that swirls around you today, pray that you have the vision to simply do the next right thing. Pray to whatever you believe is beautiful and perfect. God. Trees. Your cat’s paws. The breath of your child sleeping beside you. Serena Williams. Steph Curry’s jumper. Zayn Malik’s jawline. Avocados. Jesus Christ. St. Francis talking to the animals. It doesn’t matter. All of it is holy. All that matters is that you no longer pray for God to change anything. Instead, pray that you change. And then go do it.