When terrible things happen, what can church people believe and do?

When terrible things happen, three questions force themselves to the surface: What can we believe? What’s happening to America? What we can do to make things safer?

Two books are helping me find answers. The Predicament of Belief by Phillip Clayton and Steven Knapp provides a way to understand God that can be affirmed by people who also accept scientific explanations of reality and the importance of morally adequate interpretations of reality.

A Safeway in Arizona by Tom Zoellner provides a detailed description of the pathology of the man who shot Gabrielle Giffords and shows how the destructive behavior patterns of people like that man are influenced by the public discourse of the time.

A recent column by Nicholas Kristof suggests ideas that can shape evidence-based discussions of public safety with respect to the use of firearms. I plan to give attention to these three topics starters in later posts. Before turning to these topics individually, however, I want to summarize my position as I begin this series.

Theology: I stand firmly in the Christian tradition, as represented today in liberal Protestant churches. I am committed to a scientific worldview and, at the same time, believe that praying is an intelligent activity that makes a difference. I am coming to believe in a new way that it is possible to conceive of a continuing life with God beyond this life which we now live.

Life in America: I am deeply committed to the basic structures of life in the United States that from the beginning have insisted upon liberty and equality and upon the intertwining of personal and public happiness. At the same time, I recognize that our nation’s history includes a darker narrative that affects how people think and act. In order to make life good for any one of us, we have to find ways of overcoming the pathologies both of individuals and of the larger community.

Issues of public safety: For the most part, I agree with our system of regulations and mandated procedures that provide a relative degree of confidence in the safety of the food supply, honesty of banking procedures, safety of automobiles, age-related criteria for driving, and other matters of this kind. The discussion about the availability and use of lethal weapons, especially firearms, properly begins at this level. The discussion needs to be fact based, taking into account the actual record of how things are working in other parts of the western world.

With this summary in mind, I commend a column by Charles Howard, University Chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania. He discusses his own approach to prayer, which includes private fasting as a way of intensifying his own participation in this spiritual exercise.

Chaplain Howard believes, as I do, that prayer makes a difference in how the world works. Here I am quoting only the lead sentences of the four topics for which he is praying during the next 27 days (one day for each person killed at Newtown). By clicking on Charles Howard, you can access his full column.

  1. I am fasting and praying that our nation would have breakthrough in our long painful journey with gun violence. Especially that our leaders would have the courage to introduce, pass, and fix the gun laws of our nation, states, and cities.
  2. I am fasting and praying that the individuals in my life who own guns in their homes (especially for protection) would get rid of them safely.
  3. I am fasting and praying that the painful situations surrounding and leading up to gun violence would be addressed.
  4. And finally I am fasting and praying that our hearts would be deeply touched by and inspired by the brave and amazing teachers who protected their students.

I am especially sensitive to the predicament of pastors of churches. My limited conversation with church-going friends makes me aware of the intensity of feeling about many political topics and especially those that revolve around revolvers, rifles, and other lethal firearms.

At a time like this, it is especially important that church members who care about personal liberty and public happiness take the lead in sponsoring constructive conversations among people of faith.


One Response to When terrible things happen, what can church people believe and do?

  1. Dave says:

    Keith, a summarization of position, as you have done, would be helpful for all of us to do before entering a conversation of faithful societal change—perhaps most conversations for that matter.

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