In the aftermath of the massacre at the Orlando nightclub Pulse, the discourse is taking on a predictable shape: after all, when it comes to mass shootings, terrorism, and acts of violence against marginalized groups, we Americans have been here before -- it's familiar, blood-soaked ground. And so, there are arguments for and against gun control; arguments for and against using descriptive terms like "Islamic terrorism," and/or "homophobic violence."
And there are arguments about religion itself: for some, religion is the antidote to such acts; for others, religion is the problem because religion is not simply complicit but also an active perpetrator -- as much a perpetrator as the murderer who pulls the trigger.
But before they clash and diverge, many of these arguments -- even those made by atheists and agnostics -- are often prefaced with a similar sentiment or slogan that usually goes something like this: "our thoughts and/or prayers are with the victims and their families."
"We don't need your thoughts or your prayers, we need your actions." That was a particularly pithy comeback to the pious phraseology that I read surveying the span of reactions recorded on Twitter and Facebook.
And as a Catholic Christian, I had to admit that critics had a point: what does prayer mean after something like the massacre in Orlando? For that matter, what does prayer mean -- does it even matter -- in the aftermath of such heinous acts of violence?
I believe that prayer does matter, especially after the Orlando massacre -- and it's an argument I'll make with all due respect to those critics who believe prayer is a senseless waste of time.
It's first important to get clear about what the Orlando massacre was and what it was not. It was a crime; it wasn't a tragedy. Tragedy is one of those habitually misused terms that seems to cover any regrettable event, from the accidental to the catastrophic, that involves loss of life. But here we have a determined, premeditated act, by an individual: Omar Mateen.
It was a conscious act of evil -- a crime, not a tragedy.
And the choice of target was surely not random -- after all, there are numerous other targets in Orlando that would have met the criteria of an opportunistic murderer. Instead, it does seem clear that Pulse was targeted because it was a haven for Orlando's LGBTQ community.
For some people, some Christians among them, seeing LGBTQ people as their brothers and sisters is a challenge. And there are some who, in condemning terrorism, might forget who the victims of the violence actually were and why they were targeted.
Prayer is one way to open our hearts to those who those who are so marginalized that they often do not come into our field of vision, let alone our hearts. Praying for the victims and their families, means first and foremost recognizing their dignity as human beings and the richness of their lives. When Pope Francis inaugurated the Holy Year of Mercy in his Misericordiae Vultus, he prayed, "may it open us to even more fervent dialogue so that we might know and understand one another better; may it eliminate every form of closed-mindedness and disrespect, and drive out every form of violence and discrimination."
Many of us, myself included, would be wise to repeat this same prayer as we reflect on the terrible aftermath of the killings in Orlando.
Prayer may not be "the answer" to the question of violence, especially against those who are marginalized. But prayer can lead to the beginning of a response to crimes like the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Praying for the victims means that we recognize our connection with them -- as brothers and sisters, as fellow human beings. Praying for their families and loved ones means that we draw closer to them as they mourn. And praying for those who perpetrate acts of terrible violence does not condone their acts, but gives witness to the belief that no one is beyond repentance, reconciliation, and the mercy of God.
The power of prayer after the Orlando massacre lies not in its power to change God, but in its power to change us -- and bring to our conscious awareness the suffering of those whom we can all too easily ignore.