While working my way through what became the farewell to Billy Graham week (which will continue as the funeral approaches), I kept watching the tsunami of press coverage linked to the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Frankly, I have been stunned. Faithful GetReligion readers will know that I back many forms of gun control that would infuriate the cultural right. (This is simplistic, but I would like to see guns treated like cars, controlled with a training-testing-license formula. Also, I'm from hunting-crazy Texas, but I don't see why civilians need military level hardware.)
What has stunned me is the degree to which some on the left (think CNN) seem determined to destroy any hope for serious compromise. Please read this David French commentary for one view of where all of this screaming could take us.
What does this have to do with religion and religion-news coverage?
Well, check out this New York Times story that ran several days ago under the headline: "Gunfire Erupts at a School. Leaders Offer Prayers. Children Are Buried. Repeat."
As you read it, please ask yourself this question: Is this a news story?
I have been checking, day after day, to see if the principalities and powers at the Times have retroactively put an "Analysis" or even "Commentary" label on this piece. They have not.
If this is a news story (I think it is reported commentary and it should have been labeled as such), then I think it can be considered a kind of Rosetta Stone that media critics of all kinds can use to help break down and interpret much of the "reporting" that is being done linked to this torrid debate.
Once again, we see a basic journalistic formula that can be summarized as "thoughts and prayers" Americans vs. rational Americans who don't want to see students slaughtered.
Think about that. Might there be people out there who believe in the power of prayer, but who also want to see gun-control compromises take place (as well as discussions of mental health, the side effects of many medications, school security improvements, etc.) in this trouble land of ours?
Let me state this as a basic journalism question: If compromise is going to happen -- real change -- then wouldn't it be important to find voices in the middle of the armed camps on the cultural left and right?
Now, with that as prologue, what is happening in this Times sermon? Here is the overture. I would suggest that you read this out loud in order to feel the emotions contained in it.
Once again a nation sends thoughts and prayers, because it has happened once again.
The flak-jacketed police storming an American school in lockdown. The anguished parents pressing against the police cordon, the morning’s hurried goodbyes suddenly precious. The assembled media unfolding camera tripods and chasing the same story angles as if for the first time.
Aerial footage of children filing out of the school, hands above heads in surrender to the tense moment. Then their frantic dash to safety, their young minds yet to process what they have just witnessed.
Then that moment when the local law enforcement official, face blanched by the sorrow of what must be imparted, appears before cameras. On Wednesday, it was Scott Israel, the sheriff of Florida’s Broward County, who stepped forward to announce the toll of a massacre inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School: 17 children and adults dead, another 16 wounded.
The suspect in custody: Nikolas Cruz, 19, a former student who was expelled from the school and who unnerved acquaintances with his obsession with violence and guns. After the slaughter, the police said, he dropped his legally purchased rifle -- an AR-15 -- ran out of the school, and bought a drink at a Subway.
“There are no words,” Sheriff Israel said.
Other than offers of thoughts and prayers.
Wait for it.
Or “prayers and condolences,” as President Trump wrote on Twitter Wednesday afternoon.
Of course, if Trump has tweeted something then we know how rational people are supposed to view that statement.
Of course, there is a lot of perfectly valid material in this piece. There are voices saying exactly the kinds of things that I have heard stated by friends of mine, religious believers (the kinds of people who pray, a lot) on the left, on the right and in the middle.
This passage cut me to the quick, since I am (as I confessed) someone who wants to see real changes take place. I want some Richard Nixon to go to China. I want to see the liberal version of a Richard Nixon go to China, too.
In this case, it is left to the young to cut through the deadening sameness. On Wednesday night, a 17-year-old boy in a dark T-shirt named David Hogg -- fresh from escaping the massacre at his high school -- looked into a CNN camera to address this country’s political leaders.
“We are children,” he said. “You guys are the adults. Work together, come over your politics, and get something done.”
Then read this, at the end:
... There is the Rev. Sharon Risher, who was resting on her couch in Charlotte, N.C., when reports about the Florida shooting came across her television. Her heart leapt at the sight of children fleeing a school, and she switched the channel. Her mother, Ethel Lance, was one of the nine black churchgoers shot dead by a white supremacist during a Bible class in Charleston, S.C., in 2015.
Ms. Risher said she already knows what will follow.
“People will rally, and they will voice their opinions on social media about how sad it is, and how they’re praying,” she said. “But in the next month or so, it will be gone. And those families, like me, will have to deal with the devastation of our lives while everyone else moves on.”
Governors order flags to fly at half-staff. Funeral services for children are staggered, so as to accommodate a broken community. Schools everywhere announce that counselors stand at the ready. And a nation sends thoughts and prayers.
So, in this final statement, what does "thoughts and prayers" mean?
Does it, really, mean "thoughts and prayers"? All prayers? Really? Are prayers to blame for all of this? If not, then why are "thoughts and prayers" the symbol of all that is wrong?