The Christian Challenge of Praying for Mass Shooters

Whenever there is a notably horrendous mass shooting, it is acknowledged from the altar of the Catholic church where I worship and serve as an usher. I say notably horrendous because mass shootings happen so often, so regularly now, that it’s hard to keep track—we would almost constantly be acknowledging if we acknowledged every event that took the lives of four or more people.

On the Sunday after a notably tragic shooting, notable from the standpoint of the raw extent of the carnage, the mood at Portland’s Grotto is always markedly reserved; there is palpable grief in the air. Such subdued and reflective Sundays are obviously quite different from the more upbeat and celebratory services that occur on happier Sundays, especially summer Sundays, when the Masses are held outdoors under sunny skies.

However far removed geographically we may be from the scenes of unthinkable death, life-threatening injury, and the unimaginable pain in the hearts of the families and friends of the fallen, a sense of the terrible loss of life permeates the spirit and tenor of the Mass. Those who have not been directly affected by a mass shooting incident pray in solidarity with the communities that are directly affected, while seeking spiritual guidance—ways to theologically process such events-- from our chosen deity.

Of course, we all, as a nation, are affected. But the ripples of grief lessen with distance. We think of the lost, the families who lost loved ones, pray for them, but recover and go about our lives. The sense of something being wrong or somehow imbalanced in the universe fades from everyday consciousness…until the next time.

Will the next time affect us directly? The chances of that may still be infinitesimal, like a lightning strike, and yet such trepidation has become welded to contemporary consciousness. Everybody worries about somebody. Older parents fear for their young, children and grandchildren, who frequent malls, hang out in youthful watering holes, walk about the greenways and city streets in the urban cores.

The priest offers prayers for the victims and the survivors. He might speak about the abiding faith that sustains us through such horror. He will often, on short notice, integrate the incident into his homily.

The hard part comes when the priest asks his congregation to pray for the shooter. Even for the devout, the idea of praying for the perpetrator of such loss and grief in the immediate aftermath can require a faith-based recalibration.

To the devil with him! might characterize the visceral response. It is an understandable response; after all we are only human. But it is the very fact that we are human that councils us to heed the priest. Such innocent loss of life, such tragic random taking of life, is for God to sort out. We must let thoughts of vengeance, just deserts, retributive fantasies, go. Ultimate justice must come from on high. And, lest we fall short in the practice of our faith, we must indeed pray for the shooter.

Such deliverance of justice into the hands of a higher power does not mean we can’t support laws and policies aimed at preventing or deterring the mass killing. We can ardently support the death penalty in such cases---in the name of deterrence. Argue for the involuntary confinement of individuals who have histories or have committed acts which may show a propensity for committing a mass shooting.  We can question the effect blood-and-guts video games may have on people with personality disorders. We can even—though most conservatives have legitimate concerns along these lines—talk about ways to restrict the easy access to firearms from the hands of those with sick minds and pathological intentions.

We can do all of these things, and still leave the question of cosmic justice to God.

Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.  

Critics of Christian theology point to the precept of unconditional forgiveness for those who ask for it. They cite circumstances where the most heinous, murderous individual can simply find faith on the cell-block and be granted forgiveness—and entrance to heaven-- by the Lord. It doesn’t seem right to these critics that a perpetrator could get off the hook for such crimes simply by means of a deathbed, or jailhouse conversion.

Again, as difficult as it may be, the faithful must accept that this too is for God to sort out.

For the purposes of our discussion, regarding those who shall not be named, we may be able to extrapolate afterlife outcomes by looking at the circumstances of the El Paso and Dayton shootings.

If a shooter (Dayton) dies in a hail of gunfire while never having sought redemption and forgiveness, we must conclude he is destined for perdition (This individual killed his own sister). If a shooter (El Paso) survives his unthinkable act, we must conclude that he may—prior to his lawful deliverance to a human executioner—fall on his knees, seek forgiveness, and enter heaven.

The deity never promised that faith was going to be easy.

It may help to view the deranged and hateful perpetrators of mass shootings (or bombings, or box truck assaults, etc.) as Judas Iscariot figures. How unfathomably sad to reach the point where a person would sell his soul and betray his beloved spiritual Lord for thirty pieces of silver.

The Judas figure is the snake underbelly of humanity. Jesus pitied him, and prayed for him.

The priest is asking you to pray for humankind’s worst betrayers.

The priest is asking you to pray for Judas.

Mark Ellis the author of A Death on the Horizon, a novel of political upheaval and cultural intrigue. He came aboard at PJ Media in 2015. His literary hangout is Liberty Island. Follow Mark on Twitter.