The campaign group United Against Gun Violence, which brings together more than 70 bishops from the U.S.-based Episcopal Church, has challenged the country’s leaders to act following the November 5 shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, which resulted in the deaths of 26 people. The dead ranged in age from 18 months to 77 years. Among them was Annabelle Pomeroy, the 14-year-old daughter of the church’s pastor, Frank Pomeroy, and his wife, Sherri.
A third of the victims came from the extended family of Sunday school teacher John Holcombe. His wife, who was pregnant with their first child, was among the dead, as were three of her children from her first marriage, his parents, a brother and young niece.
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, of the U.S.-based Episcopal Church, called on people to pray Monday, November 6, saying: “I invite you to pray that God’s will might be done, that God might guide us to find a better way, to find concrete steps so that this kind of thing doesn’t happen anymore. But above all, we pray for those who suffer and for those who have died.”
In the U.S., efforts to limit widespread gun ownership have been repeatedly thwarted by a highly-financed and effective gun-lobby that promotes the 2nd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which grants a right to bear arms. The 2nd amendment was ratified in 1791—eight years after the American War of Independence, and states: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
Regardless of its original intent, it is seen today by the gun lobby as the right for U.S. citizens to own, possess and carry weapons—including assault rifles. And despite a very large number of mass-shooting incidents, politicians appear unable—or unwilling—to take action to limit the number of weapons in circulation.
Sunday’s shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs was carried out by 26-year-old Devin Kelley, who had previously received a bad-conduct discharge from the U.S. Air Force following a conviction for domestic violence and a 12-month prison sentence. After fleeing the scene of the shooting, he was found dead in a crashed car with what is believed to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Two handguns were found in his vehicle, and a Ruger AR-556 rifle was found in front of the church where he dropped following a stand-off with an armed local resident.
Now the bishops have criticized political leaders for being quick to call people to pray following such shootings, while being slow to take action to prevent them.
“In the wake of the heartbreaking shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, we find ourselves both calling people to prayer, and wishing that the word did not come so readily to the lips of elected leaders who are quick to speak, but take no action on behalf of public safety,” the bishops said.
“In prayer, Christians commend the souls of the faithful departed to the mercy and love of God. We beseech our Creator to comfort the grieving and shield the vulnerable. Prayer is not an offering of vague good wishes. It is not a spiritual exercise that successfully completed exempts one from focusing on urgent issues of common concern.
“Prayer is not a dodge. In prayer, we examine our own hearts and our own deeds to determine whether we are complicit in the evils we deplore. And if we are, we resolve to take action; we resolve to amend our lives.”
They continue: “As a nation, we must acknowledge that we idolize violence, and we must make amends. Violence of all kinds denigrates humankind; it stands against the will of God and the way of Jesus the Christ. The shooting in Sutherland Springs brings the issue of domestic violence, a common thread in many mass killings, into sharp relief. It is not only essential that we keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, but that we, as a society, reject ideologies of male dominance that permeate our culture and the history of our churches.
“Each of us has a role to play in our repentance. Elected representatives bear the responsibility of passing legislation that protects our citizenry. If our representatives are not up to this responsibility, we must replace them.
“In the meantime, however, we ask that in honour of our many murdered dead, elected leaders who behave as though successive episode of mass slaughter are simply the price our nation pays for freedom stop the reflexive and corrosive repetition of the phrase ‘thoughts and prayers.’
“One does not offer prayers in lieu of demonstrating political courage, but rather in preparation.”