Blaming Neverland

I recall as a child watching with innocent joy the film, Peter Pan. Nearly all movies require “suspension of disbelief”—that marvelous choice to dive into a make-believe world, to ignore plot holes, to accept the impossible, and simply to be entertained—but Peter Pan requires it in spades. Eternally a boy, Peter moves between an alternate world and this one. He flies, he fights Neverland pirates in floating galleons, and he leads a motley gang of pre-pubescent swashbucklers, all of whom adore a pixie-dust covered fairy named Tinker Bell. It is a wonderful movie, but only if you’re willing to “suspend disbelief.”

But even as a child I knew when to return to reality. Although I enjoyed the movie, I never sprinkled dust on my head and attempted to fly out of a second story window. A movie is a movie. Gravity is gravity.

It might be odd, then, if I were to allow Peter Pan so to influence my thinking that I attempted a pixie-dust fueled flight from my rooftop. But it would be odder still if in response to my broken bones society rose up, condemning the film for having planted anti-gravity ideas in my mind. It would be odd for the simple reason that the overwhelming majority of all the people who ever have watched Peter Pan have not jumped from rooftops or balconies or second story windows. That tends strongly to suggest that the fault would lie with me rather than the film.

But in America today, if a young man commits a public crime, the press, politicians, and rank and file citizens alike join in suggesting that he broke the law because he first watched a film that depicted criminal violence, or because he indulges in racist chat groups, or because the President said something derogatory about immigrants, or because he lives in poverty. A never-ending list of supposed “causes” could be added, and as these “causes” mount the responsibility of the criminal himself fades. Now, don’t get me wrong. I tend to think that films that glorify criminal violence are foolish. Racist websites offer both bad ideas and often, bad grammar. Our President, much to his shame, rarely speaks without saying something derogatory about somebody. And although poverty and crime often unite in the press, the vast majority of poor people are honest, hard-working, law-abiding folk. But with increasing frequency, the common American narrative describes a criminal’s action as the fault of the media he consumes or the groups with which he affiliates or his socio-economic status. As a result, individual responsibility dies. Never mind that millions of people watch films that glorify criminal violence, but commit no crime. All of us have been exposed to racism online, in print, in the media, and in person, and yet most of us love our neighbors of every color and nationality and religious persuasion. Millions daily listen to the inane and often derogatory comments of politicians of both parties, but manifest no violent behavior on account of it. Neither poverty nor wealth makes a man a criminal. These supposed “causes” of criminality don’t cause much of anything except annoyance and frustration in the vast majority of people exposed to them.

The truth that our society seems slowly to be forgetting is that a man is more than the information he receives, the media he consumes, the groups to which he belongs, or the quantity of money he makes. He is a morally accountable agent. And some morally accountable agents choose to respond to this world or their frustrations or their neighbor’s opinions criminally. Not because they must, but because they choose to do so.

No society would condemn Peter Pan for the folly of a man who failed to leave pixie dust behind when he left the theater. But America seems determined to blame cultural and political and socio-economic scapegoats rather than to embrace the simple truth that some people do wicked things. And the reason for their crimes resides in their mirror.

Are “Thoughts and Prayers” Useless?

It has become fashionable of late to disparage “thoughts and prayers.” When a public tragedy takes place, whether a natural disaster or a shooting, people and pundits alike take pot shots at praying men and women, suggesting that prayer to “an invisible sky deity” is folly.

In one sense, I agree. Somehow mere thought became lumped together with prayer. These are not the same so let’s separate them. Let’s agree that merely thinking something positive about another person does that person no good. Let’s agree that there really is no such thing as “sending” a thought to another person in another place. None of us is a telepath, and thoughts don’t possess wings.

Prayer, however, is a different thing entirely. Prayer proceeds from the conviction that God is. If God is not, then prayer is indeed folly. But if God is not then no one should be upset about hurricanes or murderers. Survival of the fittest specimens of an accidental species inhabiting a random blue dot in an ocean of space should not concern any of us. Unless of course, like Ebenezer Scrooge, you think it best to “decrease the surplus population.” After all, we humans are destroying the earth, altering its temperature, polluting its oceans, and ruining its rain forests. If there is no God, then maybe you should hope for more natural disasters. Maybe mass shooters are doing us all a favor.

But of course they are not doing favors. They are wicked, murderous, and evil, and in their wickedness they do not destroy a random species of valueless ape on an accidental planet. They are killing human beings. And human beings have value, for God exists, and he created us in his own image, and therefore we matter. Profoundly. Even though many deny God’s existence, those same people who deny him still value God’s image bearers—they call human death a tragedy—for the reality that God exists is burned into their souls, and they cannot escape it.

That means that prayer offers access to enormous power. Power to heal. Power to comfort. Power to supply material relief. Power to bring justice. Power to move mountains. James 5:16 teaches: “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working,” not because the righteous person is a powerful person, but because the God to whom the righteous person prays is a powerful God. Jesus prayed, and he taught his followers to pray, and to trust the power and character of the God to whom they committed their prayers.

To suggest that prayer is useless is to deny the existence, personality, and providential care of God, all while valuing those who bear his image, despite the fact that atheism provides no reason to value a human being more than a slug or a weed.

So I’ll continue to pray for wounded families. I will pour out my heart in compassion before the living Savior, who knows what it means to suffer. I will trust that the “man of sorrows” who was “familiar with grief” is able to care for the broken hearts of shattered men and women. And I’ll also do very practical things, like teach anyone who will listen that God is, that you bear his image, and that you and every other human being have value—inherent, God-given value. I will teach everyone with ears, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and, “You shall not murder,” and, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” I’ll keep preaching that you are your brother’s keeper and that you must take care of the least among you. I will continue to sit with the dying at their hospital bedside, meet with their grieving family members in their homes, and weep with them as they lay their loved ones to rest. I will ask God to change the world the only way it ever will change or has changed: one heart at a time, as he graciously rescues us from the guilt and power and consequences of our own sin.

Let the atheist pundit disparage prayer. He is only disparaging his own value. Let him believe that prayer drifts ever upward to a non-existent sky deity. Christ reigns and the earth is his footstool. Let him fancy that solutions to the problem of the human heart come from better legislation.

Christian, let him do all that. And then, “Continue steadfastly in prayer.” In fact, pray also for the pundit, for he is unable to pray for himself, and he needs the very prayers he disparages.