By Matt Sheedy
In a recent article posted in Christianweek.org, Winnipeg’s newly minted chief of police, Devon Clunis, stated that prayer would play a significant role in his strategy to reduce violent crime in the city, which currently ranks first in Canada in that particular area. He went on to remark,
What would happen if we all just truly—I’m talking about all religious stripes here—started praying for the peace of this city and then actually started putting some action behind that?
These fairly mundane comments that were meant for a Christian audience caused a small firestorm when they were picked up by the mainstream media in late October of this year, catapulting the chief’s confessional remarks to an obscure website onto the national stage.
Not surprisingly, both media narratives and responses to this affair—on radio, television and in newspapers—provided a spectrum of positions ranging from vehement condemnation to unconditional support, while citing a variety of reasons for or against the proposition that, as one headline put it, “prayer could cut crime.” Here’s a small sample of comments that appeared in the on-line press:
Rev. Bill Miller of Knox United Church in downtown Winnipeg: I am a very strong believer in it (prayer). What is prayer at its essence? It’s a positive energy . . . it’s a collective intention for good. So whether it’s Muslim prayers or Christian prayers, Jewish prayers or aboriginal prayers, it all adds to a kind of positive energy.
Arthur Schafer, ethics professor at the University of Manitoba: It violates the norms of our secular society to be preaching the virtues of religion in general and prayer in particular from the platform of being a public official.
And my personal favorite, NDP (New Democratic Party) MP for Winnipeg Centre: If he is going to be praying I hope that he prays that legislators get their heads out of their a– and stop dismantling the social safety net and building more prisons when the solutions lie in opportunity and social services.
And here is a smattering from the comments section in an on-line article from the Toronto Star:
Wow, this is scary. This guy sounds like a George Bush or a Sarah Palin.
Wish him well, but religion has killed far more people than it has saved.
God loves and answers prayers of a righteous man. God has no use for the prayers of a self-righteous man.
In discussing this topic in two separate Facebook threads among scholars of religion, I found it curious to note how in both cases peoples’ responses went through three distinct stages—moving from humorous remarks, to personal reactions qua citizens, and, finally, to scholarly analysis.
Indeed, my own initial comment (Stage 1) was the following: I’m looking out my window and not seeing any crime right now… I rest my case! While my follow-up remark was more serious, it was still personal and political, engaging directly with the issues put forward in the article (Stage 2), such as the appropriateness of personal confessions for those holding public office. Only when this was out of my system, so to speak, was I able to turn to more critical reflection.
This got me thinking that one of the essential things that distinguishes scholarly replies from typical media narratives and political commentary is the ability to move beyond our gut reactions and put forward an etic or “outsiders” point of view, offering critical analysis on such things as discourse, structure, narrative, and classification in relation to the matter at hand (e.g., prayer). Let’s call this Stage 3.
While this may seem like an obvious point, it strikes me as significant in the following ways: 1) it illustrates the fact that we are always and already caught up in politics and affect in our capacity as social/political animals and, 2) it is only with theory that we are able to move beyond emic or “insiders” debates—where something like prayer is framed as good or bad, right or wrong, and where we are compelled to either agree or disagree with the proposition(s) at hand—towards adopting an “outsiders” perspective that takes a step beyond questions of feeling and personal experience and looks to the instance in question as a source of data, where “prayer,” in this case, is an object that needs to be explained in context and in relation to other “things.”
To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that either humor or personal/political reactions are irrelevant to scholarly work and should be ruled out of court; indeed, as this instance demonstrates, they seem to pop-up in everything we do. My point, quiet simply, is that if we remain stuck in Stage 2, merely engaging with the personal and the political by agreeing or disagreeing with propositions and stating how we think things ought to be, then there is little to distinguish our work from the more thoughtful responses that can be found in the comments section of any local newspaper.