WASHINGTON - In his opening prayer Tuesday, the Senate chaplain delivered a rare and pointed plea for lawmakers to act a day after a shooter killed six people at a private Christian school in Nashville, only the latest in a relentless barrage of gun violence in the United States.
On the Senate floor, the chamber’s longtime chaplain, retired Rear Adm. Barry C. Black, alluded to the fact that three of the victims in the Monday shooting at the Covenant School were 9-year-old students.
“Lord, when babies die at a church school, it is time for us to move beyond thoughts and prayers,” Black declared in his distinctive baritone. “Remind our lawmakers of the words of the British statesman Edmund Burke: ‘All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.’”
Black added: “Lord, deliver our senators from the paralysis of analysis that waits for the miraculous. Use them to battle the demonic forces that seek to engulf us. We pray, in your powerful name, amen.”
Black has served since 2003 as Senate chaplain, a “nonpartisan, nonpolitical and nonsectarian” elected officer of the Senate. In addition to opening daily sessions with a prayer and holding a weekly Senate Prayer Breakfast, the chaplain provides “spiritual counseling and guidance to members and staff” and assists them with theological questions, according to the Senate website.
For two decades, Black has delivered prayers at the beginning of floor sessions and at notable Capitol events, such as a service for the late senator Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) and before the sessions for the first impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. During the latter, Black asked God to “remind our senators that they alone are accountable to you for their conduct … that they can’t ignore you and get away with it, for we always reap what we sow.”
Clips of Black’s Tuesday morning prayer quickly spread online, with some criticizing it as “political” and others praising it as an unusually piercing call for action. In an interview with The Washington Post on Tuesday afternoon, Black avoided describing the kind of action he supports, emphasizing only that he is “not formulaic in how this thing should be tackled.”
“I am a human being who is reacting to the horrific (events) that all Americans, most Americans, are seeing,” Black said. “And this has been a priority of mine that we do better at attempting to solve this problem.”
When asked to clarify his position, Black quoted no fewer than three poets, two historic figures and four Bible verses, including the New Testament’s James 2 (“Faith without works is dead”) and the “Parable of the Four Soils.” He also cited the civil rights movement, noting that during the more than half-century between Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education, civil rights leaders tried everything they could, even if it did not immediately result in institutional change.
“They kept striving, and that’s all I am attempting to say. It is not enough to expect the miraculous without our participating in making the miraculous happen,” he said. “If we keep planting, yes, there will continue to be setbacks, but, eventually, we will find good soil, as Matthew Chapter 13 puts it, and we will see a harvest that is more than we could have possibly anticipated.”
Later, Black added: “I am calling for problem solving - that’s what is accurate to say. And however that is done, let’s get it done.”
As far as he could recall, Black said, there had not been a major shooting he had not at least acknowledged on the Senate floor in his two decades as the chamber’s chaplain, even if he did not devote an entire prayer to it. He had, in fact, already commented on the Nashville shooting in Monday’s prayer, but he said it remained in his heart as he was writing Tuesday’s prayer, about five minutes before he was set to deliver it.
Black said he and his siblings, as well as his three sons, grew up attending Christian schools, which he described as a “city of refuge.” He could also remember when his children were 9 and the feeling of security he had sending them to school.
“So I think that was a factor in my response, as well,” Black said. “Those were some of the things that were marinating in my spirit as I hastily scribbled out this prayer.”
At nearly the same time that Black was delivering his prayer in the Senate, House lawmakers from both parties were giving divergent responses to the Nashville shooting, which has once again intensified the focus on gun violence in the United States.
When asked for his thoughts on the shooting, House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) - who himself was critically injured in a 2017 shooting - said he was praying for the victims and their families and dismissed talk of gun legislation.
“I really get angry when I see people trying to politicize it for their own personal agenda, especially when we don’t even know the facts,” Scalise told reporters. “It just seems like on the other side, all (Democrats) want to do is take guns away from law-abiding citizens before they even know the facts … and that’s not the answer, by the way.”
Shortly afterward, in a news conference, House Democrats renewed their calls for “meaningful gun-safety legislation.”
“We must give families the peace of mind to send their kids to school not fearing for their lives,” Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) told reporters. “But we need reasonable Republicans to come to the table to make this happen. It’s an outrage that we can’t find a handful of Republicans (who) are willing to put people over extremism on the far right.”
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The Washington Post’s Azi Paybarah contributed to this report.