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Thoughts and prayers not enough, Senate chaplain says after Nashville shooting

Black urges lawmakers to 'try some different things'

“I see, to use the language of chess, a lot of stalemates, when it comes to attempting to do something constructive about mass shootings,” Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black said.
“I see, to use the language of chess, a lot of stalemates, when it comes to attempting to do something constructive about mass shootings,” Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black said. (Photo By Tom Williams/Roll Call)

Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black has rarely espoused personal views during the nearly 20 years he has delivered the opening prayer, but on Tuesday his message was this: “When babies die at a church school, it is time for us to move beyond thoughts and prayers.”

Black told those hearing the prayer to remind lawmakers of the saying, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing,” a day after a shooter armed with two assault weapons and a pistol opened fire on a Christian school in Nashville, killing three elementary schoolchildren and three school employees.

The message was one of only a handful of times that Black, 74, the first African American and first Seventh-Day Adventist to hold the post, has spoken pointedly about issues from the Senate floor.

Black’s words are unusual, though not unprecedented, according to Howard Mortman, whose 2020 book, “When Rabbis Bless Congress: The Great American Story of Jewish Prayers on Capitol Hill,” delves into the history of the opening prayer in each chamber.

The Senate chaplain position was created in 1789 and is meant to be “nonpartisan, nonpolitical and nonsectarian,” according to the Senate website. Current events will, at times, seep into the prayer, Mortman said. But it’s uncommon for an issue to command an entire prayer, as the Nashville shooting did Tuesday.

“The chaplains are there to pray and not to vote. They don’t lobby; it’s not their role. They don’t give speeches. Their role is to be spiritual and aspirational in their messaging,” Mortman said. “It struck me as an observer of these prayers that this was an outlier. It was a strongly worded and pointed message.”

Black, in an interview with Roll Call, didn’t disagree, though he cited a string of animated prayers he delivered during the 2013 government shutdown as evidence of his past forays into more targeted messaging.

“Save us from the madness,” the chaplain began one of his prayers at the time. “We acknowledge our transgressions, our shortcomings, our smugness, our selfishness and our pride. Deliver us from the hypocrisy of attempting to sound reasonable while being unreasonable.”

The federal government partially shut down for 16 days in October 2013 because of a lapse in appropriations.

In addition, Black participated in the Hoodies on the Hill rally in 2012, in protest of the killing of Trayvon Martin.

At the opening of the second impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, in 2020, Black issued a political message of sorts, urging a kind of unity ahead of the attempt to remove Trump from office.

“As our lawmakers have become jurors, remind them of your admonition in 1 Corinthians 10:31 — that whatever they do should be done for your glory. Help them remember that patriots reside on both sides of the aisle, that words have consequences and that how something is said can be as important as what is said. Give them a civility built upon integrity that brings consistency in their beliefs and actions,” Black said at the time.

Rabbi Arnold E. Resnicoff, who has been a guest chaplain 19 times, said there are rules governing what chaplains can say in their prayers. Namely, prayers are not meant to be political statements.

“But I interpret that to mean prayers should not be partisan, taking one side or the other in a political debate, especially one side or the other in terms of a bill or resolution before the members,” said Resnicoff, who worked alongside Black when they were junior Navy chaplains and worked on his staff when Black became rear admiral and then Navy chief of chaplains.

Black seems to hew closely to those rules. He told The New York Times in 2013 that he was “liberal on some [beliefs] and conservative on others.”

Pressed on what kind of action he was urging, Black responded with an analogy.

“I see, to use the language of chess, a lot of stalemates, when it comes to attempting to do something constructive about mass shootings,” Black said. “And we’re moved each time — I believe sincere people are moved — and we give our thoughts and our prayers. But … you reach a point where you’re basically saying, when are we really going to step up our game?”

That question seems poised to continue going unanswered, with the response to the shooting split along predictably partisan lines.

Republicans, like Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance, have zeroed in on the shooter’s identity as a trans woman. He and Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., sought on Twitter to link the attack to a “Trans Day of Vengeance,” planned by an activist group called the Trans Radical Activist Network for this week outside the Supreme Court.

During a floor speech Tuesday, Hawley announced plans to introduce a resolution designating the shooting a hate crime and called on the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to investigate it as such.

Many Democrats, including Sen. Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut — who shepherded a 2022 bill that expanded background checks for certain gun buyers and tightened red flag laws, among other things — used the shooting to push again for an assault weapons ban.

“The upside of assault weapons is just not worth the carnage,” Murphy tweeted Monday, claiming that mass shootings dropped significantly during a 10-year federal assault weapons ban that expired in 2004.

Black didn’t comment on the merits of either approach. But the impasse is no longer acceptable, he said.

“I’m thinking about experimenting until you find something that you can document, empirically, as working,” he said. “It took Edison more than 2,000 attempts to find the filament for the incandescent light bulb. We need to try some different things.”