Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Who Prays for Jared?
I wonder how many churches prayed for Jared Loughner and his family this past Sunday. We have certainly been reading a great deal about him; the sad picture emerging is of a deeply troubled young man – a kid really – increasingly alienated, struggling with mental illness that was untreated and undoubtedly exacerbated by occasional drug and alcohol abuse. His frightening bearing, rather than eliciting psychiatric intervention, appears to have led friends, co-workers, school officials to create distance. That is understandable, but also sad.
Finger pointing has dominated the story. What kind of parents would raise a son like this? Why is it so easy to buy a gun? When will we stop the violent political rhetoric? One former girl friend even asserted that Jared is faking his emotional instability to justify a not guilty by reason of insanity plea, an uninformed assumption that CNN found worthy of repeating incessantly one day. It doesn’t absolve Jared of moral or legal responsibility to say that what we do know is that this troubled young man either avoided or was overlooked by many who might have guided him toward a safer place. And that, too, is sad.
Jared’s story brought to mind again a wrenching experience in my own pastoral ministry. Conrad arrived one day at my office at Christmastime looking for help. Not a church member, he nevertheless remembered that, as a child, members of our congregation brought him and his sisters and brothers to our Sunday School. Conrad had recently lost his job and had grown depressed and frightened. How would he sustain his family? His fears, while understandable, seemed overwrought to me. His wife was working at a good job, his mortgage was not overwhelming, and he had unemployment benefits for several more weeks. Objectively speaking, things were difficult, but quite manageable. He seemed convinced, however, that his family was about to plunge into the crushing poverty that he had known as a child.
Conrad’s deep emotional anxieties were beyond my capabilities. I referred him to a counselor, paid the bill, and continued to see him for pastoral support. He seemed to be getting better, especially after the counselor consulted with a psychiatrist who put Conrad on anti-depressants. But something far worse and unseen by all was happening. One night Conrad sat awake at home while his wife was at work and his step-son and step-daughter slept. Convinced that his family was about to lose everything, that his children were about to repeat the grim childhood he himself had known, he determined that it would be better for them if they all died. He got a single shot hunting rifle from the closet, loaded it, and shot and killed his step-son while he slept. He planned to kill his step-daughter next, then wait for his wife, kill her, and then kill himself. Fortunately at that point the old gun jammed (thank God he didn’t have a Glock pistol). When he couldn’t eject the shell casing he put it down and calmly called the police.
Ironically, it appears that the medication he was taking lifted his depression sufficiently to allow a far more virulent psychosis to exert itself. I conducted the funeral, struggling how to name our concern for Conrad while we were burying his step-son. That elicited a physical threat from the boy’s grandfather at the cemetery. These things are not easy. For years I visited Conrad at various county and state prisons, including the maximum security psychiatric prison in Pennsylvania. I testified at his trial. I tried to support his family. Conrad served a prison sentence for manslaughter. I saw him once after he got out. That was twenty years ago. I have no idea what’s happened to any of them since. I’d like to think his wife is remarried and happy, that his step daughter, now in her late thirties, is doing well. I’d like to think that Conrad has found a way in life, though I fear he will always be deeply wounded. None of this was my fault. I know I did what I could do and should have done. Nor do I blame the counselor or the psychiatrist. Sometimes people do horrible things despite our best efforts. And sometimes they do those horrible things believing it is the best they can do also.
So while I am appalled at what Conrad and Jared did, I also lament what they had become, and the lonely and painful journey that took them there. And I grieve for the innocent victims of their troubled lives marked by so much loneliness, alienation, and sense of abandonment. And I wonder. As horrible as Jared’s acts were, who will pray for him? It may be too much to ask those who have lost so much in Tucson to pray for him. Nor I suppose should we expect the politicians to do that. This would never fit their political calculations. And as much as I yearned for President Obama to offer that word of compassion in Tucson, I knew he couldn’t in that pep rally environment, that perhaps even his legal advisors would have told him that it might jeopardize Jared’s prosecution.
But the church has none of those political calculations to make or legal constraints with which to contend. If we don’t affirm that Jared remains a child of God, who else will? If we don’t decry his dehumanization and demonization, who else will? If we don’t bear witness to the truth that Jared remains within the divine embrace of love and forgiveness, who else will? If we don’t speak of a Waiting Parent gazing longingly, persistently toward the far country where Jared has wandered and where I often fear Conrad still dwells, who else will? Our doing these things won’t diminish or taint our prayers or our compassion for a wounded congresswoman or a lost nine year old child. Prayer and compassion are not scarce commodities to be preserved for the righteous even though we sometimes treat them that way. And they aren’t acts performed to make a point. They are simply this: profound reminders that, as at the very beginning, it is not good to be alone, for Jared, for Conrad, or for us.
Can we pray for Jared?
John H. Thomas