What shall we make of those who beseech the divine, but evade their own earthly responsibility?
Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney "pointed to God. Both displayed piety. … Neither stepped up to the plate with a commitment to the neighborhood, to gun control," Parham says. (Romney photo: Gage Skidmore)
Faith without works is dead. So reads The Letter of James, a New Testament book that challenges the idea that authentic faith is only a matter of mental assent to a set of theological utterances (James 2:17).
But James isn't alone in prioritizing faith as a verb, as one's moral obligation for another. He was following Jesus.
"Woe to you Pharisees! for you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice," so says Jesus (Luke 11:42).
Religious ritual without justice is half-baked righteousness, superficial faith.
But Jesus isn't alone in prioritizing faith that seeks justice. He was following the prophetic tradition.
"I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies... Take away from me the noise of your songs... But let justice roll down like waters," so says Amos, the Hebrew prophet (Amos 5:21-24).
Worship without social engagement is an empty, self-serving display, which God rejects.
The biblical witness points to God and to neighbor. So say the two great commandments, according to Jesus.
We have witnessed in recent days leaders who point toward God without pointing toward the moral obligation for the well-being of neighbor. They displayed faith without works.
After a man in full body armor sprayed a theater audience with a civilian assault rifle, killing 12 and injuring 58, our political leaders called for prayer, pointing toward God.
President Barack Obama said, "This, I think, is a day for prayer and reflection."
Pledging the federal government's role in prosecuting the perpetrator and speaking of life's fragility, Obama called the country to "spend a little time thinking about the incredible blessings that God has given us."
Former governor Mitt Romney, too, pointed Godward.
"Our prayer is that the Comforter might bring the peace to their souls that surpasses their understanding," said Romney. "We are praying for the families and loved ones of the victims during this time of deep shock and immense grief."
Romney, too, spoke of prosecution of the shooter.
Both men pointed to God. Both displayed piety. Both called for punishment of the individual.
Neither stepped up to the plate with a commitment to the neighborhood, to gun control.
Neither voiced the human responsibility to create a good – and safer – society, freer from the death that rains down from unhinged individuals with access to weapons of slaughter.
Both are reasonable men with records of favoring gun control. Obama once supported a ban on semi-automatic weapons. Romney once signed into law a ban on assault weapons.
Neither reasonable man now wants a discussion of guns in the public square.
Yet no reasonable case can be made for why a civilian should be able to obtain 6,000 rounds of ammunition online "as easy as ordering a book from Amazon."
There is no justification for an individual to own a civilian version of the military's M-16 with a drum that can discharge "50 or 60 rounds per minute."
After I tweeted about whether folk wanted a 100-round drum for deer hunting or human hunting, Jim Pope, a retired U.S. navy chaplain, replied on my Facebook page.
"Military firearms are designed to do one thing ... kill people. Not hunting animals, not target shooting, not 'sporting' of any kind. Qualification for making that claim: 26 years in uniform," wrote Pope.
So, why doesn't our society have a federal law banning assault weapons? Why don't we have reasonable gun laws? Why do we always blame the individual without assuming our social responsibility for allowing the individual to be armed to the teeth?
Why do our politicians offer only "soothing words," as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg observed, but not substantive commitments to deal with such murders that occur far too often?
The moral community bears some responsibility for the cheap faith that tolerates our political leaders, who want to be seen praying in public without ever having to do anything about which they pray.
Faith without works is dead – and it puts others at risk of death.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.