Yet another mass murder in the United States. Seven were massacred in the latest rampage in West Texas. It comes with the same, almost scripted reactions from all sides: punish my enemies, leave my supporters alone. Hearts aren’t changed.
In the upcoming film, The Divine Plan, Ronald Reagan and St. John Paul teach today’s leaders a far more effective way to stop mass murderers. In the Reagan/JPII era, Americans lowered their shields, unified, and talked each other through tragedies and crises. There would be a (brief) reprieve on political attacks. We unified to support grieving families and communities.
Modern politics keeps the petty sniping and political memes going 24/7. Tuning out the names and faces of real people on the other side, we reflectively dust off old attacks on foes: blame, shame, call others names. Denounce, defy, deny, and perhaps even threaten.
Each side prioritizes its own preferred innocents. Progressives demand we prevent shootings; conservatives demand we respect the rights of lawful gun owners. Liberals demand we provide free healthcare; conservatives respond: “I won’t be lectured by the party that thinks healthcare includes killing babies.”
Both sides accept the people of their political tribe while denouncing and often dehumanizing “the other side.” We are wise and good; they are stupid or evil.
Reagan and St. John Paul II—an American Protestant and a Polish Catholic—show us how two men from different worlds could become partners and close friends. They laid the foundation for the modern pro-life movement by praying for their enemies, including the assassins who struck them both in the spring of 1981. The prayers and actions of Reagan and John Paul paid off.
First, the shootings stopped. Every 20 years between 1840 and 1980, a president was shot or died in office—eight total. Reagan ended the streak: he was shot but lived another 23 years. In the four decades since Reagan prayed for his shooter, his five successors have lived long healthy lives. John Paul was shot just six weeks after Reagan. He, too, prayed for his assassin; then he met with him face-to-face and helped his shooter seek repentance. 26 years later to the day, Mehmet Ali Ağca converted to Catholicism.
Reagan embraced what he called the “Divine Plan”: he was certain everything happened for a reason, and that he and JPII had been spared for a purpose. According to Paul Kengor and Robert Orlando’s book of the same name, both Reagan and John Paul saw convincing evidence that the greatest mass murderers of all—the Soviet empire, which was complicit in the deaths of 100 million—was behind John Paul’s attempted murder.
Reagan and John Paul defeated their enemies at every turn. But they also sat down and talked, prayed for them and prayed with them. They studied them thoroughly, reaching out lovingly to win them over. They acted in the example of Jesus Christ, defeating mass murderers without bullets. In doing so, they freed hundreds of millions enslaved by atheistic, dehumanizing communism. They echoed leaders who followed similar principles to build movements and free the oppressed: Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Could this Divine Plan model work today? President Trump, visiting Europe for the 75th anniversary of D-Day, jarred global audiences by reading verbatim the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s June 6, 1944 radio address. It was a prayer of nearly 600 words, with these key calls to action:
Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization . . . Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom. . . . With Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogancies.
We mention prayer after a mass murder. We rarely seem to pray to stop future mass murder. In the film Unplanned, we learn how frequently abortions were stopped and clinics shuddered because women saw people standing in prayer and changed their minds. In The Divine Plan, we see how prayers ended the Cold War without firing a shot.
Imagine a modern politician following FDR’s example today. They take the rostrum and offer their policy proposals as usual. But then they close with a prayer for the thousands of disturbed people who have access to guns, knives, trucks, bombs, pressure cookers, poisoned Kool-Aid, and other instruments of mass murder deployed in recent decades. Imagine real prayers for all involved:
Today, we pray for the victims of these evil acts. We pray for their families, for all who have lost so much, including the confidence and sense of security they can no longer take for granted. We pray for past and future attackers—for all who contemplate evil acts out of anger, hatred, and contempt. We vow today: love is far more powerful, and love will triumph.
They could close with this simple prayer from the most persuasive speech of all time as a call to the angered on all sides: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Republished with gracious permission from Crisis Magazine (September 2019).
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a photo of Pope John Paul II and President Ronald Reagan shaking hands, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.