What happened in Vegas is horrible.
But then again, what happens in Vegas has often been horrible. Behind the glitz and the glamour, there is a seedy, evil underbelly in Sin City. An underbelly exposed so ruthlessly and shockingly by Martin Scorsese in the 1995 classic Casino.
One of the final scenes of that movie still haunts me. The Santoro brothers, one played memorably by Joe Pesci, get their comeuppance at the hands of the mafia, killed slowly and brutally in front of each other on the outskirts of the city, before being buried in the corn fields. Their sins have finally caught up with them and they pay for it with their lives.
The rest of life goes on, however, for as another, much more jolly jape of a movie reminds us, ” what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”. In other words, Vegas is a rule unto itself. You can do dirty deeds there, but magically you are hermetically sealed off from the moral framework of the real world.
Adulteries in Vegas are not real adulteries. Vices and addictions are left behind at the city signposts, as businessmen and bucks parties resume their air of respectability on the trip back to New York, Dallas and Seattle. Vegas is shorthand for a hall-pass for sin, for the weekend or the week.
And now this.
What intrigues me is the call, the constant call, on social media and beyond to “Pray for Vegas”. And so we should. It’s depressing and familiar and going to be repeated. My guess is that there are godly people living in Vegas who have been praying for a long time for “that great city”, and not always in line with what people wish them to pray for now.
But to whom should we pray? Vegas has lived self-consciously in that hermetically sealed bubble in which the conceit “What happens in Vegas…” means that the city is a law to itself. It’s a different moral universe, a carnivale that exacts an admission price for some fleshly pursuits if you’re willing to pay.
It’s not as if the cry of the sin of Vegas has not gone before the ears of God Almighty in the past. No more so than the sins of Ninevah were kept from God until the moment he tells Jonah to go proclaim repentance there.
It’s just that those in Vegas who commit such sins have somehow told themselves that a social construct, an ethical contract, operates. A contract that convinces them that God himself is unable to see, know or judge those adulteries and vices.
Now that may be embellishing the story, but the Vegas narrative is indeed a strong one, and our addictions and vices don’t generally need that much encouraging to express themselves, or indeed for us to express them. There’s a plausibility structure to places like Vegas that draws us in. Vegas’s ethics-free bubble is one such plausibility structure.
Yet suddenly, in the midst of such horror as yesterday, no one wants what happened in Vegas to stay there, but rather to reach the ears of the Almighty. We want a hole to be punched in the fabric of the universe and our cry and plea to move the One who cares and can do something about it.
I say that more in sorrow than anything else. This is not about Vegas somehow deserving what has come upon it, any more than those eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell (Luke 18), were in anyway worse offenders than the rest of us.
Which brings us to the rest of us.
It’s all too easy to have our own personal Vegas. A place in our lives and hearts in which we state “What happens here, stays here.” Our own personal Sin City, from which we can drive away and re-enter respectable public life, our vices kept behind the city limits.
That can never be true. Nothing about our lives is sealed off from God. There is no compartment in us in which we can foster sin without Him either knowing of it, or without it leaching into the rest of our lives. Like Nicky Santoro and his brother in Casino our sin finds us out.
We should pray for Vegas. We should pray not for those who have died, for that is too late. We should pray for families, friends, loved ones, response personnel, that they will somehow in this tragic mess, be drawn into the only One who can rescue us from such deep sorrow and anguish.
And we should pray for the churches in Vegas, that their own prayers for the gospel to take root in their city may be answered, and that people will look to God, not luck, as their hope. That they will take their chances with the One who knows the future, not the ones towards whom the cards are stacked.
What happened in Vegas will happen again. And people will call for prayer again. That’s so much the pattern it’s almost becoming routine. Prayerless nations call for prayer when prayer is the only hope they have left.
Let’s pray too. Let’s pray that when it does happen again, people will cry out to the living God who sees all, knows all, cares for all and will one day judge all, because no city, no Vegas or Ninevah, is sealed off from his sight.
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