This in no way downplays the importance for believers also to embody God’s comfort, love, peace, and hope in tangible ways. Orare et labore. But ultimately these needs go too deep for anything other than the internal, mysterious work of God himself in our lives. Even believers who are called to minister physically with sufferers do so prayerfully, and are often asked—by them—to pray with them.
“GOD ISN’T FIXING THIS,” New York’sDaily News announced in the aftermath of the latest US mass shooting, in San Bernardino. Their target? Presidential candidates who immediately responded to the tragedy by offering sufferers their “thoughts and prayers,” not calling for more gun control.
The headline’s sentiment is widely shared, as seen in the flood of “prayer shaming” by celebrities, politicians, and other pundits on Twitter (#prayershaming) and various online media. Many voices ridicule prayer itself (and religious, especially Christian, beliefs and practices more generally) as meaningless; others merely criticize it as a response to tragedies like this.
The widespread appeal and public acceptance of the former—in-your-face ridicule and contempt of traditional religion—is troubling. It’s also enlightening in making vivid the realities of today’s American religious landscape. Some fine thinkers (and pray-ers, no doubt!) have weighed in here, such ashttp://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/the-view-from-jesusland-prayer-shaming/.
But what about the latter, more modest charge, that “thoughts and prayers” is simply the wrong response to tragedies like this? It needs some further thought as well.
First, let’s acknowledge that the “thoughts and prayers” slogan is often merely a politically acceptable (until now!) platitude, offered with little thought or prayer.
Even for nonpray-ers, however, it may reflect something much deeper and primal, expressed in the only language they find available—a cry of empathy with sufferers, and an appeal for some kind of ultimate love (and justice), which, at a deep level, everyone intuitively knows can only come from something or someone far greater than ourselves (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2015/december-web-only/thoughts-and-prayers-after-san-bernardino-shooting.html).
In any case, let’s focus on the actual “thoughts and prayers” of religious believers, and specifically of followers of Jesus—readers of this blog and, it’s pretty clear, the primary targets of the bulk of the prayer shaming.
And let’s stick to the “prayers” part; no one seems bothered about “thoughts” (no #thoughtshaming hashtags). In any case, Jesus calls his followers to pray for those who suffer, not merely think of them. (Thinking of them can help us become more compassionate or empathetic, but it hardly helps them right now.)
So how could prayer, however sincere and deliberate, be a legitimate response to tragedies like this?
Well: prayer as opposed to what? If offering prayers is the wrong response, what is the right one in view? Doing something—in this case: calling for more gun control.
But of course, praying for those who suffer is doing something.