Two hands working can “do more than a thousand clasped in prayer,” says activist atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair. In the wake of national tragedies, the Twitter intelligentsia is likely to agree.
Witness responses to President Trump and others offering their “thoughts and prayers” to the victims of Sunday night’s shooting of some 250 people in Las Vegas. Many on the Left returned variations on the idea that “thoughts and prayers are not enough.”
This senseless violence must end—thoughts and prayers are simply not enough. We must act to prevent this from happening again.
— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) October 2, 2017
While we pray for the victims of this horrific attack and their families, it is not sufficient to just offer thoughts and prayers.
— Senator Bob Casey (@SenBobCasey) October 2, 2017
— Millennial Politics (@MillenPolitics) October 2, 2017
Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy released a statement saying “It is positively infuriating that my colleagues in Congress are so afraid of the gun industry that they pretend there aren’t public policy responses to this epidemic. There are, and the thoughts and prayers of politicians are cruelly hollow if they are paired with continued legislative indifference.”
Obviously You Can’t Pray While You Work
Urban Dictionary, that repository of mocking and often crude slang, snarkily defines “Thoughts and Prayers” as “a useless phrase uttered in times of sorrow or tragedies” by those who “want to come across as if they actually care.”
The site offers condolences after an incidence of gun violence as an example of heartless showboating. Indeed, some of the largest recriminations against praying for victims occurred after the 2015 San Bernadino shooting and the 2016 Pulse nightclub attack. The Left believed they were witnessing hypocrisy. After all, largely those same people who offered thoughts and prayers in the present had refused stricter gun control laws in the past. After the Pulse shooting, instead of #PrayForOrlando, the appropriate phrase was #PolicyChangeForOrlando.
The tone of the condemnations went a bit differently this year after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Instead of a charge of hypocrisy, commentators worried that sending prayers would lead to “a false sense of accomplishment,” lulling the religious away from providing constructive help such as raising money.
“Only 11,568 more thoughts and prayers needed to help with Hurricane Harvey,” proclaimed the satirical site The Science Post, and indeed, there is the misconception that believers treat prayers as some sort of cosmic vending machine. Those too lazy to volunteer and too miserly to donate can rest on their laurels, certain they have “done something” by putting the appropriate number of prayer through the coin slot. But, in others’ view, they have actually done nothing.
A Call to God and to Ourselves
More than half of Americans (55 percent) pray every day, according to polling from the Pew Research Center. More pray in general, if not every day, and multiple polls indicate a large majority of Americans believe God answers prayers, including prayers for healing and other intercessory acts.
Some who hate the idea of intercessory prayer acknowledge that they are “okay” with prayer used as meditation. However, to them, other forms of prayer are illogical. If one believed God was infallible, how could one thwart his plan through prayer? And what kind of God would let bad things happen to the folks who don’t get enough prayer?
Such criticisms ignore the central conceit of prayer. Regardless of a Christian’s theological view on the power, nature, and validity of intercessory prayer, one thing remains clear: God does not change his mind. God changes our minds.
Perhaps intercessory prayer does not stop a flood, but it changes the heart of a first responder and guides him in the correct direction. As in the allegory of the man stranded in the flood, waiting for God to save him, salvation can come from human elements sent by God.
Perhaps intercessory prayer does not stop someone from encountering a tragedy, but it gives the victims peace and wisdom. After all, after we do whatever small gestures we possibly can, praying for peace and comfort is all we have to give. That comfort comes from God touching the hearts of the downtrodden but also from them knowing that someone is praying for them.
Finally, prayer gives us direction. When we pray, we demand ourselves to listen and engage in others’ problems, see beyond our own struggles, and take on additional pain. That increased empathy removes us from our comfort zone and drives us to take action. As Rebecca Cusey writes, “prayer leads to worldly action. You pray, you act. You act and then you pray. You find direction on how to act, you ask for blessing on your actions. It’s a chicken and egg thing. It’s not either-or.”
A Call to the Community
The criticism of “thoughts and prayers” implies it is just another version of “slacktivism” or “virtue-signaling.” It can be. Virtue-signaling and slacktivism are not necessarily the same thing. Someone engaging in slacktivism will change a profile picture in response to a tragedy and do nothing else. Someone who merely writes “prayers!” in response to a tragedy, without doing anything else (including not actually praying) is no different than a slacktivist.
This social media slacktivism culture is insidious and is not limited to one side of the political or religious spectrum. In fact, in some circles, one gets judged for not somehow acknowledging a tragedy or event by posting a picture or tweeting an expression of sorrow.
Virtue-signaling, a term concocted by a writer in 2015, usually applies to political and moral controversies. It is a public expression of an opinion to demonstrate moral superiority and to align oneself with a group. In some respects, it’s a more involved version of slacktivism. It is much maligned, and understandably so. Writing words of condemnation over an issue, especially in knee-jerk form, without trying to understand its complexities or actually doing something is lazy and emblematic of the way politics has been factionalized in the social media age.
However, not all instances of “Facebook journalism” are lazy and useless. Especially if one does not just exist in a political bubble, good, persuasive writing can change hearts and minds. In that way, Facebook missives are no different than opinion articles in a paper; given the right audience and tone, they are useful. If they are written just to hear oneself talk or to play to people who agree with you anyway, then why do it?
We can apply that logic to thoughts and prayers. If one merely says he or she is praying, just as a phrase to show everyone how virtuous and compassionate he or she is, then some legitimate eye-rolls can be initiated. Even then, it is not completely useless, as the mere existence of kind words can bring comfort to others.
But just as we should not assume that someone who changes a profile pic overlay is doing only that and not actually working in their community to better things, we should not assume that a public acknowledgement of prayers means that no actual praying is going on. We also should not assume that no material action is being taken in addition to those prayers.
Other Forms of Perceived Inactivity
Beyond social media activism, I see cynical eye-rolls at candlelight vigils, sit-ins, teach-ins, marches, and protests. What do those people think they are accomplishing? think observers. Within those eye-rolls is an implication that not only are these gestures meaningless, but they mean nothing to the people engaging in them—that they do not truly care about the issue at hand and “just want to protest something.”
If you actually ask those engaging in those actions, however, they will say two things. First, it is all they have to give. It is all they can do in the face of something unsurmountable. Second, it educates, motivates, and mobilizes others.
When we hurl insults of “virtue-signaling” at any political or moral stance, we miss the opportunity for true understanding. As a writer for New York Times magazine pointed out in a recent article, because we live in our bubbles, we have trouble believing that someone truly cares about an issue and is not just posturing. The article, expectedly, was written from a leftist perspective, so the examples given were climate change or gun control, but one can easily apply this to any political crisis.
One can also apply this to prayers. It is hard for a non-religious person to truly believe in the sincerity of a prayer. When we as a nation are hurting, we need a scapegoat, and a common scapegoat is “thoughts and prayers.” But prayers, or any form of calling out, is an emotional visceral human response, especially when we don’t know what to do. We admit shock. We acknowledge God’s sovereignty. In addition, just like teach-ins and protests, prayer educates, motivates, and mobilizes us.
As C.S. Lewis brilliantly explains, “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time—waking and sleeping. It does not change God—it changes me.”