Yet again, America is reeling from a tragic mass shooting. The emotions are still raw; the feelings still fresh. Of course, the waves of national pity cannot compare with the grief of the families of those who were killed. In the case of the recent Santa Fe school shooting, 10 beds will remain empty. Ten places at the dinner table won’t be occupied. In the military, we know the individual and collective weight of such losses and grieve over them.
Amongst the chorus of grief lifted up over these mass shootings, we hear a frequent refrain: We must do more than pray. This comes from both the Left and the Right. Most recently, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, joined in: “We need to do more than just pray for the victims and the families…It’s time in Texas that we take action to step up and make sure this tragedy is never repeated ever again in the history of the state of Texas.”
Such rhetoric seems both noble and understandable. Noble, in that it recognizes the profundity of the grief and issues a desire to rid us of such tragedies once and for all. Understandable, in that it recognizes promises of prayer can sometimes be a cop-out for tangible action and can over-spiritualize problems that require practical responses.
Yet I respectfully suggest such rhetoric is unhelpful, even harmful, for a number of reasons.
Prayer Is Not the Problem or Meant to Be a Solution
First, prayer is not the problem. People may disagree on the problem at hand—mental health, family breakdown, violence in entertainment, guns, etc.—but the problem is most certainly not prayer. The tragedy did not occur before too many people were praying, or even using prayer as an excuse of inaction. This is a red herring, meant to distract people from the complexities of such issues that don’t lend themselves to decisive rhetoric and straightforward solutions.
In addition, prayer is not meant to be a solution. Prayer will not undo these tragedies. Proponents of prayer do not claim that it will. Nor is it a tool to implement a change in national policies. That is the job of our politicians. Prayer is what people do when incomprehensible tragedies occur. Whether these tragedies occur through the instrumentality of people or are sheer “acts of God,” like an earthquake, they call for something more meaningful than cries for action.
Prayer pays respect to these tragedies. It allows for respectful silence instead of well-intentioned but ill-considered calls for change. Winston Churchill bowed his head in silence for three minutes before the grave of his friend, Franklin Roosevelt. In the Information Age, where words alone are valued no matter how frivolous, such respectful silences are no longer respected.
Prayer Recognizes We Won’t Achieve Perfection in This Life
Finally, prayer recognizes human limitations. Society is inundated with lines like “One incident is too many,” and “We won’t stop until the problem is eliminated once and for all.” Such utopian thinking and crusading is not helpful. It often obscures modest, tangible avenues of reform with grandiose and unattainable visions.
It replaces practical help with less-helpful activism. Instead, prayer recognizes that utopian solutions are not within man’s power. We cannot arrest the waves, lock the tectonic plates in place, or remove every means of malice. We cannot wipe tragedies from the face of the earth.
We must be careful here. I do give credit to those who say we need more than prayer, because we cannot prevent hurricanes, but we can build bigger dykes. We cannot absolutely prevent mass killings or even mass shootings (try totally removing weapons from hands of youth in Chicago).
Yet we may be able to do more to prevent such shootings or afford greater protections to those who are being assaulted. Reasonable reforms may be in the offing, once the heat of the moment cools and expansive rhetoric gives way to clearer thinking. Prayer doesn’t negate action, but recognizes that suffering extends beyond the scope of human efforts at control.
Americans Believe Less in Prayer, More in Humanity
This leads to a more fundamental critique of the “More Than Prayer” movement. I call it a movement because it is not only a fine rhetorical ploy, but a religious commitment. You rarely hear calls for prayer from today’s politicians or cultural tone-setters, but you do hear calls for action. In general, Americans don’t believe in the power of prayer but the power of the people.
There is a Marxist quality to this impulse from both the Left and the Right. It replaces spiritual concepts with materialistic ones. It reduces sin to mental, sociological, or political defects, thus taking away personal responsibility. Heaven is reduced to utopian visions of a society without suffering or sin (or whatever euphemisms we use in its place), which is a pale imitation of a glorious hope.
This mentality assumes salvation comes through the state and its newest program—or rather our culture of activists who through artful rhetoric and keyboard crusading push our reluctant politicians into action. We are the change we’ve been waiting for, after all.
Saying No to Prayer Is Saying No to God
In the process, we miss our need of and access to a savior. Instead, we entrust the keys of human destiny to the same race that crashed the thing in the first place. Talk about wishful thinking and naive cop-outs.
We could talk with the God who created the world, provided a divine remedy for its brokenness, and promised a day for its renewal, and ask him for help. Or we can talk to ourselves, belittling the nature of suffering as a mere human ordeal, offering calls for action as a pitiable attempt at consolation, and offering utopian visions that are vacuous and unattainable.
We do not suffer from an abundance of prayer, but a lack of it. Instead of worshipping the true God, we worship millions of little gods and wonder why such worship is so unsatisfying. Self-deification makes for great flattery—and that’s it. Instead of creating secular saviors who are all doomed to fail, let’s seek out the real thing, and with him, a sober reassessing of our broken nature, modest efforts at temporal change, and heavenly hope.