The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Thoughts and Prayers
US Representative Ted Lieu walked out of the House chambers this week in an act of protest. He refused to participate in a moment of silence after last Sunday's mass killing in a Texas church.
Rep. Lieu is just one of many people who are fed up with "thoughts and prayers" as the primary response to horrible situations -- not only the distinctively US plague of shootings, but also hurricanes and other disasters.
On Monday, the Mercury News wrote, "Sharing 'thoughts and prayers' has long been the go-to condolence for a grieving America, but after Orlando, Las Vegas and now the Texas church massacres that three-word refrain has become nearly as incendiary as the gun control debate itself."
Today I venture into the dangerous ground of gun violence. I do so, not with calls for specific policies, but because the problem of vacuous "thoughts and prayers" is a significant challenge to faith communities seeking to act in our troubled world.
I always welcome comments about Notes, but I extend a special invitation today for you to respond to this topic.
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The text for today comes from the New Testament letter of James -- a passage that I quoted briefly just two weeks ago when talking about effective action.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill', and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (2:14-17)
Rep. Lieu, explaining his walk-out, said, "And as a Catholic, I did pray for the victims and their families that day. But as a federal legislator, I know our thoughts and prayers are simply not enough." He added, "I have concluded that the best way to honor victims of mass shootings is to try to prevent future mass shootings, not stand and be silent for 60 seconds."
The controversy these days is about a moment of silence that is not followed by action, or by assurances of "thoughts and prayers" that have no follow-through. People of faith should be deeply offended by this distortion of prayer as a throw-away comment. To me, promising prayer in a moment of crisis without some related action is contrary to the real nature of genuine religious prayer.
Theologically, there is a wide range of belief about the role and effectiveness of prayer in a time of tragedy. Tara Burton, on Vox, published a very helpful overview on Monday morning, with statements from nine faith leaders about "what it really means to offer 'thoughts and prayers' to those in need." I urge you to read through -- and reflect upon -- these very diverse perspectives. Many of them link prayer with active engagement in the world's needs.
As I looked for commentaries from outside the normal camps of liberal and conservative, I found a long and thoughtful piece in a surprising place. Sadie L. Trombetta writes for HelloGiggles.com, "a positive online community for women." She clearly names a core problem behind prayers without action after the Texas shooting -- especially the promised prayers of government officials.
The problem with thoughts and prayers is that they are passive. They may offer some comfort, but they provide absolutely zero action.
The assurance of prayer becomes theologically offensive when it implies that any real response is impossible. That's when prayer becomes a joke -- really. In a "meme" from two months ago, a picture of an empty semi-trailer is captioned, "Harvey Update: First truckload of 'Hopes and Prayers' reach flooded areas." There are countless variations on that theme. You can play Thoughts & Prayers: The Game, which says, "America faces an epidemic of mass shootings. It's up to you to stop them ... with the power of your thoughts and prayers." (Spoiler alert -- they don't make any difference.)
Several years ago, I pondered in Notes about what it means to "pray for the planet." I drew on insights from an English vicar who identified three forms of prayer -- in his case for ailing relatives. There are prayers for a miracle, that will make everything better. There are "incarnational" prayers, for God -- and us -- to be present with those who are suffering. As Ms. Trombetta notes, that ministry of actual presence is appropriate for some situations like late-stage illness. The third kind of prayer described by Rev. Wells is "transfiguration", where the one praying comes to recognizes a moment of truth that reveals fresh insights of meaning and purpose.
In the growing revulsion at empty "thoughts and prayers", perhaps we're coming into a moment of collective transfiguration and transformation. Our disgust about pious inaction is bringing fresh insights about the need for, and the possibility of, genuine action. For those of us in faith communities, the offensiveness of empty prayer is calling us to claim the power of genuine prayer that leads to engagement, action and change.
As the letter of James makes clear, prayer and action, faith and works, are not binary opposites where we pick one or the other. Prayer and action are two sides of the same coin. Each requires the other.
This week, Rep. Lieu walked out of the House of Representatives to protest a tradition of moments of silence that don't lead to anything. As people of faith, as people who believe that prayer demands our action, it is time to denounce any promises of "thoughts and prayers" that are not tied to real-world responses.
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I'm not going to propose any specific policy response to the US epidemic of gun violence. There is a complex mix of factors to be addressed -- the huge number and ready availability of guns, the depth of mental health issues that go untreated, a culture that looks to violence as redemptive and effective, and more.
As our country -- hopefully -- starts to talk seriously about gun violence, though, it is essential to be "evidence based" in that conversation. Our various politics and philosophical perspectives need to be respected, but some essential facts also must be acknowledged.
Vox -- again with a fast and solid response to Sunday's shooting -- has 17 maps and charts exploring aspects of gun violence from a national and global perspective. My take-away from these powerful graphics is that rampant gun deaths are not inevitable, and that actions can be taken that make a real difference.
Three hurricanes and a string of mass murders have brought too many empty assurances of thoughts and prayers, with little or no action. As people of faith, let us insist that prayer and action go together. And as people of faith, may our own prayers lead us into transformation and effective action for the healing of creation.
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