Thoughts, Prayers, and Platitudes
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. – James 2:14-17
Not all thoughts and prayers are created equal.
A mourning nation struggles with the aftermath of a mass shooting, and struggles to find a path forward that not only does justice to victims, but also prevents the repetition of such senseless violence in the future. It’s a story that Americans are all too familiar with. Mass shootings in the US have become so common that we reflexively refer to each occurrence as “another mass shooting.” Our vernacular exemplifies the prevalence of such tragedies: these mass shootings are not isolated events, but interconnected symptoms of a disease that ails our nation.
The response to this mass shooting has, once again, initiated criticism of sending “thoughts and prayers” to victims and their loved ones. For example, Neil deGrasse Tyson recently tweeted, “Evidence collected over many years, obtained from many locations, indicates that the power of Prayer is insufficient to stop bullets from killing school children.”
Tyson’s statement, among others in a similar vein, have predictably provoked the ire of many Christians, leading certain sites like The Babylon Bee to sarcastically respond. But is that cynicism toward “thoughts and prayers” offered by prominent Christian leaders and politicians a blatant denigration of Christian practice?
I posit that the backlash against “thoughts and prayers” is not, at its core, a criticism of Christianity or religious practice. It’s a condemnation of religious hypocrisy: a critique of those who substitute religious cliches for appropriate action.
The reaction to “thoughts and prayers” is the consequence of a series of inconsistent responses to mass shootings in the US over the years. The San Bernardino mass shooting was invoked as evidence that America needs a Muslim ban (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary). Likewise, violent crimes committed by immigrants are utilized to promote stricter immigration laws (even though immigrants commit fewer violent crimes, on average, than native-born US citizens). But when a mass shooting is committed by a white US citizen, the same Americans who are so adamant about restrictive laws become arbitrarily reluctant to take legislative action. Instead, they send their “thoughts and prayers.”
Recent discussions surrounding the mass shooting in Parkland have highlighted other troubling elements of our national conversation about gun violence. It’s common to identify gun violence as stemming from problems of mental health. However, study after study suggests that individuals diagnosed with mental health issues are less likely to commit violent crimes (including mass shootings) than those without a diagnosis. In addition, the demonization, stigmatization, and physical abuse of those struggling with mental health is a pervasive problem in America, and further scapegoating the mental health community only perpetuates such disgraceful trends.
The prevalence of mass shootings in the US should cause all of us to carefully assess our assumptions, and work toward finding concrete, evidence-based solutions for the prevention of further atrocities. It’s hard to deny Neil deGrasse Tyson’s point about “thoughts and prayers”: they’re not creating the change we need to effectively prevent mass shootings and reduce the alarmingly high rates of gun violence in the US.
Practicing What We Pray
The insufficiency of “thoughts and prayers”, however, does not actually reflect the powerlessness of prayer, in and of itself. Prayer is a powerful, transformative, and indispensable aspect of Christian life. It is through prayer that we communicate with God and align every aspect of ourselves with God’s mission on earth.
But when we utilize “prayer” as nothing more than paying lip service to tragedy, it’s no longer prayer, in the genuine sense. It’s a charade. It changes prayer from a transformative spiritual practice to a means of justifying complacency in the face of evil. And God is not pleased when the practice of prayer is manipulated to passively perpetuate an indefensible status quo.
Jesus minced no words when it came to those who prayed for public attention, “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full” (Matt. 6:5). Jesus’ condemnation does not denigrate the power of prayer, but cautions against the instrumentalization of it for personal gain.
The contemporary criticism of “thoughts and prayers” is not some secular attack on Christianity that requires an apologetic defense of religious faith. Such a response betrays a preoccupation with defending Christianity rather than actually practicing its teachings. Rather, the criticism of “thoughts and prayers” correlates with a critique of professing Christians that is repeated throughout Scripture. It is a call for those of us who follow Christ to actually practice what we preach or, in this context, practice what we pray.
The recent mass shooting should remind us that God has no patience for empty words and platitudes. It should call us to remember the ancient Christian motto, Lex orandi lex credendi: “The law of prayer is the law of faith.” We must all critically assess our own complicity with evil, repent of it, and embody a relentless love for those who are vulnerable and victimized. And in so doing, we will begin to genuinely pray as our Lord commanded us.
As we pray that God’s will be done on earth, may we become the very agents through which God makes it so.