Some Thoughts on “Thoughts and Prayers”


There are times in your life when it can seem that faith or religion can seem hopeless. Monday, March 27 was one of those times.

By now, we all know what happened: another mass shooting at a school. A shooter came into Covenant Presbyterian School in Nashville and started shooting. The shooter was killed by police, but not before they took the lives of six people: three adults, and three children all aged nine.

Mass shootings are always heartbreaking, but they are even more so when children are involved. Events like Sandy Hook and Uvalde hit us harder because they involved beings that haven’t even begun to live.

Over the years it has become normal to denounce whenever some civil servant somewhere expresses their thoughts and prayers for the victims. I have to believe there was a time when someone could say that and no one would think much of it. But now, if someone were to say this, you can expect a whole amount of vitriol. It has a lot to do with the rise of these kinds of mass shooting events and the frustration among many, especially those who want stricter gun laws, that nothing is being done. Some think that saying thoughts and prayers is a way of delaying or avoiding change. Many of us has seen this quote from theologian Miroslav Volf where he says, “There is something deeply hypocritical about praying for a problem you are unwilling to resolve.”

Many Progressive Christians and Mainline Protestants tend to be annoyed by the appeal to prayer. Many strongly believe in gun control and restrictions and they see any appeal to prayer as a way of not really caring about how these events take the lives of loved ones, including children.

I think there is truth that there are some that use prayer as a way of doing nothing when it comes to gun violence. But I think there is a deeper reason as to why so many hate hearing about “thoughts and prayers:” the belief that prayer doesn’t really do anything. It’s a placebo when it comes to madmen and bullets.

We live in an age that theologian Andrew Root calls the “Immanent Frame” a world to borrow a line from a Simpsons episode, “A is A.” The world that we see is all there is. In such a frame, we don’t expect God to act or at least we don’t expect God to act in ways that operate outside the Immanent Frame. If God acts, it is through human activities such as protests or politics.

If we don’t believe that God can act in our world, if what matters is our own actions, then calling people to prayer seems rather foolish. Many Progressive Christians and Mainline Protestants tend to operate believe the frame is closed to transcendence. Praying after something like a school shooting is at best speaking words into the void and at worst a way of forestalling needed change.

(Evangelicals also operate in this closed frame as well, but they work it out in a different way.)

Many Mainline and Progressive Christians look to nations like Australia and the UK which passed strict gun laws after mass shootings that in many cases outlawed certain guns entirely and wonder why that can’t happen here in America. So the thought is that this could happen if only we had better politics to demand change.

But the gun issue and mass shootings, at least in America, are complex and making any change is going to be a challenge. We have to think about the regulation of guns and what kind of regulations really work.  We have to balance public safety with constitutional concerns. Some of the mass shooters had mental health concerns.  How do we address those?  Are we enforcing the laws on guns already on the books? How do we face an aspect of gun culture that in recent years fetishizes and idolizes guns? How do we get politicians who ignore concerns to care?  In debating this issue, how do we not demonize people whose views on guns are different from our own? How do we listen to each other?

When I look at this issue and all the challenges we face when it comes to gun safety, I am reminded that we have to pray.  We pray because we can’t do this on our own. We pray because we believe in a God that is active in our world and it is only through God that the impossible can become possible. Activism matters, but for Christians, it must be grounded in prayer to the One that makes a way out of no way.

New York Times columnist David French, who lives in suburban Nashville, wrote recently that prayer is not the only response to the school shooting, but it needs to be one of the responses. He writes,

I do not for a moment think that prayer is the only response to tragedy. But for me and millions of others it is a necessary response. On that terrible day and that mournful night, when people I know were torn in two by unspeakable loss, I prayed with my friends and with my neighbors. I prayed that God would comfort the families of the fallen, that pastors and other caregivers would possess the wisdom to minister effectively, that families and friends would be aware of and respond to the troubled young people in their midst, and that lawmakers could also demonstrate the wisdom and (just as important) moral courage to enact the policies that can make a difference.

It was 55 years ago this week that Martin Luther King was assasinated in Memphis as he was leading a protest by striking sanitation workers. What people didn’t know is that King had planned to go from this protest to a Trappist monastery in Kentucky run by Thomas Merton for a spiritual retreat. Writing in US Catholic, Father Bryan Massingale shares how important spiritual practices such as prayer were to the civil rights leader. Massingale notes:

…one of King’s spiritual disciplines as a young pastor was carving out significant time each week for prayer and meditation as a part of his sermon preparation. Later in his life, even in the midst of a crushing speaking calendar and the incessant demands of national leadership, King often would spend what he called a “prayer-centered day” in a motel while he traveled, longing for the “spiritual renewal” obtained through inner quiet and contemplative prayer.

…he insisted that prayer is an essential dimension of social engagement and never a secondary force in the quest of justice. King scholar Lewis Baldwin maintains that King believed that the struggle against the triple evils of racism, poverty, and war required “the combination of prayer, intelligence, and sustained activism.” King’s own prayer life is a witness against opposing spiritual maturity and action on behalf of justice.

In the aftermath of such horror as the slaughter of innocents, prayer might seem rather weak. But in reality, it might be the most powerful thing we do. If we want to see real change in our society, it will come when we are willing to get on our knees as much as we want to march in the streets.




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