After a Tragedy, Stop Praying and Do Something Useful

After every mass shooting over the past few years, I’ve heard a constant refrain from politicians and conservatives who offer their “thoughts and prayers” to the victims and their families… but virtually nothing else. The same thing happens after natural disasters.

It’s infuriating, really, to hear people say that, especially when some of them have the power to do something about it. As Igor Volsky has pointed out on Twitter after so many tragedies, many Republicans only have thoughts and prayers to offer because they receive huge donations from the NRA.

The phrase has really become synonymous with doing nothing.

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That’s why Andrew Seidel, an attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, had a very blunt response when he saw the hashtag #PRAYERSFORVEGAS trending on Twitter after nearly 60 people were killed and hundreds more were injured over the weekend:


He’s absolutely right. Your prayers won’t change anything. Neither will your thoughts. Sensible regulations on weapons could at least decrease the frequency of shootings — not to mention the number of dead bodies.

But Brandon Ambrosino, writing for Religion News Service, says Seidel is criticizing something he doesn’t understand. The people who offer prayers after tragedies aren’t only offering prayers, he writes, and it’s unfair to suggest otherwise.

I should point out that Ambrosino is in a unique situation in which he gets criticized by all sides. He’s a former Liberty University student who came out as gay while there. He’s still religious, though his theology today is obviously not aligned with most of his former classmates. Still, Ambrosino has attempted to bridge that divide, even arguing that anti-gay Christians aren’t all homophobes. While that piece received well-deserved criticism, he’s also shed light on important hypocrisy at the highest levels of Liberty’s administration. The point is: He’s given these issues a lot of thought. So when Ambrosino says prayer isn’t just a way to pretend you’re making a difference when you’re really not, I’ll hear him out.

I just don’t think he makes his case here.

Responding to Seidel’s thesis that “Prayer doesn’t work,” Ambrosino questioned what that even meant:

First of all, how is prayer supposed to “work”? What does “success” even look like when we’re talking about prayer? How quickly does success have to “happen” after the initial prayer for it to count as a result of the prayer? It seems like this accusation is informed by a very elementary notion of prayer: Unless we get something (say, a red lollipop) almost immediately after praying for it, then we can’t say the prayer worked.

That sort of argument just sidesteps the way most people treat prayers. When they pray for their sick grandma not to die, they’re literally asking God to intervene now. When they pray to do well on a test, they’re not thinking long into the future. And when they offer prayers after a mass murder, I would think they’re at least hoping something like that doesn’t happen again.

And this is where Seidel’s point comes into play. Praying for an end to gun violence won’t stop gun violence. It didn’t work after all the previous mass shootings. Why would it work now?

Here’s a question for Ambrosino: How many innocent people have to die before you admit all the prayers in the world aren’t helping?

Whatever a “successful” prayer looks like, we don’t have to wait around for God to maybe answer it. If the U.S. regulated guns more — making it harder for certain people to buy them, banning sales of the most lethal types, keeping a registry of what’s sold, creating “smart” weapons that can’t go off accidentally — it would without a doubt decrease the number of deaths. Prayer doesn’t create that change. Politicians do. And they’re the ones whose prayers aren’t wanted or needed.

Ambrosino also says most people who offer prayers know damn well that actions must go along with them:

… For example, more than 60 percent of Christians who believe that helping the poor is essential to their Christian identity regularly donate time and money to actually … help the poor. This suggests the majority of Christians surveyed realize that a truly prayerful posture requires real-world action.

The Pew survey he cited says 39% of Christians who think helping the poor is vital to their religious identity did not donate to the poor. So here’s another question for Ambrosino: Are their prayers accomplishing anything useful?

Even for the majority who both pray and act, they could skip the prayers and accomplish all the same things.

When it comes to politicians, though, it’s much more serious. If every Republican who tweeted out their thoughts and prayers were working to enact sensible gun regulation, you would see far less criticism of their words. The problem is that we all know what “thoughts and prayers” means: They’re not going to do anything that could actually make a difference. They just want to sound like they care.

If they actually wanted to stop the next Sandy Hook or Columbine, there are plenty of options on the table. They just don’t give a damn.

The Onion, as usual, got this one exactly right:

“Having seen acts of violence like this happen over and over again for years now, I’m really holding out hope that, despite every single factor that allowed them to occur remaining exactly the same, we won’t have to live through another day like today. I know everyone’s praying this will finally be the time this issue just disappears forever entirely by itself without anyone doing anything.

Ambrosino admits that those who pray without taking meaningful action aren’t helping. He says those prayers are “hypocritical.” But that’s what the Republicans in Congress are doing. And it’s what so many evangelical Christians are doing, since so many of them voted for these useless conservatives.

Find me Christians who pray and advocate for gun reform. Then I might back off.

Better yet, every time someone tweets out that they’re praying after a tragedy, Twitter should automatically include a link to a fundraiser that helps the victims. Or a phone number for your member of Congress so you can tell him or her to act. Or allows you to donate to the campaign of anyone running against those politicians who sit idly by until another shooting takes place and, once again, they clasp their hands in futility.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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