Since we’re going through the regular ritual again of offering our thoughts and prayers after another incident of horrific terrorist gun violence in Las Vegas, I thought I would reflect on the concept of “thoughts and prayers.”
1. Don’t say you’re praying unless you actually are.
Too often the phrase “Thoughts and prayers” is used as a generic, spiritually vacuous PR gesture. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Just do what you say you’re doing. If you say “Thoughts and prayers,” then actually talk to God. If you’re not going to actually talk to God, say something different.
2. Prayer is not taking a higher moral ground than political advocacy
Many moderate Christians define themselves as rising above partisan politics. There is a temptation to use “prayer” as a public statement that one is more high-minded than the shrill voices hollering about gun control or angry white men or why can’t they call this terrorism or whatever the political issue is.
3. Prayer should not be shamed or ridiculed
There’s a tendency among progressives to denounce prayer in general and present political advocacy as the alternative to what is cast as an innately bankrupt and farcical spiritual gesture. People of all religions have used prayer powerfully as a catalyst for their movements of social transformation. One of the most powerful prayers I’ve ever seen is when the people of Gaza carried coffins of their children in the street shouting “Allah akbah!” (God is good) in defiance after they had been bombed by the Israelis. Though I’m certainly biased, I would argue that prayer-girded social movements have more staying power than strictly secular ones.
4. Prayer is always primarily about the transformation of the one doing it
Yes, it is valid to ask God to bring comfort and love to the victims of the mass shooting in Las Vegas. But the primary purpose of prayer is to tune myself into the Holy Spirit so that God can transform me and use me to transform the world around me. Prayer is not an alternative to taking action; it is an important means by which God prepares me to take action. If I think I have nothing to do after I’ve prayed, then I need to go back and pray again.
One of the harshest verses in the Bible is Isaiah 1:15: “When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.” A basic insight of both Judaism and Christianity that somehow got erased in the modern Enlightenment era is that blame is always collectively shared. When Isaiah says “your hands are full of blood,” he’s talking to all of us who have each contributed in our own way to the culture of death America has become just like he was talking to all of Israel simultaneously in the seventh century BC. Isaiah’s exhortation in the next verse is for all of us too: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
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