There have been a lot of “thoughts and prayers” since the double-mosque shooting in New Zealand that caused the killing of at least 50 and the wounding of many more. If that wasn’t bad enough, however, New York Representative AOC (aka Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), responded: “What good are your thoughts & prayers when they don’t even keep the pews safe?” She was specifically referring to shootings in houses of worship in Charleston, Pittsburgh and Sutherland Springs. Her words, according to Fox News, “sparked plenty of backlash on social media.”
AOC isn’t the first to complain loudly about thoughts and prayers, and not the first to draw a backlash. Every time people offer their thoughts and prayers for another Sandy Hook or a Marjory Stoneman Douglas, I’m reminded of a story about Hudson Taylor, founder of the China Inland Mission. Before he sailed to China and founded the CIM, he served as a physician’s assistant in preparation for mission work. During this time he spent his off hours as an independent evangelist, reaching out to some of London’s poorest of the poor.
On one occasion a man, knowing Taylor was a preacher, caught up with him and asked if he would come and pray for his sick wife. He said he had asked a priest, but the priest wanted money. Taylor followed the man up the rickety steps of a tenement building, down a narrow hall into a dark dank room. The man’s wife was lying on a pile of rags moaning in pain. Huddled around her were four little ones crying out for food. The situation was as miserable as Taylor had ever seen.
As was his custom, he knelt down on the floor to pray—his standard opening: “Our Father who art in heaven.” And then his words faltered. All he could think about was the half-crown weighing down in his pocket. It was all the money he had, and he didn’t know when he would be paid again. If only it were broken down into pennies and shillings, he could give the man a few. He didn’t even know the man—this penniless individual who would have preferred a priest. But his conscience was stifling his prayer—that is, until he stood up, dug into his pocket, handed the man his half crown and said: for now God has answered; get your wife some medicine and food for the family.
I’m wondering if part of the controversy today over the promise of “thoughts and prayers” relates to what many regard as a hollow response. Prayers truly are hollow if our conscience isn’t interrupting our words—a conscience that demands we do something. Perhaps to join others and speak out against laws that perpetuate a gun-culture of violence, perhaps reaching out in friendship across what are perceived as racial and religious barriers. And not to go prayer-walking through these neighborhood barriers. Indeed, the term prayer walking should be banned from the Christian lexicon. Instead, prayer-raking, prayer mowing, prayer painting—even prayer shoveling.
That is not to say that prayers ought not be offered on behalf of shattered families in Christchurch, NZ. Indeed, pulpit prayers for the grieving Muslims, by their very nature, are in many cases outside the Evangelical comfort zone. Worded properly, however, they can prick the prejudices of those in the pew. But for politicians and other public figures, thoughts and prayers are simply not enough unless accompanied by strong words and actions—words and actions that may risk a business bottom line, a movie deal, record sales or voter support.
Thoughts and prayers, sure, as long as no half-crown sacrifice is involved.