Praying for Pity’s Sake

Praying for Pity’s Sake October 22, 2021

After twenty years of navigating discussions with strangers online, a dozen of those years spent as a people herder for a large online discussion forums site, it’s rare for an unkind personal remark directed my way to get under my skin. When you’ve been called a b*tch, a nutcase, and even an “overweight hyena,” you either start to let insults rolls off your back or you find a new time-wasting hobby far from the slings and arrows of the online battlefields.

There are always exceptions though. Name calling is easily ignored, trolls can be blocked without much trouble. But when the unkind remark comes from someone who isn’t a troll, who presents a pleasant demeanor, who is respected and admired within some circles, it’s not so easy to ignore. Which probably explains why I still have a screenshot of one such tweet, even though I deleted my Twitter account months ago.

“Michelle, go haunt someone else,” this person said. “Your words will not move me. I know what I know, and I stand by every word I said.”

I don’t remember now what we were discussing. And I’ve never had a problem with agreeing to disagree when a conversation reaches the point that both parties are tired of arguing with each other. One of the ways I managed to keep doing my job for four years in an office filled with Trump supporters was by avoiding political discussions. I took to eating lunch in my office rather than risk the lunchtime table talk in the staff kitchen. I was able to remain friends with one colleague with whom I’d been particularly close when we mutually agreed, after her conversion from a conservative-leaning political moderate to an enthusiastic Red Hat, not to talk about Trump at all.

So, it wasn’t the “shut up, already” subtext of the tweet that bothered me. It was that first sentence, telling me to “go haunt someone else” that stuck with me—especially when I found out later that this person would comment to followers, whenever my name was brought up in discussions in comment boxes, that my situation (as a defector from cultural and political conservatism) was “sad” and that I was in need of lots of prayers.

How was it, I thought, that someone who spoke to me as if I was a ghost could speak of me to other people as if I was someone for whom this person had deep concern? From comments about all the prayers I was in need of, you might think I was the subject of fervent prayer.

That’s when I remembered the phenomenon of pity prayer.

A terrible tragedy happens, perhaps a now all-too-common mass shooting. Public officials pop up in front of cameras and mics. They’re not there to pledge to do the job they were elected to do, to vow to make public venues safe for ordinary citizens to live their lives without fear of dying in a hail of automatic rifle fire. No, they’re there to assure everyone they care. Not about doing their jobs. About thinking and praying for the victims. “Thoughts and prayers” has become a ubiquitous catchphrase that allows public figures to sound very concerned while masking an unwillingness to do anything of substance.

These public figures want you to know they Feel Very Bad, but they won’t be Doing Anything. That is the essence of pity: to be sad about another person’s misfortune from a safe distance. Most people hate pity for precisely that reason—it allows the person engaging in pity to remain above it all while appearing to be concerned.

What public officials do for the cameras, social media pundits do for Likes and Retweets. The person I encountered on Twitter could simultaneously dehumanize me (by dismissing me as one might dismiss a ghost, instead of granting me the dignity of a simple “let’s agree to disagree” as a conversation closer), and present sadness for me to fans by talking about how much I needed prayer. If I merited a single bead on the rosary, I’d be surprised. Because what this person was doing was publicly Feeling Very Bad, but probably not Doing Anything besides Feeling Very Bad.

Which got me to thinking about Jesus’ advice about prayer. Matthew 6 starts out with Jesus telling his disciples, “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (v. 1). Jesus goes on to say that those who make a big show of their piety in the streets and in their houses of worship won’t receive any reward from the Father (vv. 2–5). His disciples, Jesus cautions, should practice their piety in secret, not paying attention to the alms they’re giving (v. 3) and praying in closed rooms.

We often assume Jesus is warning that public piety is of no use. But that’s not what Jesus says. It’s very useful for drawing attention to oneself. Jesus’ point is that if you want the adulation of the public for your piety, then that is all the reward you’ll receive. You’ll get your Likes and Retweets. If you’re a public official, you may even get enough votes from satisfied constituents during the next election to keep your job. But God won’t be impressed, and he won’t reward your piety with a halo and wings.

Rather, if you want God’s notice, then you have to actually be doing something. Give to the poor without counting the cost. Pray for others when no one else is watching. Refrain from “heaping up empty phrases,” such as tired cliches about “thoughts and prayers.” Jesus wasn’t saying you have to be entirely original in your prayers, just that you have to be sincere in what you’re saying. How can you be sure you’re being sincere? One way might be to close any disconnect between how you talk to people and how you talk about them to others.

I’m still not sure why I kept that tweet. Perhaps it was for no other reason than that I’m an INFJ and we INFJs tend to brood. Maybe now that I’ve made the connection to pity prayer (INFJs are also big on making connections), I can let it go.

Or, maybe I’ll keep it awhile longer, if only to remind myself when I’m frustrated with online chatter to always remember that there is another human being on the other side of the computer screen who will read what I say in an unguarded moment and may remember those careless words for a long time after. Too many people these days treat their computers like Magic 8-Balls: toys they can talk into and from which formulaic responses can be drawn. They forget they’re really interacting with persons, not machines. They forget to talk to and about other people as if the person was right there in front of them.

Jesus’ brother, James, also had some advice for Christians on that point: “If any one thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is vain” (Jas. 1:26).

(Image: Two women holding hands, Pixabay.)

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