Best of The Pietist Schoolman: “Thoughts and Prayers”

Like everyone, I’m stunned and grieved by the news from Orlando yesterday. I’m not sure I have anything useful to say… except to repost what I shared the last time there was a mass shooting on anything like this scale. Sadly, I only had to go back seven months in my archive to find that post. It still seems relevant — the only change I’ve made is to update the tweet that leads off…

In the wake of the mass shootings on Wednesday, social media was predictably filled with politicians and others saying that their “thoughts and prayers” were with the victims’ families. But that prompted a fierce backlash from those who claimed that the “thoughts and prayer” expression was meaningless, or at least inadequate if not followed by action.

The Atlantic‘s Emma Green called it “prayer shaming” — but also pointed out that “The most powerful evidence against this backlash toward prayer comes not from the Twitterverse, but from San Bernardino. ‘Pray for us,’ a woman texted her father from inside the Inland Regional Center, while she and her colleagues hid from the gunfire. Outside the building, evacuated workers bowed their heads and held hands. They prayed.”

For some truly thoughtful commentary on this, see:

  • Ruth Graham: “This week’s prominent ‘prayer shamers’ aren’t really against prayer. They’re against platitudes. The problem is when ‘thoughts and prayers” are the only response to a public event that calls for political action. It’s hard to imagine that even the most dedicated atheist objects to Ted Cruz kneeling by his bed at night to pray for the victims of yesterday’s shooting. What Cruz chooses to do in his bedroom is his own business. The issue is that politicians like him continue to offer thoughts and prayers and nothing else: no assault weapons ban, no universal background checks, no federal gun registry.”
  • Michael Wear: “The basic idea that ‘thoughts and prayers’ are not enough has great merit. Well-meaning religious people affirmed the truth in that basic statement. But it is important to understand that the people who made that critique were not interested in helping us better understand the theological introspection on the meaning of prayer. If people meant to criticize inaction, rather than appeal to anti-religious sentiment, they would simply criticize inaction. Instead, this was a cynical ploy that is just the latest tactic in the development of our new tribal politics.”
  • Andy Crouch
    Incidentally, Crouch will be speaking at Bethel University (where I work) next Wednesday, in case any in the Twin Cities want to hear him.

    Andy Crouch: “…we must never settle for a false dichotomy between prayer and action, as if it were impossible to pray while acting or act while praying. Nonetheless it is vital, whenever possible, to pray before acting lest our activity be in vain.”

  • Elizabeth Breunig: “…prayer itself is not the problem. Rather, prayer is being misused, not only in the public and political sense, but in the religious sense as well. The American public deserves better than dashed-off tweets about prayers in lieu of legislative action—and, crucially, so does prayer itself…. Politicians’ post-massacre prayers shouldn’t conclude their political response to the public health crisis that is American gun violence. It shouldn’t conclude their praying, either.”

I don’t have much that’s meaningful to add to this and other responses. Just three quick musings:

1. I’m not praying enough.

What this discussion mostly reminded me is that I’ve found it easier and easier simply to neglect the discipline of prayer. There are days when I’m not I’ve prayed at all apart from saying grace or when I put my kids to sleep. And then I’m both disgusted with myself and grateful that I’ve got those prompts built into the rhythms of my life.

The “thoughts and prayers” response can sound trite, and no doubt some significant share of those who say/tweet it don’t even follow through. But if nothing else, speaking or writing those words can serve as a prompt to prayer.

2. The thoughts are as important as the prayers.

To be honest, I’ve rarely said “thoughts and prayers.” If I’m going to pray for someone, I’ll say that. The first half of the expression always struck me as an adjustment to the reality of being publicly religious in a plural society, particularly one with a growing secular population.

Evelyn Underhill
Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) – Wikimedia

But perhaps the thoughts are as important as the prayers: not just a civil religious add-on, but a necessary complement to (perhaps even a precondition for) prayer. Even a mystic like Evelyn Underhill believed that “Prayer, as a rule, should begin with something we usually call an intellectual act, with thinking of what we are going to do.”

3. Are Americans prepared well to offer their thoughts?

Of course, that implies that we know how to think of those who have suffered loss. After all, offering thoughts can be as empty a piety as offering prayers.

I previously quoted Underhill’s line from The Essentials of Mysticism in a post suggesting that one way to think about a Christian liberal arts education is that primarily serves to teach us how to pray. I don’t expect that of public or non-religious private schools, but I do think it’s fair to ask if our society has an educational system that prepares people to think the kind of thoughts that even the most secular among us routinely offer to the grieving. Does it, for example, inculcate empathy?

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