Why ‘thoughts and prayers’ don’t belong on Twitter

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Today’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, CA, has killed at least 14 people and wounded 17. It’s one of the deadlier mass shootings of this year, which is an absurd sentence to even have to type, and in the wake of it many people have been doing what comes naturally: taking to Twitter. In some strange ways, it feels like the big room we all want to be in, to mourn and get information and express the opinions we can’t share with our coworkers or family members or the bus driver.

And, as these things go, people have been getting angry. People–mostly politicians–have been offering their “thoughts and prayers” to the victims of today’s shooting. Take a look:

Thoughts and prayers, to be clear, are very good things. I believe deeply in the power that prayer has, although I do find that it often changes me more than it changes my circumstances. But here’s where the challenge comes to those of us who are praying people–this is what Jesus said to his disciples in Matthew 6:

“‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.'”

“They think they will be heard because of their many words,” Jesus said. How far from that is, “They think they will be respected because of their pious tweets?” There are fourteen people dead. This is the 355th mass shooting of 2015. If thoughts and prayers could stop bullets, that would have happened a long time ago.

153470262_2a58cdbe25_zPraying for the wounded, for the dead, for their families–that is such a good and lovely thing to do. It is an admirable impulse. Praying is a way of holding someone a little bit closer to God, of asking God to give comfort, of expressing confusion and lament. We should pray. But perhaps we should not be so quick to use social media as a means for our prayer. Perhaps we should go into out rooms, shut the doors, and pray there. And then, when we come out, we should demand change. We should call our congresspeople, donate to the Brady campaign, and think about who we elect. We should not expect that a politician who prays is a politician who acts, because we know the Pharisees prayed, and Jesus was not pleased with them. Telling thousands of people that you’re praying is not the same as taking concrete steps to end gun violence in America.

As a friend of mine pointed out, politicians who tweet their “thoughts and prayers” often end up escaping any kind of accountability. They offer their prayers out of one side of their mouth and, with the other, thank the NRA for the donations to their political campaigns. Those prayers don’t console victims, and neither do those tweets. But legislation might.

  • alison

    If thoughts and prayers were directed to me on twitter I would be very grateful.

  • John

    Thanks Alison, I too would be grateful. I am sorry that the folks at RNS always come across with a slant against things. They are aligned too much with the culture.

  • Yomama

    Hey Laura,

    Terrorists do not obey laws, so legislation will not fix this. France had a gun ban and it only led to a higher death toll. This is an ideological battle between western civilization and radical Islam, nothing more. Quit trying to spin this against Obama’s political enemies and look at the real issue.

  • Be Brave

    Secular morality seems an even worse thing to trust.

    ALL of the morality violated by the shooters/murderers are on the secular law books.

    ZIPPO effectiveness.

  • Ben in oakland

    Here’s what I think about prayer in regard to any tragedy.

    I don’t want to help, but I don’t want to feel bad for not helping. So I’ll pray for you.

    I’ll pray for you is just another way of saying I want what’s best for you as long as it takes no real effort or sacrifice on my part.

    You’ll pray for me? Wonderful! i’ll talk to my cat for you, because they used to be worshipped as gods.* You can expect the same results.

    * cats have NEVER forgotten this.

  • Ben in oakland

    So laws don’t do any good, prayer doesn’t do any good. It’s as good an excuse as any.

  • Richard Rush

    While “. . . thoughts and prayers . . .” is certainly one of the all-time overused trite Christian platitudes, why not use this one as well? ~ “God never gives you more than you can handle.”

  • ben in oakland

    Does that mean that if the victims’ families were just a bit weaker, the victims would still be alive?

  • Bob

    Brilliant question, Ben.

  • Stephen Kent Gray

    I agree with Yonohama. Twitter being a 145 character limit format doesn’t allow nuance. It also exposes the double standards on the left as well. If there’s a massacre you can’t blame Islam, but apparently you can blame the pro-life movement or the gun rights movement.

    The left mocks prayers and pushes left wing activism. If a person is a left wing activist, they’re a hero. If they pray instead or even do some right wing activism, they’re a villain. The left says prayer is useless piety, and the activism should be able done, but only recognize government as being the solution to all society’s problems. The Left has a huge problem with its hatred of Liberty. Every single news story is a chance for the Left to push that government grow and liberty shrink. Liberty requires restraint, but self restraint rather than government control.

    http://washex.am/1OzVLFR

    The Washington Examiner did a great article.

  • Mtnmedic

    So says an ammosexual.

    Yes, terrorists and criminals don’t obey the laws. So let’s not have any, shall we? Let’s remove all the stop signs because people who don’t care run them all the time, causing accidents. Let’s remove laws that protect children from pedophiles because, well, some just don’t obey them anyway. This is what you and the NRA support. A lawless nation that returns to the gun-toting “Wild West” of almost 200 years ago. Here’s a thought….the romantic gun-slinging folks and shoot-em up justice of yesteryear? Many towns had rules that required gunslingers to leave their weapons at the local Marshal’s office and pick them up when they left. Of course that still didn’t stop some idiots. That’s what the Marshal and his deputies were for.

    Keep worshipping guns, money and God’s Big Book of Bad Ideas. You and your kind are a dying breed. Your relevancy and that of the GOP is ending soon. We fully expect you knuckle-draggers to go away…

  • Ben in oakland

    For a person who objects to caricatures of people on the right…

    you seem to be awfully eager to make caricatures of people on the left.

    you seem to be acting exactly like a caricature of a right wing person.

    “Liberty requires restraint, but self restraint rather than government control.”

    So I assume you object to the idea that this is a Christian nation, and that Christianity is the basis for our laws and society, and thus enforceable on others.

    You are down with gay marriage.

    Abortion is fine with you. Let private interests dissuade the mother to be without government coercion.

    Muslims in America are fine as long as they enter legally.

  • cj

    LOL. and you composing that speech makes you all of the above 😀

  • John

    Let’s see you legislate terror attacks out of this country. I’d rather vote for someone who is a Christian than a muslim apologist. NRA, which I am a member, is strictly a follow-on from our Christian founders…the modern-day Democratic party is the last vestige of the racist southern past we have to suffer in this modern day. YES measure your votes, but when it’s time to stand in the booth with God watching, vote for the Christians who can right this ship-of-state.

  • Ted Levinski

    The idea that if I say that that I am GOING to be praying for something is the same thing as me ACTUALLY praying in PUBLIC (in contradiction to Matthew 6) is the equivalent of suggesting that if I Tweet that I am going to take my clothes off than I am guilty of public nudity. Fairly obviously silly. When Jesus spoke that people think their prayers will be heard because of their many words it has NOTHING to do with open prayer. It had to do with the false notion that God required long, involved, wordy prayers to be heard. A 140 character Tweet, even if the entire Tweet was a prayer would not violate this dictum. if people are guilty of twisting the words of the Bible for their gain it is not the politicians to which you refer.

  • alison

    Ben, I love your comment about cats.

  • alison

    Laura Turner clearly does not think these things through. But i recall some of things I wrote at her age and how humiliated I am now by the opinions I once held.

  • Larry

    Certainly better than religious morality which claims such bad acts are perfectly OK.

    After all an act isn’t truly moral unless you are doing it on behalf of your faith. Just like Islamicist terrorists claim to be doing. We already know from last week that murder is just peachy keen to Christians like yourself if the victims are associated with abortion providers.

  • Larry

    “M@sturbation and prayer are, basically, the same thing. You’re thinking of someone else who will not be affected by your actions, or you’re thinking of someone who doesn’t exist, and you feel satisfied because of this private action. The difference is, we don’t consider m@sturbation sacred, and no one is deceived into thinking it actually makes a change beyond making you happy.”

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/marginoferr/2015/12/05/prayershaming-and-masturbation/?ref_widget=trending&ref_blog=friendlyatheist&ref_post=why-prayer-shaming-is-justified-after-the-san-bernardino-shootings

  • Michael Connally

    Peggy Noonan makes some good points this author should have considered: “. . . denunciations [of people saying they were praying for San Bernardino] were literally coming in while victims of the shooting were sending out requests for prayer” and
    “Successful politics involves pulling people together. You don’t use a tragedy to shame and silence those who don’t see it your way; that only hardens sides.”
    http://on.wsj.com/1lzUZwO via @WSJ

  • Dale

    Yes, terrorists and criminals don’t obey the laws. So let’s not have any, shall we? – See more at: http://lauraturner.religionnews.com/2015/12/02/why-thoughts-and-prayers-dont-belong-on-twitter/#sthash.6z267Yeq.dpuf

    We keep hearing this. What a load of crap. The point being made is that it is totally useless knee jerk reactionism to create more laws that will only serve to hurt those who do not go out and shoot at innocent people.

    The truth is that no current nor proposed laws would have stopped this couple from obtaining their weapons. They were not on any watch list, and most looked at them as average citizens.

    Why punish the many for the misdeeds of the few? That makes no sense. And we cannot go around making laws to cover what might, or might not happen.

  • Dale

    Yes…prayers do belong on twitter, and on anyplace else people wish to place them. Often as not, these prayers are offered up because there is nothing else people can do. This goes for anybody from an average joe in the street or a politician running for office. Even more disgusting is the calls for more gun control, more laws before the smoke from San Bernardino even cleared, before the facts are even fully known. Don’t go after politicians because they do not believe that knee jerk reactionism will solve any problems.
    Don’t punish the many because of the misdeeds of the few. And we cannot go making laws based on what might (or might not) happen.