(RNS) — There’s a cartoon making the rounds in response to the devastating Las Vegas shooting tragedy. It features a switchboard full of colorful buttons, on all of which but one is written “DO SOMETHING.” The one button that is different is labeled “Thoughts and prayers,” and the joke is that it’s the only button being pushed by the lone finger in the drawing.
The biting cultural commentary offered is: We content ourselves with shallow promises of prayer even though we should be undertaking real-world action to solve an urgent problem.
This idea has been playing out on social media ever since a shooter killed at least 58 and injured hundreds of others in Las Vegas. For every one tweeter offering prayer, there was one tweeter mocking them.
Some people were more civil about it than others. Actress Emmy Rossum said she believes in prayer, but thinks that more than prayer is needed to reform America’s gun laws. Columnist Charles Blow was less polite: "I am so SICK of our hollow, ritualized response to these tragedies: Outrage, prayer, ‘thought go out…,’ debate, then…NOTHING! This is gross.”
This discussion made its way into my own Twitter feed when I responded to a tweet by Andrew Seidel, an attorney with Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to “freethought activism.”
“#PRAYERSFORVEGAS or any other mass shooting won’t end gun violence in America,” he wrote.
OK … that’s true enough. But neither, I replied, will being clever with a hashtag. (That really got things going.)
Seidel made himself very clear: Prayer, he insisted, wasn’t “real action,” and it often runs the risk of giving people who do nothing an excuse to feel as if they are. Finally, he accused me of missing his main point, which was: “Prayer doesn’t work.”
As a person who both prays and writes about people who pray, I found these comments naive, arrogant and misinformed. First of all, how is prayer supposed to “work"? What does “success” even look like when we’re talking about prayer? How quickly does success have to “happen” after the initial prayer for it to count as a result of the prayer? It seems like this accusation is informed by a very elementary notion of prayer: Unless we get something (say, a red lollipop) almost immediately after praying for it, then we can’t say the prayer worked.
But I don’t know many religious people who think of prayer this way. Instead, many of us see prayer the same way that St. Therese of Lisieux sees it: It’s “a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.” If this is what prayer is, then every prayer — insofar as it gets us to pause in the midst of tragedy, take a breath, and remember that the future is still coming to meet us — “works.”
Another problem with the “Don’t pray; act!” accusation is that it fundamentally misunderstands the relationship of prayer and real-world action. There’s an apocryphal quote attribute to Pope Francis (and if he didn’t say it, it definitely sounds like something the Jesuit would say): “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That is how prayer works.” He said something similar in a July 2013 address: “Prayer that doesn’t lead to concrete action toward our brothers is a fruitless and incomplete prayer.”
“Prayer and action must always be profoundly united,” he concluded.
This isn’t any different from the way Jesus taught his followers to pray: “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In other words, God’s kingdom comes to earth through the humans who behave as if it is already here. The praying is the doing.
Plenty of religious people seem to believe this. A recent Pew survey found “a clear link between what people see as essential to their faith and their self-reported day-to-day behavior.” For example, more than 60 percent of Christians who believe that helping the poor is essential to their Christian identity regularly donate time and money to actually … help the poor. This suggests the majority of Christians surveyed realize that a truly prayerful posture requires real-world action.
To be fair, if praying actually does prevent someone from taking necessary and appropriate action to fix a problem — for example, religious parents who refuse medical treatment for their children — then that prayer is hypocritical. But this isn’t a criticism invented by Twitter — it’s as old as religion itself. The Bible, for example, is full of passages condemning unjust people who pray:
When you spread 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.
If you want God to hear you, Isaiah tells his listeners, then you must “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression.” If you’re not going to make those changes, then God won’t hear your prayers so you might as well not even offer them. This is why I think it was right for someone to challenge Vice President Mike Pence when he tweeted that he and his wife were praying for the victims of Las Vegas. “Your campaign took $30 million from the NRA last year. Save your prayers for something else,” wrote author Molly Knight.
But while it might be reasonable in this instance to question the prayers of those collecting money from gun lobbyists, it seems mean-spirited to issue a blanket condemnation of anyone who turns to prayer in response to suffering.
Prayer is a very human response to the world’s enormous evil. It grew up within that part of our collective soul that said, “This world is dark … and yet I will keep moving forward.” Andrew Seidel is right to be outraged with yet another mass shooting — we all should share that outrage! But heaping some of that outrage on prayer ignores the fact that humanity’s sense of justice evolved alongside its sense of prayerfulness and reverence. The impulse that makes us rage against evil is the same one that leads us to “look toward heaven.”
We all have different views on prayer, but at the end of the day, #praying on social media comes down to solidarity. It’s my way of saying, “I see you hurting, and I am here for you.” Those expressions of solidarity can’t take the place of calling your local politicians and demanding reform. At the same time, retweeting a bunch of graphs that prove your political points can’t take the place of gentle reminders of human compassion.
(The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service)