In the midst of even more tragic mass murders in our country, we hear a similar echo of responses offering some form of “thoughts and prayers.”
I’ve written recently about various doublespeak pieces we’ve adopted in our society at the expense of robbing the words of their actual meanings. And as a lifelong Christian, it breaks my heart to acknowledge that in our society we have redefined prayer to correlate with inaction.
It’s become all too predictable: a (virtually always) white male goes on a shooting rampage using guns designed for war. Politicians and faith leaders offer “thoughts and prayers” for the families and victims and almost immediately follow it up with something along the lines of “this is a time for mourning. It’s way too soon to try to politicize this tragedy.”
There’s another form of doublespeak: “politicizing” the tragedy means discussing (and bringing about) actual changes to laws to help lower the risk of something similar happening again. Or at least helping to lower the risk of something similar having such a devastating casualty count.
You see, we don’t consider it “politicizing” the tragedy when Boeing planes malfunction and we demand that the company make changes to fix the issue. Airlines cancel flights using the specific model of planes, and passengers refuse to board those planes. Government leaders speak out and bring about action. Even more after a terrorist event like 9/11 that led to massive changes in FAA regulations and flight restrictions.
We don’t politicize. We take action. Except when the terrorist is a white man with war weapons. Then we offer “thoughts and prayers.”
That three-word phrase has become synonymous with inaction and prompts (justified) cynical responses from anyone exasperated by the fact that our country seems to value guns more highly than life. Christians have participated in using that phrase and have done far too little to speak out against its use and equivalent inaction.
We’ve made prayer a mockery in our nation by robbing it of its meaning and given non-Christians every reason to doubt that prayer means anything. The piece of our faith that allows us to interact with our creator to wrestle with life’s challenges, share our struggles and successes, and receive encouragement and peace has become a joke. And while we as Christians are very good at blaming the culture for attacking our beliefs, this is entirely on us. Because we have been complicit in the use of “prayer” as a euphemistic offering of political inaction.
As Christians, we need to be among the very first responders to these events demanding change to help prevent the next life-taking tragedy. When something like this happens, we absolutely should pray. We believe prayer is the most powerful tool we’ve been given to invite God’s presence in our lives. But nowhere else in our faith do we teach that we should pair prayer with inaction.
Jesus spent a great deal of time in prayer. Then He joined the crowds and cared for the needs of the people. When a sick person approaching Him, He didn’t send them away with a suggestion that He would pray for them. He healed them. When He saw a crowd in need of food, He fed them. Then He called us to do the same.
1 John 3 tells us not to love with words or tongue but with action and truth. James 2 similarly says that it’s no good to see someone without clothes or food and tell them you wish them well and hope they keep warm and well fed. Faith unaccompanied by action is dead.
We received that warning from a book within our own scriptures written nearly 2,000 years ago. And now today we see it. “Thoughts and prayers” is a dead faith.
Now, to be fair, many of the people offering “thoughts and prayers” are politicians rather than pastors, so maybe we should hold them to a different standard? Absolutely not. Take each one individually: if that politician has professed a faith in Christ, we need to follow up their statement with a question of why they only offer prayers and don’t suggest action as well. Jesus prayed and then went to the cross to bring about the change needed in the world. He sacrificed everything. He acted.
If the politician does not profess a faith in Christ, we need to follow up by asking what prayer means to them and why they would offer it as their contribution. Perhaps they follow another faith tradition. If so, ask them what their tradition teaches about the need to combine prayer with action. If not, ask what purpose prayer serves in their life and why they consider it alone to be the proper response in this situation.
As Christians, we should be outraged that prayer has been coopted to mean inaction in the face of tragedy. Our lack of outrage means we have no right to be surprised when people discount prayer and scoff at it when we offer it in response to other situations. We have allowed this to happen.
We have allowed this by caring more about appearances than substance – we promote laws to plaster “In God We Trust” everywhere without actually trusting God so we can pretend America is a Christian nation despite its blatantly different priorities. We get so excited by people mentioning prayer that we don’t consider their use of it as an excuse to take no action.
We need to take prayer back for Christ. We need to reeducate society about the power of prayer and the role it plays in an active faith by demanding anyone who offers it as a shallow response to tragedy follow up with explanations about what prayer specifically means to them and what they will be doing alongside prayer to bring about positive change.
We don’t expect our needs to be met by simply praying and having a genie god grant our wishes. We get up and act. Yes, we pray for safety and health, but then we act by locking our doors, driving responsibly, wearing our seatbelt, and visiting a doctor when necessary. When we need a job, we don’t just sit in our room and pray that a job appears. We pray for guidance in the search, and then we get out, apply, and seek the right opportunity.
Jesus prayed asking God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Then He went out into the world and did His part in bringing God’s will to the earth through loving, healing, and providing for people. Life is the first and most basic gift we receive from God; there’s a reason it’s listed as the first of our “unalienable Rights” listed in The Declaration of Independence.
Any taking of life is devastating, and mass murders even more because they expose our own inaction. Absolutely, let’s offer all the prayers we can muster for the victims and their families for healing and comfort. But unless we take action to prevent, or at the very least minimize, the next such event, our prayers are hollow. Faith without works is dead.
Just another tragic casualty of our valuing guns over human life.