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Opinion How to make ‘thoughts and prayers’ meaningful again

During a news conference at Florida Hospital in Orlando, Patience Carter recited an emotional poem she wrote about being inside Pulse during the shooting. (Video: Reuters)
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The massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, where 49 people were murdered this past weekend, has prompted outrage at the impossibility of gun control in the United States, memorials at and for gay bars, and sharp debates about whether the shooting was primarily a hate crime, an act of terrorism or both at once. And in a sign that people are sickened by the rote responses to horrors that have themselves become frighteningly routine, many are rejecting one of the rituals that follows such tragedies: the offering of “thoughts and prayers” to the bereaved.

I understand the pain and frustration of people who reject that offer. Given that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) has accepted a past speaking invitation to from Kevin Swanson, a pastor who has suggested the death penalty for gay people who don’t repent their sexual orientations, I can see why people might wonder what, exactly, Cruz’s prayers consist of. Treating prayer as a substitute for action after yet another mass shooting can seem like an obscene bait-and-switch. But the anger in response to “thoughts and prayers” suggests widespread failures of communication around what prayer consists of and what it’s supposed to accomplish.

The Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study of 35,000 Americans from all 50 states provides a window into which Americans pray and how often they do it. Fifty-five percent of respondents said that they pray “at least daily,” while 23 percent pray “seldom” or “never.” People who identified themselves as Jehovah’s Witnesses were most likely to say they pray at least daily, followed by Mormons, Historically Black Protestants, Evangelical Protestants and Muslims. Respondents between the ages of 30 and 49 were most likely to say they pray daily; by contrast, 33 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds said they pray seldom or never. Women pray more frequently than men.

In that survey, Pew didn’t ask respondents about whether they believe that prayer alone can bring about material change in the world.

“I don’t know that many people think that thinking about something can actually have any effect on it. But a lot of people who offer prayers are doing it in the spirit of actually believing that those prayers are powerful and, importantly, that they can prompt the powerful to act, or to change minds,” Alissa Wilkinson, a professor at King’s College and the critic-at-large at Christianity Today, wrote in an email to me when I asked about the backlash against “thoughts and prayers.”

But in a 2016 “Religion in Everyday Life” study, Pew did ask what role religion plays in respondents’ major life decisions. Eighty-six percent of people Pew identified as highly religious, defined as those who pray daily and attend services once a week, said that they relied on prayer and religious reflection to guide their actions. A number of people I spoke to about prayer in the wake of the Pulse attack suggested that explaining that connection, and making manifest the work that is inspired by prayer, could go a long way toward making offers of prayer seem more meaningful.

Gil Steinlauf, the senior rabbi at the Adas Israel Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Washington (in Judaism, Conservative refers to a particular religious tradition, rather than a political orientation), wrote in an email that for Jews, prayers “seek to orient ourselves in the grand scheme of the on-going relationship between God and the Jewish people. That relationship is defined by a covenant that calls us to action, i.e. the mitzvot, or commandments that lead to a more holy and just world.”

“For Jews today, prayer is inconceivable as divorced from action,” Steinlauf continued. “For Jews, prayer ought not be an offering of wishes and good intentions, and then leaving the rest to God. If prayer reminds us of anything, it is that we are in this world as God’s partners in Creation for a world that needs repair. I believe that all peoples of faith, no matter what their concept of prayer is, should take this essential Jewish insight of prayer to heart. We live in a time when the need for immediate action is critical.”

Elise Ashley Hanley, a recent graduate of Union Theological Seminary and a transitional deacon in the Episcopal Church, suggested that religious people and faith communities make explicit connections between prayers and acts in the wake of a tragedy.

“Prayer is not only this conversation with a higher power or God, but it therefore also helps one to listen to what God is wanting for your life and the world, and prayer would impact your actions,” she explained. “It’s communicating your next step. How is this affecting us, and how is this compelling us to action? I think churches and other communities of faith need to put out that message. What can our particular community do or provide to those who are hurting right now, to those who are marginalized, to those who need something?”

Christopher Ashley, the Episcopalian theologian who presided at my wedding, wrote that he felt as though it was natural for believers to turn to God in situations in which they felt hopeless. What some nonbelievers might see as an evasion from action believers might understand as an acknowledgement that they face circumstances beyond their control.

“The liberal/Kantian critique of ‘thoughts and prayers’ after massacres or the deaths of refugees or storms is that we do have power over gun laws, asylum policies, and carbon emissions,” he said in an email. “Yet, I know I’m not alone in feeling powerless in the face of all those policy environments. To put it another way, the recourse to ‘thoughts and prayers’ doesn’t only mark the gap between what humanity as a whole could do in principle and what’s only in God’s hands, but also the communal breaches of kindness and generosity that make democratic deliberation impossible or counterproductive.”

But the idea that prayer might express a shared sense of hopelessness and frustration, or a desire to be of service, gets lost when the people at whom those prayers are directed have experienced harm at the hands of the faithful, Hanley said. If people have experienced “almost vengeful” prayers that they will change their sexuality, for example, an offer of prayer may feel hostile rather than kind.

“Many in our community hear the hypocrisy in their offering prayers while simultaneously working on discriminatory legislation against our community, and by promoting legislation that is turning our American streets into war zones with the ready availability of assault weapons,” Rabbi Steinlauf wrote.

At the end of the day, Wilkinson suggested, the backlash against “thoughts and prayers” offered up by positioning politicians is a well-earned one.

“I’m dubious that many (politicians, especially) who offer ‘thoughts and prayers’ actually view them in the way that, for instance, your average middle America parishioner does,” she wrote to me. “Maybe that’s most obvious in the fact that for many, actions don’t accompany the prayers. And that’s visible to the public, and I don’t think the reaction against it is unmerited.”