The rapid succession of shooting tragedies has resulted in people realizing that the phrase ‘ sending our thoughts and prayers’ has become so routine in public discourse. As a result, the instinct of politicians to say they are sending their ‘thoughts and prayers’ to the victims of mass tragedies has started to come in for considerable well-deserved scorn as it is becoming seen as merely a cost-free way for politicians to act as if they care without having to take any action. Ridiculing it out of existence, so that politicians hesitate to use that trite phrase, may be a good way of getting some actual action.
But Brandon Ambrosino thinks that that it is unfair to pick on that phrase and say that it is useless because it doesn’t work.
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.
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.”
But he then immediately undercuts his own argument by saying that sending prayers should be the spur for action.
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.
But that is what critics like me have been saying. that it is not the phrase itself that is at fault but that it is used as a substitute for action. If prayer leads one to act, then fine, but it is the action that is important and that matters. If prayer does not lead to action, it is useless.
In the case of individuals who know the victims but have no power to actually do anything, to send their thoughts and prayers to the victims of tragedies can be viewed an expression of concern and solidarity. But for people who have the power to act to prevent such tragedies to merely send their thoughts and prayers is a cowardly evasion of their responsibilities.