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Continuing the Conversation: “Thoughts and prayers” — what is enough?

Prof. Katie Dayby Katie Day

After the most recent tragedy in San Bernadino, there has been a flurry of debate on the web not only about how we as a society should respond to the exceedingly high levels of gun violence, but also a high-volume critique of those responses. One group of voices are those who call for “thoughts and prayers” for the victims and communities; another group advocates political action to change gun laws. The advocates criticize the pray-ers for not acting to stop the violence; the pray-ers accuse the advocates of “politicizing a tragedy” by calling for legislative change.

But wait, there’s more. This debate further divides the camps along political lines. The “pray-ers” are identified with Republicans (and indeed most of their candidates did extend “thoughts and prayers” to the victims). The change advocates are linked to the Democratic party (again as represented by their candidates for president). A further bifurcation reflected in the debate is that prayer and action are separate activities. In fact, a new phrase has entered the popular lexicon, “prayer shaming” — the critique of those who simply pray in lieu of acting for change

In many ways, this is a public theologian’s dream: at issue in public discourse is the role and meaning of prayer. When have we last had a bunch of blogs and op-eds about that? The downside is that the public conversation is riding roughshod over what prayer is, loading it up with pejorative assumptions.

First we can state the obvious: prayer is not a partisan activity. Both Republicans and Democrats pray … and probably neither party does enough of it. More to the point, prayer and active response cannot be separated. Faced with any atrocity in which innocent human life is lost we can only cry out in pain, like the Psalmists, for meaning and comfort. It is a primal human response to appeal to the Divine — “Help!” “Why?” “Don’t abandon us, your people!” Even the proverbial atheist in the foxhole experiences this. This appeal that comes “from the depths” to however we conceive a transcendent being is also an expression of compassion that connects us as human beings, through our suffering, to one another.

Prayer, through the compassion it fosters, also moves us to want to end the suffering. In my own experience with a faith-based gun violence prevention group (Heeding God’s Call to End Gun Violence) as well as in interviews with many people of faith, I have heard over and over the spiritual dimension of working for change. Rabbi Abraham Heschel, marching with Martin Luther King in Selma, said he felt like he was “praying on my legs.” That has become woven into religious vernacular, and I’ve heard many people — Republicans as well as Democrats — talk about the experience of “praying on my feet.” Prayer is a form of action; acting for change is a dimension of prayer.

The temptation to separate piety and work for social justice is not new. In the Christian tradition, Jesus was one who railed against those who had all the right platitudes but none of the follow through. One of his followers wrote that “faith without works is dead.”

Despite what is reflected in the cyber-debates, there are plenty of people of faith who both pray for victims of gun violence and are engaged in struggles to end it. When the Congress cannot even take baby steps in the wake of San Bernandino — like restricting gun sales to those on the “no-fly” list or expanding background checks, both supported by an overwhelming majority of Americans — then more prayer is needed. But not the “thoughts and prayers” that substitute for action, but the thoughtful prayer that incorporates action. Do I hear an Amen?

The Rev. Dr. Katie Day is the Charles A. Scheiren Professor of Church and Society, and Director of the Metropolitan/Urban Concentration at LTSP.

More on the Conversation:

LTSP’s Urban Theological Institute Committee of Advisors (UTICA) member the Rev. Dr. Kevin R. Johnson recently reflected on newly released findings in the 2014 shooting death of Laquan McDonald by a Chicago police officer, the release of which has reignited unrest and distrust of politicians and police. His reflection, “Pandora’s Box of mistrust opened with McDonald case,” was published by The Philadelphia Tribune.

The Rev. Dr. Kevin R Johnson is pastor of Dare to Imagine Church in West Philadelphia and President/CEO of Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC) of Philadelphia. In to his membership in UTICA, he has been a presenter at the UTI 34th Anniversary Lecture and Worship Celebration and at Spring Convocation 2014.

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