Last week, the world watched with horror as a hate-inspired gunman slaughtered at least 50 people in two New Zealand mosques.
It was half a world away, but eerily familiar. We’ve seen this kind of evil carried out in our houses of worship before, in Charleston, S.C., Pittsburgh, Pa., in Sutherland Springs, TX and much closer to home, here in Fort Worth.
Many people expressed outrage and issued calls to action. Others offered sympathies, condolences and most importantly, prayers.
The latter response can feel rote and empty at times, especially when coming from politicians, despite the fact that for millions of people the world over, offers of prayer are meaningful, comforting and efficacious. So why is it that such sentiments have become, for a select group of public figures, a target for ridicule?
Following the New Zealand attacks, Democratic rising star Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York used her Twitter account to mock the tendency of some to resort to prayer in the face of tragedy.
“What good are your thoughts & prayers when they don’t even keep the pews safe?” she posted, along with a video of the New Zealand prime minister. (In a clarifying tweet she praised the PM and accused the NRA of employing the phrase as a means of deterring policy change.)
Ocasio-Cortez isn’t the first or even the most prominent person to criticize offers of prayer in the face of undeniable tragedy as insufficient and ugly. Urban Dictionary now offers a number of colorful definitions for the expression “thoughts and prayers,” all of which deride the phrase as hollow and meaningless.
It can feel that way, especially when those offering them are almost certainly not actually praying.
But for those who faithfully pray, prayers are anything but futile, and the criticism of prayer as a response to unimaginable but inevitable earthly suffering suggests a fundamental misunderstanding about the purpose and meaning of any sincere appeal to a higher power.
People pray for myriad reasons, but in times of tragedy and loss prayers are offered not for the undoing of the unimaginable but for the strength to deal with it. Prayer is not a substitute for other human action; it is never intended to be. People pray for eternal rest of victims; they ask for comfort and resolve for survivors and families. They pray for guidance and wisdom of their leaders; they pray for understanding and they pray for mercy — intangibles that sweeping government policies and bureaucrats cannot and will never be capable of providing.
For prayer critics, the evidence that collective social media outrage and hashtag campaigns ultimately produce any more robust a policy response is wanting.
Perhaps more importantly, in the case of the New Zealand shootings — or Sutherland Springs or Charleston — the victims were praying as they died. Siraj Hashmi, a writer for the Washington Examiner, described those who mocked offers of prayer in the attacks’ aftermath as “incredibly insensitive to my [M]uslim brothers and sisters who were slain in cold blood while they were literally praying because they want to be closer to their creator and they want to become better people.”
Indeed, they were victims because they were praying. That hardly diminishes the need or value of their prayers.
No, prayer did not protect them from earthly death, but faithful people of many creeds believe prayer is opportunity to commune with God and to transcend what is temporal and fleeting. For many people of faith, meeting the inevitability of death in prayer is hardly the worst fate they will have to face.
Thoughts and prayers shouldn’t be an excuse for inaction; for people who offer them sincerely, they are never intended to be. For those who believe in the power of pray, they never are.