The country was horrified last week by another mass shooting, this time at a Christian grade school in Nashville, Tennessee, where three nine-year-olds were among the six innocent victims. As with all such tragedies, the all-too-familiar chorus of “thoughts and prayers” sent to the survivors subsequently swelled across social media and in official statements.
Alex McFarland, a youth, culture, and religion expert from Greensboro, North Carolina, told Fox News Digital, “Our thoughts, prayers and condolences are with all those impacted by the tragic shooting at Covenant School in Nashville.” Rev. Mark Spalding of the Diocese of Nashville wrote in a statement, “Let us pray for the victims, their families, and the Covenant Presbyterian community.” David Rausch, director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, declared, “I know there are people who will criticize us for prayers but that’s the way we do it in the south.”
Indeed, there were many people who criticized such condolences as an empty gesture and argued that seemingly insubstantial thoughts and prayers are not enough—that we need to do something to prevent further such atrocities. Tennessee State Senator Heidi Campbell said, “We don’t need thoughts and prayers. We need commonsense gun reform.” In his opening prayer on Tuesday, Senate Chaplain Barry Black stated, “Lord, when babies die at a church school it is time for us to move beyond thoughts and prayers.”
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
Progressive talk show host David Pakman went so far as to grotesquely mock prayer and the Covenant School community itself: “Very surprising that there would be a mass shooting at a Christian school, given that lack of prayer is often blamed for these horrible events,” he wrote in a now-deleted tweet. “Is it possible they weren’t praying enough, or correctly, despite being a Christian school?”
Taking action—or taking the right action, anyway—is obviously better than doing nothing. The tricky part is knowing what constitutes the wisest course of action, especially when it comes to such complex, inflammatory issues as gun control. But that’s beside the point. The important thing to note here is that praying is not the same as doing nothing. There is power in prayer, especially when people—a family, a community, a nation—pray together. Believers know this. Every one of us has experienced it.
Of course, if one does not believe in a God to pray to, then it’s easy to reject prayer as pointless superstition. Comedian and militant atheist Ricky Gervais once tweeted his take on thoughts and prayers in the wake of a 2013 tornado in Oklahoma: “I feel like an idiot now…I only sent money.” His snarky comment was meant to shame the people of faith he looks down on who “merely” offered prayers and to congratulate himself for giving seemingly more tangible financial aid. Good for him for his contribution. But Gervais’ net worth is currently an estimated $160 million; not everyone has his resources to simply write a big check.
For the majority of people, who either cannot spare money or are too distant from the site of a tragedy to help in a direct way—such as, say, donating blood—publicly offering heartfelt condolences and intercessory prayer is their only recourse. That is meaningful, both for the frustrated sender who genuinely feels compelled to do something and for those on the receiving end of this expression of love, support, and goodwill.
By the way, even if I weren’t a believer, I would hardly be offended by one praying for me. What can it hurt? At least it demonstrates that the believer cares. If I were a victim of some terrible misfortune, I would find it uplifting to know that thousands—maybe tens or even hundreds of thousands—of people were rooting for me to rise above it. The only thing worse than tragedy itself is feeling that you have to deal with it alone.
Gervais and others of like mind seem to be making the false assumption that people sending up thoughts and prayers aren’t also taking concrete steps to effect change. It is possible both to pray for the afflicted about an issue or disaster and to be politically active about it as well.
Another false assumption behind dismissing thoughts and prayers is that they clearly aren’t effective because bad things keep happening. But prayer isn’t simply a magic wand we wave to repair the world. Thoughts and prayers won’t reverse a calamity—nothing can, not even a big check from Ricky Gervais. Nor are they guaranteed to prevent future calamities. Evil exists, and all the gun control laws in the world won’t stand against it. In a fallen world, bad things will happen, and we must wrestle with the consequences.
The value of thoughts and prayers is that they help victims and survivors get through an atrocity or tragedy by offering compassion, solace, and encouragement, and by invoking divine healing. They are about the human community reaching across imaginary boundaries of every kind—national, racial, political, etc.—to bring comfort and hope in a time of adversity that might otherwise break us.
As Pastor Jesse Bradley, a Seattle-area faith leader, observed after the Nashville shooting, “Prayer for these dear families is timely and powerful. We can ask God for comfort during grieving.” That is no small thing. Indeed, for many, it’s more meaningful than a financial donation.
By all means, take practical actions to right wrongs and prevent tragedy. But when the next catastrophe inevitably strikes and the thoughts and prayers begin flowing, rein in the impulse to dismiss them cynically as useless or as empty virtue-signaling. What the senders are actually signaling is that we are in this together, that they are doing what they can to help, and that they are calling down God’s blessing upon us all.
[Photo Credit: AFP via Getty Images]