It has become routine, in the face of a tragedy, for social media to fill with tweets and Facebook posts sending one’s thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families. And while those responses have certainly earned a few sarcastic remarks from onlookers — “Thoughts and prayers Twitter, get ready!” one joker tweeted a few months back upon hearing news of an earthquake — recent criticism of social media prayer has taken a very dark turn.
“GOD ISN’T FIXING THIS!” exclaims the cover of today’s New York Daily News, in reference to yesterday’s San Bernardino shooting, the latest example of America’s egregious problem with gun violence. “As latest batch of innocent Americans are left lying in pools of blood,” reads the caption, “cowards who could truly end gun scourge continue to hide behind meaningless platitudes.” Those platitudes? Prayer. Those cowards? Republicans.
Framing the Daily News cover are screen grabs of tweets from four Republicans — Cruz, Paul, Graham, Ryan — offering prayers for the victims of San Bernardino. The point is obvious: When it comes to gun control, the GOP offer prayers — not solutions.
It should be clear to anyone paying attention that the story isn’t primarily about disparaging prayer — though it certainly does that. The story is primarily about disparaging conservatives. And plenty of social media users have jumped on the bandwagon. See, for example, Think Progress’s Igor Volsky, who compiled a list outlining exactly how much money conservative politicians have taken from gun rights groups. On MSNBC, Volsky said while it’s good to “think and pray,” the conservative politicians he’s referring to are paid by the NRA to “only think and pray about gun violence and not to do anything else about it.”
In other words, the backlash against “thoughts and prayers” isn’t meant to drive a wedge between praying and the Left, but between the ineffective, thumb-twiddling Right and the Left that is ready and able to implement change. In case you’d forgotten, the Right aren’t the only ones keeping the culture wars alive and well.
Using prayer in this rhetorical way is gross. Plenty of liberals, including Obama and Clinton, are more than willing to offer their prayers in moments of tragedy. Even Bernie Sanders, at the end of his speech at Liberty University, bowed his head in respect while his host offered to pray on stage with him. Prayer is not a partisan matter and shouldn’t be used as a political prop to divide us. Indeed, prayer is one of the only things that unites all of us, regardless of race or class or sexuality or even religious differences. Shame on the Daily News for taking something that billions of people across the globe hold sacred and spinning it to make a political point on the heels of tragedy.
Even though the article was intended to invalidate the GOP, it had a far more chilling effect: invalidating prayer. A quick perusal on Twitter will reveal a plethora of witticisms jumping off the Daily News cover story that take the formula of pitting “prayer” against “doing something.” For example, this gem from Think Progress’ Zack Ford:
Try this:— Zack Ford (@ZackFord) December 2, 2015
Look up Einstein's definition of "insanity."
Start acting on gun violence prevention measures.
That, presumably, wasn’t worded strongly enough for him so he doubled down: “If you think talking to the voice in your head is helping anyone but yourself, you’re wrong. I’m not going to be bashful about saying so.” (It’s worth noting here that despite its number of retweets, Ford’s criticism of prayer is a minority position in America. Recent polls show that more than half of us, 58 percent, pray every day, and an overwhelming majority of us, 83 percent, believe God answers our prayers.)
When those engaging in prayer-shaming pit prayer against costly action, they demonstrate how little they know of either. (What does it cost a hip digital journalist to criticize prayer on Twitter? How does his criticism bring us one step closer to ending gun violence? Answers: Nothing, and it doesn’t.)
James Martin, noted author and Jesuit priest, said in an e-mail that the Daily News story “ranks up there with one of the least intelligent things the Daily News has ever said.” Martin particularly took issue with the word “fix,” which the Daily News invokes to bifurcate praying and taking action. “How does God fix things?” Martin asks. “By inspiring men and women to take action. How else would God act other than through us?”
Pope Francis has often made similar points. There’s an apocryphal quote attributed to him that says, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That is how prayer works.” Whether or not he actually said that, it sounds like classic Francis. In a 2013 Sunday Angelus message to an audience in St. Peters Square, the Pontiff warned that “prayer that doesn’t lead to concrete action toward our brothers is a fruitless and incomplete prayer.” At the same time, he added, work that is undertaken without “dialogue with God in prayer” risks being self-serving. “Prayer and action must always be profoundly united.”
This is something the ancients understood well. Jesus’ famous prayer, the Our Father, is both petitionary and prophetic — he asks God to bring about great change on earth, and then he goes and does all he can to bring about that change. So he teaches his followers to pray that God gives them bread, then he miraculously provides them with it. Likewise, he teaches his followers to pray to be delivered from evil, then he casts out their demons. “Thy Kingdom come,” he cried to Heaven. And then he acted on Earth.
To pray is to place oneself humbly and physically in the world, to realize our finiteness, and to renew our commitment to loving all of our global neighbors as if they belonged to us — because they do belong to us, and we to them.
And while it’s egregiously misleading to draw a line between prayer and gun violence, it isn’t that much of a stretch to draw one from hatred to murder. We are sadly a hate-filled culture, and from where I sit, some of our leading headline writers are practically giddy to capitalize on that.
Brandon Ambrosino is a writer and professional dancer.