Culture

Parkland and the Continued Problem with Thoughts and Prayers

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Another mass shooting. More thoughts and prayers.

The Parkland massacre, once again, has brought us to our knees in anger and grief. As we are offering thoughts and prayers, it’s important to note that all “thoughts and prayers” are not created equal. Some lead to transformation. Others lead to a sentimentalized apathy.

As a pastor who spends many hours each week offering thoughts and prayers, I can’t help but see the triteness of this phrase in the face of ongoing massacres. As a culture, thoughts and prayers have become code for a sentimentalism that is sympathetic to tragedy, but apathetic to any kind of transformation.

The problem with the thoughts and prayers we offer are manifold. It’s possible that our thoughts and prayers are filled with unimaginative thoughts and disembodied prayers. Here are three ways I think our thoughts and prayers have worked against us.

As a pastor who spends many hours each week offering 'thoughts and prayers,' I can’t help but see the triteness of this phrase in the face of ongoing massacres. @richvillodas #Parkland Click To Tweet

1. Thoughts and prayers are often the sanitized ways to ingrain us in insanity

As Richard Foster has said, “To pray is to change.” To change our minds requires us to entertain the possibility that the way things have been done requires rethinking and reimagining. This is a significant aspect of prayer. The textbook definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly, and expecting different results. This has become the nature of things with thoughts and prayers. Certainly, in the moment, we are moved to tears, anger and, despair. But we go about our day without truly considering that prayer is a means to a new way of seeing reality.

We have taken a phrase that ought to be a catalyst for a new social imagination and have domesticated it to the sanctioning of the status quo. Related to this point, David Fitch on his Facebook page offers (what most might see as provocative and unrealistic) a way forward that requires a new way of seeing. He writes:

Before ‘guns’ and the 17 dead (and more wounded) at Parkland get tossed into the ideology machine, let Christians/every church commit to rid ourselves of our guns (take our guns- even if it’s only a certain kind – to the authorities and turn them over), and then let’s commit to refuse to vote for any person running for office who refuses to limit guns via legislation. This is a time for witness and then pushing gov’t to legislate a preservatory act of justice.

Whether this is the solution or not misses the point. Most will dismiss this as a strategy to take away one’s right to bear arms. Others will see it through a lens of fear, believing this strips the “good people” from killing the “bad people” in the event of a mass shooting. Whatever the conclusion we come to, this reifies the current state of things.

We need thoughts and prayers that help to offer a new way of seeing—not based on fear, but based on possibility. Brueggemann gets to this when he writes

The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.  The Prophetic Imagination.

This is what true thoughts and prayers are to produce in us.

2. Thoughts and prayers don’t take the reality of powers and principalities seriously

Prayer reminds us that because God in Christ is at work in the world, there is always hope for the life of the kingdom to continually break in. Let me say it like this: prayer is a power to resist resignation.

Prayer is also a way of resisting self-reliance. Prayer in the context of #Parkland and other tragedies is to remind us that “this kind of demon” (to use a phrase of Jesus) only comes out through prayer and fasting.

There are truly powers and principalities at work in the world. The persistent lack of willingness of some to reconsider sensible legislation is a sign of a stronghold of idolatry. The prevalence of mass shootings cannot be attributed alone to mental illness (though this is something that must be seriously addressed), but to a violent ecosystem that pervades our culture. Behind the violence and idolatry are powers and principalities. Prayer reminds us that the root of the confusion and resistance to change is deeper than we often think.

More than anything, the thoughts and prayers that are needed are to aid us to, in the words of Walter Wink, name, unmask, and engage the powers through the gospel.

The gospel is good news that exposes the false gods and ideologies that have held us captive to violence, in the most insidious and visibly abhorrent ways. Until our thoughts and prayers seriously lead us to identifying the larger, spiritual, and structural evil that exists, we will continue to treat symptoms—and not the root cause.

Until our thoughts and prayers seriously lead us to identifying the larger, spiritual, and structural evil that exists, we will continue to treat symptoms—and not the root cause. @richvillodas Click To Tweet

3. Thoughts and prayers are often disconnected from embodied engagement

This is probably the biggest issues with the contemporary usage of the term.

To speak of prayer as a Christian is to recognize the multidimensional aspect of it. True prayer requires some level of engagement. The luxury of “thoughts and prayers” is the ability to remain comfortably disengaged. When this happens, “thoughts and prayers” not so subtly reinforces the privatized, individualistic spirituality that characterizes most people of faith.

But thoughts and prayers are meant to help us move from the disconnected individualism to one committed to the common good of all.

On the day of this tragic shooting, we remembered the birthday, life, and legacy of Frederick Douglass. One of my favorite quotes from Douglass gets to the heart of this: “I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”

Minimally, and very practically, this means that we spend time learning more about the issues. It means we use our vote to redirect the current trajectory of our government in this area. It means we engage in discourse with others in a way that is civil and sensible.

The mass shooting epidemic in our country is multifaceted, polarizing, and requires a fresh look at the state of our thoughts and prayers. Until we do so, we will perpetuate the scourge that is our current reality, most depressingly, in the name of God.

The mass shooting epidemic in our country requires a fresh look at the state of our thoughts and prayers. Until then, we'll perpetuate the scourge that is our current reality, most depressingly, in the name of God. @richvillodas Click To Tweet
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