Many commentators have disparaged the thoughts and prayers of people of faith in this country in the aftermath of a highly publicized rampage killing. I understand that they are frustrated with what they perceive as an unacceptably negligent legislative response to these events. In the tragedy of the moment they want immediate and decisive action from legislators to prevent future tragedies.
But I’ve noticed that compared to other recent mass shootings, like the one at a high school in Florida earlier this year, the disparagement of thoughts and prayers was muted over the weekend. That might be because the victims were people of faith at prayer at the time they were attacked, and there can be no doubt that their grieving families are thinking of them and praying right now.
I would like to point out today that even though it was less obvious because the shooting took place at a high school and not a synagogue, there can be little doubt that at least some of the victims’ families in Parkland, Florida were praying this February as well when their loved ones were taken from them, and are praying today as other families suffer from the same tragedy.
Pew studies show that three out of four Americans pray at least every month, and more than half of us pray every day. So for those who don’t understand why, who are frustrated by the calls for thoughts and prayers when these violent episodes befall a community, and who don’t know what to say today, I want to explain how prayer can make a difference.
I understand that to its critics, the idea of prayer as a sort of magic spell to ward off misfortune seems dangerously, even offensively and willfully naive. But that’s the critics’ own perception of the meaning and intention behind prayer– and their own misunderstanding. That’s not what people who offer their thoughts and prayers in times of tragedy like this think they’re doing.
For people of faith, prayer is taking a moment to aim themselves at the highest possible ideal and to orient their lives toward the greatest and most universal possible good that they can imagine and to personally commit their daily lives to that end.
Prayer is a moment to be grateful for all the good in their lives and to remember it even in the darkest times; it is a moment to consider and examine their own individual shortcomings– how they personally have contributed to making the world worse in any way, or failed to make it better when they could have; a moment to humble themselves and to forgive the world its trespasses, letting go of any grudges or resentments they have against others.
That’s what people of faith mean when they say they are offering their thoughts and prayers to the families of victims of terrible tragedies. And that is not empty, or pointless, or even the least they can do. They are actually offering to do the most they can– they are dedicating their entire lives to making a better world.
You see this is something many politicians just won’t say, who want to believe or want you to believe that their domain encompasses all of life and human existence, and that they can completely solve any and every problem with a legislative policy:
You just don’t hear many politicians saying that we just need to be kinder to each other (kindness literally means treating each other like family). That we need to be kinder to ourselves. That we need to love ourselves and each other more. That there isn’t a law or an entire stack of laws that can help us if we don’t each individually strive to cultivate our own character and be a virtuous people.
Who can say how many personal failings of how many people, how many individual abuses and unkindnesses, how many individual failures of strength, and virtue, and courage, how many ongoing lies and manipulations, how many terrible attitudes and actions going back for generations, accumulated, and added up to what this man did in Pittsburgh over the weekend?
And who can say how many future tragedies will be averted by families and communities gathering together and lowering their heads before an ideal that is so high above them, committing each individually to let go of grudges and to be kinder to each other?