The shooting spree at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, started a repetition of a grim American ritual.
There is a mass shooting – 307 so far this year – followed by horror, grief and a social media offering of “thoughts and prayers” from elected officials, celebrities and regular folks.
But lately, a backlash also has followed, with some saying the expression of “thoughts and prayers” is a hollow gesture. Gun-control advocates, in particular, interpret the once benign “thoughts and prayers” as code for “Not now, not ever” from politicians who don’t act on implementing new gun-control restrictions.
Eventually, the shouting quiets down, but the division grows.
Many say that praying is far from a hollow gesture. Gathering with others to pray is seen as an especially powerful way to guide action so it can bring change, faith leaders say.
“It’s so easy to feel alone, especially in our society,” said Rabbi Jenny Solomon, one of two rabbis at Beth Meyer Synagogue in Raleigh. “Part of how we ultimately solve problems is through praying together. Prayer connects us, and that gives us strength and resolve to do what we need to do beyond prayer.
“These tragedies just highlight for us how much we need one another, and how much we need a spiritual tradition to rely on to support us when we are asking the biggest questions, like how we’re going to change society, how we’re going to survive suffering and move forward.”
Sometimes, people offer “thoughts and prayers” in response to tragedy because they don’t know what else to offer, says the Rev. Meghan Benson, chaplain of the Duke University Divinity School.
“Sometimes people who don’t even pray will say that, because they feel so helpless,” she said. “If you are not a praying person, it can feel trite” to have someone offer prayers on your behalf when you are grieving or struggling. “But for some people, the prayers of others people feel supportive.”
Prayer connects us, and that gives us strength and resolve to do what we need to do beyond prayer.
Rabbi Jenny Solomon
Faith and action
In the sacred spaces of churches, chapels, mosques, synagogues and seminaries, the news of each violent tragedy is quietly incorporated into another ritual that’s older than Twitter and Facebook, that predates semiautomatic weapons or guns of any kind.
It begins with, “Let us pray.”
On Thursday, Duke Divinity student Tim Holm gave the instruction to pray to about 20 classmates and professors who gathered for the daily Morning Prayer.
It’s a standing weekday event, open to all, held in the early light that pours through the Gothic tracery of Goodson Chapel’s soaring windows.
At 7:45 a.m., the double doors of the chapel close against the sounds of the divinity school coming to life for the day, and for a half-hour, the faithful talk to God.
Holm, 32 and a first-year divinity student, was raised in the Baptist church but revels in the Anglican, or Episcopalian, prayer forms that are used for Morning Prayer. This service consists of two Bible readings conducted by another volunteer from the school; group recitations from the Book of Common Prayer; and time for spoken or silent requests for God’s intercession on specific needs.
Those who attend gatherings like these say that praying is a way for them to connect to humanity, to one another and to God, and to learn to be his instruments on Earth.
In the context of the fight over gun control, prayer without action is seen by the left as a cynical diversion; action without prayer is seen by the right as callous opportunism.
For the person who prays, Benson said, “Offering prayer feels like something you can do, like sending out love and grief into the universe to show you are impacted and you’re thinking of other people. It’s a way to show solidarity.”
After Thursday’s Morning Prayer, Holm said he appreciates that the Anglican tradition begins with a prayer of confession, acknowledging what God’s people have done – and left undone – despite the Bible’s instruction.
After a tragedy, Holm said, people often ask God to intervene in a situation or to fix it.
“Sometimes we pray for God to do things that he has equipped us to do,” Holm said. “God’s chief instrument is us. So I need to pray that God would change me so that I can change the situation.”
Ellen Davis, Duke’s director of Episcopal Studies, said prayer, whether individually or collectively, spontaneous or scripted, “is not just an aimless tossing of ideas into the air. It is a timeless conversation with God. It’s part of being in a relationship. If you live with someone, you say, ‘Good morning,’ to them. Prayer is part of that ongoing conversation.”
People who practice it say there is a discipline to prayer that gives it purpose.
“It’s a difficult time we’re living in,” Davis said. “I understand why people flail and think that prayer is meaningless. It’s not meaningless. It’s not a substitute for doing something to reduce suffering. But often, it’s a good first step.”