Prayers from the People

Action from the Politicians
People stand near crosses Aug. 5, 2019, in honor of the victims of a mass shooting Aug. 3 at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas. (CNS photo/Callaghan O'Hare, Reuters)

In the wake of two mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, it seems the only right response is action. Twenty-two died in a Walmart at the hands of a 21-year-old white supremacist; hours later, nine died on a bustling street. “Do Something!” the people chant at Ohio governor Mike DeWine’s press conference, and post as hashtags on social media. The cry encapsulates the voice of a people desperate for basic gun regulations: background checks, red-flag laws, bans on assault-style weapons. Thoughts and prayers, meanwhile, are called cop-outs: meaningless, indifferent, even sinful condolences that express anguish without being willing to end it. Or at least, thoughts and prayers are seen as tepid, without action—a politician can share sorrow, but also must sponsor the bill. 

I’ve been thinking about the thoughts-and-prayers backlash, I think in part because of my connection to El Paso. My husband is from the border city; my in-laws and other friends and relatives live there. (All are safe.) I’ve felt overwhelmed by the details—the “mangled” injured, the parents who died shielding their baby, Trump’s thumbs-up near an orphaned infant, the shooter’s manifesto and confession (he came to kill Mexicans)—because it’s all unspeakably awful, but also because I love the place. It’s ripe with counterfactuals. What if my mother-in-law had gone to that mall to buy a new lamp that day, as she’d planned? Meanwhile, the web swirls with conspiracies, some shared by my relations in El Paso.

I feel helpless; the ways I can “Do Something!” are attenuated. That’s democracy. I can write letters to my Connecticut congressmen, but they already agree with me (we were the first state to pass a red-flag law, in 1999). I can march in a protest, if it’s happening nearby. But is that helpful, or performative? I can tweet, but I hate tweeting. (Perhaps a bad excuse, but true.) I can vote, but not until November, and only in my own blue state. I can not own an assault-style weapon. But that’s no great sacrifice for me.

Thoughts and prayers seem to be all I have. For me at least, they don’t feel like a cop-out, because critical thinking is taxing, and praying is really hard. Stillness, meditation, time “wasted” on the intangible—I struggle with prayer. I’m ashamed of that.

Citizens live in the world. But ironically, when it comes to problems as massive as gun violence, we live a kind of vita contemplativa.

But if I think of prayer as my task, my assignment, then it feels like action, like something. I let my mind roam over El Paso: green chile enchiladas, pecan trees, Spanish and English on the boulevards, cowboy boots and mission-style churches. Cumbia on the radio, the dry Rio Grande, an almost-constant sunshine. I pray for the city’s protection, its preservation. There are so many things to ask for. That physical wounds stay clean, that surgeons get creative. That orphans grow up nurtured. That the shooter is brought to justice. That gun laws pass, conspiracies quiet, violence halts, racism withers. These are wishes so deep they feel naive. But formulating them—speaking them, writing them down—feels like something. 

Maybe it’s not thoughts and prayers that are the problem, but rather who claims to offer them up—whose function in society it is to provide them. Only some of us “people” will be activists, doctors, immigration lawyers, politicians. But all of us should be petitioners. This happens on public forums, but also, corny as it sounds, in our hearts. When we lose thoughts and prayers, or dismiss them as impotent, we lose the most direct access to change most of us have. Our role is to cry out; to formulate the soul of a nation; to stir and offer up longing.

Politicians should also think, and if they believe in it, pray. But they’ve got another job, too—one that deals in laws, money, power. They lead the vita activa (they asked for it, we gave it to them) and so, from their mouths, “thoughts and prayers” is a dodge. The politician’s job is different than mine.

Do something! Wishful thinking can be idle. But prayer actually isn’t. Though I know “thoughts” is used as a secular equivalent, meant to denote remembrance and reflection, praying is actually something different: a speech act. Prayers, prayed rightly, are disciplined, efficacious, outward-facing; they expect some kind of result. They are the sites of our deepest desires, the ones that feel silly voiced in any other context; the quiet words where we catalyze facts into requests, and believe beyond hope that they must be answered. That wars find resolutions. That addictions are broken. That hunger ceases to exist. That the earth cools. That coral reefs bloom. The stuff of corny songs, bright-eyed speeches: but also, most authentically, prayers.

Citizens live in the world. But ironically, when it comes to problems as massive as gun violence, we live a kind of vita contemplativa. We take the forms of action available to us—voting, organizing—but we also operate like monks, asking God for mercy. Ora et labora. We plead with our leaders, and draw strength from petitioning Someone greater than them: asking, begging, for help.

Katherine Lucky is the Managing Editor of Commonweal. Follow her on Twitter @katherinejlucky.

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