Is offering prayers unhelpful?

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In the wake of the recent attack at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, one of my friends posted an article suggesting that the important thing to do in this situation was to pray. A couple of people responded saying they were unhappy with the post, and my friend asked my perspective. I thought I might also post some thoughts on the topic here.

I often find that people are upset by the idea of offering prayers or ‘prayers and thoughts’ because it seems very inconsequential when what is needed is practical change in gun laws and in people’s treatment of each other. Especially for people who don’t believe in prayer. It can also come across like we are trying to push faith on others. I note that in Jesus’ advice about praying he said we should keep quiet about it.

I wonder whether we also need to consider what we mean by prayer if we talk about prayer. When we talk about prayer we might mean that we are asking God to intervene in a situation, it might mean lighting a candle for someone, it might mean lectio divina, it might mean praying in tongues, it might mean directing loving thoughts. However, I have a sense that when we talk about prayer many people will presume that we are talking about asking God to intervene in a situation, and I think this opens up a can of worms, especially in the wake of tragedy.

If we say we believe that God intervenes in the world, why did God not intervene to stop Omar Marteen on the weekend? (Indeed, why does God not intervene to prevent the suffering and death that occurs every day?) The most obvious answer seems to be that either God is not able to intervene or that God can intervene but doesn’t. If we are saying that we are praying for the situation, I think it’s likely that this will come across as though we believe God could have intervened but didn’t.

What I think people often mean is that they are directing loving thoughts or ‘good vibes’ toward the people effected by the situation, and I think this is less problematic. I think a less confusing and upsetting way of talking about this is to talk about about keeping the situation in our thoughts or minds – and that is the kind of language I normally use. This isn’t about being politically correct, but about observing what different language communicates.

Lastly, James (generally understood to be the brother of Jesus) more or less says that our faith isn’t seen in our prayers but in our work. So I think that it is fine to be seen offering spiritual support, but it’s also important that it goes along with working for fair treatment. It’s not okay to just meditate or pray, we also need to listen to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer people who have been attacked in this extreme way but have also been discriminated against in much more mundane ways from day to day. We need to listen and consider how we have contributed to this treatment, and how we might change our behaviour.

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