By Jason Whitehead 6-17-2016

“Thoughts and prayers” are our safe words. We utter them when we are sympathetic but don’t know what to do with what we feel; when we feel helpless, but know that we should help; and when we are trying to remember what it means to be faithful when we are faced with overwhelming tragedy.

In moments when I want to feel safe, there are no other safer words than “My thoughts and prayers are with you (and your family, friends, city, etc.).” I’ve said them to families when a loved one lies at the cusp of death; I’ve offered them without thought or follow through when tragedy strikes people close to me. It’s what I do when I feel helpless to do anything. It’s not that I intend malice with those words — I just want to get on with the life in front of me, and if you and your trauma and pain occupy too much space, that might cause me to change.

As I reflect on its use today (and my own in the past) the expression “thoughts and prayers” is exasperating to me as a theologian and pastor. Placing these two words side by side reveals a simple fact about prayer that is untenable in this day and age: When thoughts are equated with prayers, no action or empathy is necessary. Prayer becomes a part of a thought project rather than a transformative moment whereby one realizes their culpability for or participation in spreading systems of injustice, asks for mercy, and seeks to remedy or change the ways in which they participate in the world by being present with those who are oppressed and dehumanized.

“Thoughts and prayers” have become words we tweet when we don’t want anything to change (especially ourselves), or when the pain is too great, but we still want to be listened to by others. They are words that pacify our own culpability within a system that dehumanizes and marginalizes certain groups of people. I know. I am a straight white man who has uttered them in intersectional places where they have no reason to exist. I have said them to make myself feel better; I am sorry, and I will do better.

I might have to feel the anger, frustration, hopelessness, or grief you experience at the hands of a system I benefit from. I might have to examine my own life and how portions of it are derived from the power and privilege of my station and cultural signifiers. In short, I might have to change, and become uncomfortable as I begin to see you as another person who lives in spaces of discomfort and distress daily. As long as my thoughts and prayers are “for you,” I do not have to be “with you.”

The tweets of powerful (mostly) straight white men came streaming in almost immediately after the shootings in Orlando, Fla. In a stroke of brilliance someone on Twitter, @igorvolsky, retweeted every politician’s “thoughts and prayers” alongside the amount of money their campaigns received from the National Rifle Association. When we sit in positions of power and speak only in ways that maintain that power, are our thoughts really with the people in our country whose lives are targeted? The words — that could hold power — here become a powerless platitude.

In Luke 18: 9-14, we see the emptiness of prayers that pander and seek to make oneself look good before God and our constituents. There are no greater rewards for the Pharisee in that story — the self-congratulatory thoughts and prayers have served their function. But it’s the prayer of the publican — one of confession, mercy, and intent to change — that rings resoundingly in that moment.

For prayer to have meaning, it must move beyond words, and cannot simply be equated with thoughts, which are often forgotten the moment they are spoken. Prayer is an act; it describes our participation in the pain and suffering of the world and a desire for something different. Prayer, to mean something, must become a co-creative call to change one’s own heart and actions in relationship to God and world.

Two members of the congressional delegation from Connecticut embodied a different way of responding to the tragedies of mass shootings we have witnessed in our recent history. Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), a Presbyterian (USA) Elder, protested the moment of silence in the House of Representatives to honor the Orlando shooting victims and the hypocrisy of these empty thoughts and prayers. He would later write in the Washington Post , “If the House of Representatives had a solitary moral fiber, even a wisp of human empathy, we would spend moments not in silence, but screaming at painful volume the names of the 49 whose bodies were ripped apart in Orlando, and the previous victims and the ones before them.” Likewise, on the Senator floor, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) began to filibuster the Senate proceedings to force a vote on gun legislation. After 15 hours, some of which included statements from the families of Sandy Hook, the party who controls the agenda agreed to hold a vote on universal background checks and closing loopholes in who can purchase guns. It appears that next week, we may finally see a vote.

The world does not need more self-soothing thoughts and prayers. Over time, they have proven ineffectual. Rather, the world needs prayers of confession and of action — prayers that bring about solidarity and commit us to one another as a beloved community.

Rev. Dr. Jason C. Whitehead is the Director of Consultation and Formation at Iliff School of Theology.

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