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What is the thoughtful and necessary reaction in the wake of yet another deadly attack on innocents? For many, it is to pray, and for many of those, to share their “thoughts and prayers” publicly. Shortly after yesterday’s horrific attack in San Bernardino, California, anger at the often repeated calls for thoughts and prayers began to surface on social media.

From the Huffington Post:

In short, basically anyone with a Twitter account shared thoughts and prayers in the immediate aftermath of the latest shooting. Which is kind of them to do, of course, but probably not enough to stop the next one.

The Washington Post has a round-up of one particular port in the Twitter storm:

Igor Volsky, who is the director of video and an editor at the left-leaning media outlet Think Progress, seized the opportunity, first by criticizing politicians for not supporting stricter gun legislation and instead offering only words of support, then by calling politicians out by responding to their sympathetic tweets with details about the money their campaigns have received from the NRA. 

The Atlantic calls this reaction “prayer shaming,” and sees a decidedly partisan political edge to the anger:

There’s a clear claim being made here, and one with an edge: Democrats care about doing something and taking action while Republicans waste time offering meaningless prayers. These two reactions, policy-making and praying, are portrayed as mutually exclusive, coming from totally contrasting worldviews. Elsewhere on Twitter, full-on prayer shaming set in: Anger about the shooting was turned not toward the perpetrator or perpetrators, whose identities are still unknown, but at those who offered their prayers.


This cynicism offers a view into just how much religion and politics have changed in the United States. Prayer and political action have a deeply entwined history in America. From civil rights to women’s suffrage, nearly every social-justice movement has had strong supporters from religious communities—U.S. history is littered with images like the one of pastors and rabbis marching on Selma, side by side with political activists.

After last week’s attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic, President Obama tackled the issue of prayer and political action head-on:

On Saturday, he said Americans could not “offer up our thoughts and prayers” for the families of the dead police officer and of the two other victims of the shooting “with a truly clean conscience” unless they also pushed for changes to make it harder to get guns.

He added a blessing for the dead at the end of his remarks.

Episcopalians Against Gun Violence offers this via Facebook:

Bishop Stephen Lane of the Episcopal Diocese of Maine offers a litany for the Gun Violence Sabbath. In the wake of the shootings in Colorado Springs, Savannah and San Bernardino, you might find it helpful right now.

From that Litany:

God of Justice, help us, your church, find our voice. Empower us to change this broken world and to protest the needless deaths caused by gun violence. Give us power to rise above our fear that nothing can be done and grant us the conviction to advocate for change.

For your dream of love and harmony, Loving God,
Make us instruments of your peace.

The Guardian reports that there have been 1052 mass shootings in the United States in 1066 days, that is, since the beginning of 2013- mass shootings being defined as four or more people shot in one incident. There have been more than 350, that is, more than one a day, so far this year. Yesterday, as events were still unfolding inside the Inland Regional Center, the paper reported on a text sent from a woman inside the building to her father:

“Shooting at my workplace. People shot. In the office waiting for cops.

Pray for us.”

Picture: New York Daily News front page, December 3rd, 2015



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Paul Woodrum

Episcopalians do have a Catechism that goes beyond belief and faith being simply a matter of individual opinion. Prayer is simply defined as “responding to God, by thought and by deed, with or without words.” A nod to St. Francis there but also reminding us that both thought and deed are parts of our prayer.

JC Fisher

St Benedict had it right: ora et labora. Pray AND Work. Never one w/o the other. Pray how to work better. Work, and learn how to pray better. Continually.

Cynthia Katsarelis

Amen, JC Fisher.

Philip B. Spivey

Professing prayer in today’s world serves two purposes: To summon the best of ourselves with the help of God —and—to summon an appearance of piety and caring where none exists.

Like all good things, “professions of prayer” has been co-opted to conceal a multitude of sins. The worst sin? Doing nothing.

Jos. S. Laughon

It seems roughly 99-100% of those who criticized “thoughts and prayers” as “not doing anything” usually themselves post FB statuses that literally do nothing. It’s just an odd form of secular virtue signalling.

Marshall Scott

By the way, I looked at your blog site. I just couldn’t figure out whether the whiskey was something you were “fighting against” or something you had in a “vice grip.” Blessings.

Jos. S. Laughon

“Also whiskey” is meant to be a separate statement in general. I tend to gently, but snugly grip a tumbler of whiskey.

Marshall Scott

Brother Laughon, you point to a matter of interest and dispute: is there value to social media activism. On the one hand, it seems to go nowhere. On the other, there are instances – some events in the Occupy movement, some events of the Arab Spring, and, arguably, turnout of new and young voters in 2008 and 2012 – where it is the connection through social media that does inspire actual action in the world. We claim that social media can be that channel for messages we fear, as in the social media activities of the self-styled Islamic State or Al Qaida. Why not appreciate those media as channels for messages we approve? Can’t call one a dangerous weapon and the other toothless, or so it seems to me.

Jos. S. Laughon

If so, then professing prayer publicly is in fact “doing something” and thus should not be discounted by those who engage in this genuinely strange prayer shaming.

Shirley O'Shea

I don’t understand this. “Secular virtue signaling.” Does it mean that when people are calling and even working for economic justice, they are secular? Is this a secular virtue? Was Dorothy Day secular? Of course not – she was a very devout woman. And you wouldn’t know my FB posts – I am not on Facebook? As for the 99-100%, I trust you gave yourself a wide margin of error.

Cynthia Katsarelis

“Virtue signalling???” This is INSANE. Promoting the cause of reasonable gun legislation, whether on a bumper sticker, on FaceBook, advocating for it to politicians, or voting appropriately is not “virtue signalling.” It’s called advocacy. It is working for justice and peace as we are called to do by Jesus, by Micah, and in our Baptismal Covenant.

So what is obstruction of reasonable gun laws. Unvirtue signalling? Narcisstism? Delusional thinking (that being armed keeps the government in line or that armed citizens can stop these massacres)?

Jos. S. Laughon

It absolutely is virtue signalling. I would be willing to put a very serious Vegas style bet that virtually none of those (including the editors of NY Daily News) who shamed those who professed prayers did a single thing for anyone.

Shirley O'Shea

My husband and I call virtue signaling bumper sticker activism. But I don’t think criticizing people who pledge their thoughts and prayers, but refuse repeatedly to act, is virtue signaling. It is an attempt to hold accountable spineless politicians. You have really, really got to watch your generalizations.

Jos. S. Laughon

“Virtue signalling” is a phrase coined by James Bartholomew and popularized by Libby Purves. It means people who engage in behavior to signal how “virtuous” they are. A religious example of this would be the behavior Jesus criticizes before teaching us how to pray. A secular example is, say, placing an NPR sticker on your car, even though one does not listen very much, because it signals to others how conscious or virtuous one is because one fits in the in group. Political examples would be people uselessly bashing the out-group, not because those views mean very much but as a form of preening.

The point is that people criticize professing prayer, in part*, because it “does nothing,” while themselves engaging in a secular form of virtue signalling; doing nothing while preening about their own righteousness, albeit a secular form.

*the other part is the fact there are some sectors of culture that genuinely dislike religion showing up in popular life and the common square because it threatens them and how they live.

Wayne Rollins

All too often, we want our prayers heard in order to fix something in someone else. But that’s not the prayer that we need. It’s sad that our inaction on so many matters of economic, social, and spiritual justice really betrays that we really do have the society and church that we want, created in our own images of instant gratification and fear-filled revenge. We cannot pray for a change in gun violence and then turn around and vote back into office the same politicians who refuse to take action. We cannot work for economic justice and then support those who want to criminalize feeding the poor every election day. Until we become the living, breathing, acting prayers we pray, and after that, give the rest up to God in our helplessness, we deceive ourselves and those for whom we pray. It isn’t prayer shaming. It’s our shame that we still “do not know how to pray as we ought.”

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