The recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino have functioned as a wake-up call to the dangers of radical Islamic terrorism. Yet more surprising than the attacks themselves (in many ways, not shocking at all) was the backlash on social media to the idea that we should pray for the victims.
Expressing thoughts and prayers in times of tragedy used to be pretty safe territory, sort of like saying “thank you” for a favor or “I’m sorry” for an offense. It is – or at least used to be – the standard response.
Not this time. While thousands offered thoughts and prayers in solidarity with the victims, others disparaged such prayers as meaningless and condemned their offerors as hypocrites. A better response, they argued, would be to politicize the tragedy to push a gun control agenda before the blood had even time to dry.
Consider for a moment the rudeness of such behavior. Few would reject a gift offered in good faith. But accusing those who pray for others is like ripping a gift out of the hands of its recipient and stomping on it in front of both the giver and receiver. When someone has just been injured or lost a loved one, they usually don’t solicit your policy analysis. A woman whose son has just died on the operating table isn’t interested in your opinion on what the surgeon should have done. A man whose wife has just died in a car accident does not care to hear your thoughts on car safety, at least not as he holds her hand for the last time.
Now that the victims of San Bernardino terrorist attack have had the chance to speak out, many have specifically requested prayers. As far as I know, none have called for gun control – the knee-jerk liberal response to all violence where guns are involved, even if bombs are also used or planned to be used, as was the case in both attacks.
Why is prayer preferable to politicization?
First, prayer unites, whereas politics by its very nature divides. We should all condemn violence – whether it is the result of a terrorist attack, a criminal act, or a mass shooter. We should all comfort grieving victims. But we don’t always agree on the underlying causes of violence, much less what specific laws or policies would best prevent it.
Second, prayers are offered from a position of humility, whereas tragedies are politicized from a position of arrogance. The Oxford Dictionary defines prayer as “a solemn request for help or expression of thanks addressed to God or an object of worship.” Thus, someone offering prayers makes the following assumptions:
- I need (or somebody else needs) help.
- I am blessed in many ways.
- I am not able to do this on my own.
- God is the source of all blessings, and He alone can fulfill our needs.
Every step of this assumption tree requires humility. In the final step, we acknowledge that we are not the most powerful beings in existence, but rather subject to God’s authority and the recipients of His divine mercy. Perhaps this irritates the politicizers most of all, who like to consider themselves the all-powerful, all-merciful elites. They would prefer we come to government with our problems and thank government for our deliverance. Their assumption tree looks something like this:
- I need (or somebody else needs) help.
- I am (or the government is) more intelligent than the average person.
- People can’t be trusted to make decisions on their own.
- Government is the source of all blessings, and it alone can fulfill our needs.
Notice how the first step is the same, but every subsequent step requires an abundance of arrogance.
It is no secret that we tend to pray the most when going through particularly difficult situations. In moments of extreme stress or danger, even atheists are likely to be caught praying that God exists and that He respond to their need. Intuitively, even non-believers understand that government is not going to help them find their lost car keys, get that new job, or make it through surgery successfully. But God just might.
While we need God’s help all the time, we are most likely to realize it when we are feeling particularly helpless. Praying for others when we ourselves are not directly threatened is a way of both acknowledging our blessings and asking God’s help for our fellow man. Circumstances have already brought them to their knees, be they friends, acquaintances, or complete strangers. When we pray, we get down on our knees with them.
Prayer is not magic. We do not believe that the right combination of ritual or incantation will give us the power over nature that only rightly belongs to God. However, prayer is not fatalist, and it is not passive. When we pray, we are not sitting on our hands waiting for God to do the job. “I’ll pray for you,” does not imply, “Stop whatever you’re doing; God will fix it!” Rather, prayer inspires action. Christians believe we are called to use our time and talents to serve one another, and every year millions of Christians around the world do just that.
Ironically, it is the Twitter and Facebook “slactivists” who seem to think that voicing their opinion on gun control and calling for more government regulation absolves them of the need for further personal action. While Christians open their pockets every year to support thousands of deserving charities, secular liberals lobby for government redistribution.
That we have differing responses to tragedy is to be expected, but why are the politicizers so irritated by the pray-ers?
First, many people are actively hostile to religion, and to the Christian faith in particular. They have succeeded in driving religion out of public life and prayer out of our schools, but it is still not enough. The fact that they can’t control what is going on in our minds – the possibility that we might be thinking “wrong” thoughts beyond their power to correct – bothers them in a way that should truly frighten supporters of the First Amendment.
Second, some people seem to think that by praying for one person or group of people, we are leaving out others who might be more deserving. When people started voicing prayers for Paris, some condemned them for not praying for Beirut (as if they somehow knew this was not the case).
Should we pray for all victims of tragedy, whether they be in Africa, Europe, or the Middle East? Of course, and many American Christians do just that. Last Easter, my church prayed for the victims of the Garissa massacre in Kenya long after its news slipped from the headlines. Certainly if prayer fell under the authority of the federal government, there would be an entire bureaucracy set up to evaluate whose need was more deserving. Fortunately, God’s grace is infinite, thus obviating the need for man to regulate it. Unlike government largesse, there is always enough supply to meet the demand.
But the real reason for the prayer-shamer’s distress is competition. For while Christians worship God, many liberals worship the State. They are the high priests and followers of a secular religion, the new magicians claiming a power over nature that Christians long ago left to God.