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Thoughts, prayers and human tragedy

Thoughts, prayers and human tragedy

Paul Bickley looks at the use of religion by politicians to duck responsibility.

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In his book, Blessed are the Organized: Grassroots Democracy in America, theologian and political theorist Jeffrey Stout gives an account of a community organiser’s experiences in the Houston Astrodome after Hurricane Katrina.

The organiser arrived in the stadium – which was hosting 13,000 refugees from New Orleans – to find a ‘circus’, with Dallas–based pastor TD Jakes and talk show host Oprah Winfrey taking turns to console the crowd.

Jakes’ message was in keeping with the gospel of abundance that has attracted thirty thousand members to his mega–church in Dallas: the good news is that God rewards the faithful, not only spiritually in the afterlife but also materially in this life. Given that the survivors had just been stripped of whatever material abundance they once had, [the organiser] found his message “very patronising”. The disaster that had befallen the Gulf Coast, Jakes implied, was a providential judgement on the faithless, as well as a test of faith for the faithful. “Just trust in God,” Renee remembers him telling the survivors. “Everything is going to be fine”.

To be fair to Jakes, his actions were better than his words. According to a profile in The Atlantic, Jakes sent nearly all of the church’s 360 employees and thousands of volunteers, set up hot lines for refugees, and raised nearly $3 million to help settle homeless New Orleans residents in apartments in Dallas.

Nevertheless, it’s a reminder that vague religious bromides in the context of human tragedy ought to be avoided.

Which brings us to the Parkland school shooting in Florida.

Representative Jim Himes, whose home state of Connecticut endured the deadly Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, was visibly frustrated in an interview with CNN yesterday. The political response to such shootings (the eighteenth occasion this year on which shots have been fired on the grounds of a US public school) has become “perfectly predictable”, he said. “There will be a moment of silence. People will wish everybody thoughts and prayers and sympathy for the victims, and then the Congress of the United States will do absolutely nothing… not a damn thing. This institution is not going to move. Twenty dead babies in Connecticut wasn’t enough to move the heart of this place”.

Social media, where most public debate plays out these days, is in a strange way an escape from politics – if politics is defined as the actual shaping of our a common life. These are platforms though which people get to/have to ‘say something’, to the point where it becomes exceptionable if they keep their fingers off the keyboard. All too often, that something is now ‘thoughts and prayers for…’, or in President Trump’s case on this occasion, ‘prayers and condolences’.

These seemingly religious utterances have become a placeholder for political action, a ducking of responsibility and avoidance of agency. It’s fully understandable why they are now mercilessly mocked (as someone said, “I named my cats Thoughts and Prayers… because they’re both useless”). They bring public religion into disrepute.

Perhaps a moratorium on ‘thoughts and prayers’ then? Well, it depends what you mean by prayer. If it’s just a way of people ‘sending positive thoughts’, of seeming to do something while in fact doing nothing, then yes. Let’s just stop it. If by prayers we mean reorientating ourselves in a world of brokenness, of taking responsibility before God to do our best to pursue justice, of reminding ourselves of how our neighbourhoods need serving, building, protecting, and of politicians remembering that the state bears the sword for a reason, then let’s have more of it.

In Houston, the community organiser encouraged a New Orleans pastor to save the microphone from the TD Jakes and Oprah. “I’m a believer”, he said to the huge crowd, “but I believe God expects us to do our part of the work too”. They gathered community leaders, the pastors prayed, identified the issues that were making 13,000 peoples’ hellish situation worse, and then they did something about them.

As the United States mourns the death of another 17 people, and sets itself for another iteration of a seemingly endless debate on whether everything that could have been done by the state to protect its citizens, has been done, let us pray that more US legislators stop offering up condolences and admit that it’s past time for action.

Image from wikimedia available in the public domain.

Paul Bickley

Paul Bickley

Paul is Head of Political Engagement at Theos. His background is in Parliament and public affairs, and he holds an MLitt from the University of St Andrews’ School of Divinity.

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Posted 15 February 2018

Donald Trump, Politics, Prayer


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