Magazines 2017 Nov - Dec Just "thoughts and prayers"?

Just "thoughts and prayers"?

14 November 2017 By John G. Stackhouse Jr.

On the need for words to lead to action

When Hurricane Harvey struck the Caribbean and southern and eastern United States in August 2017, homes and neighbourhoods were devastated and many lives lost. PHOTO: DIIMSA RESEARCHER / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

In the wake of the Las Vegas massacre, but also of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, José and Maria, our American cousins heard a lot about "thoughts and prayers" from their leaders. Then in an impressive wave of outrage, countless columnists, critics and comedians scoffed at what had become an odious cliché.

But what’s wrong with thoughts and prayers?

The main line of attack seemed to be against legislators who would once again fail to take any serious action against the widespread private ownership of guns. Victims and their grieving families do not want politicians to "think and pray" so much as they want them to do their jobs to protect innocents from machine-gun wielding madmen.

Likewise, what the devastated citizens of Texas, Florida and the Caribbean need is not for politicians to think and pray for them, but to help them with substantial assistance to rebuild their wrecked lives.

In such horrible situations it’s natural to ask why God didn’t intervene to save more people, or even to prevent such evils from occurring at all. But after these events those questions weren’t nearly as common as they usually are.

It’s as if many North Americans have finally realized the God most of us believe in – the God of Jews and Christians – doesn’t treat adults as children. Stopping at "thoughts and prayers" can amount to referring the problem conveniently to God, when God expects adults to take responsibility.

And God often allows it to be obvious when we don’t take responsibility – so eventually we will.

It’s a sad truth that long-delayed action does finally occur after a tragedy. A stop sign parents wanted for years gets put up only after a six-year-old is hit by a car. Safety regulations are approved only after a major lawsuit is filed after someone’s death. And laws governing house construction, disaster response, gun control and all the rest seem to wait until enough of the right people have suffered and died.

Is that God’s fault? Hardly. Mother Teresa, when asked about where God was in the face of the poverty and death in Kolkata, replied, "Where are you?"

Thoughts and prayers are necessary, yes, to assess what’s really gone wrong and what needs to be done to remedy it. What must not happen is what often does happen – a tidal surge of popular sentiment presses politicians to adopt measures that placate their constituents, but don’t actually address the problem.

So yes, we need both thinking and praying. But then we need acting. We need leadership, not just the "followership" of the poll-watching puppet. We elect legislators, and we pay for them and their staffs and the whole civil service, so they will see things we don’t and make better decisions than we can.

Enough, then, of condolences so easily expressed in the wake of disaster. Feelings not channelled into action remain mere sentimentality – the illusion of sympathy without the righting of wrong authentic solidarity entails.

A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among thieves. They beat him and robbed him and left him for dead. Two clergymen came along, saw him and passed by on the other side.

A Samaritan also came along, however, and upon seeing the bleeding man immediately sat down opposite him to think and pray. And having done so, the not-so-good Samaritan went on his way.

We ourselves must improve our response to tragedy. Strongly worded posts on Facebook don’t put any roofs over heads, meals into hungry stomachs or guns behind locked doors. Things don’t generally change because people comment on them, let alone think and pray about them, but because people get busy and change them.

And we need to demand our leaders demonstrate they are in fact thinking and praying to take action, not just posing and placating while waiting for the Next Big News Story to occupy us and let them off the hook.

Otherwise, we need to think and pray – that they will soon be replaced.



John Stackhouse is professor of religious studies at Crandall University. Find more of these columns at