by Jonathan Pye.
On 1st October 2017, 59 people were killed and 500 wounded when a gunman opened fire on a crowd attending a music festival in Las Vegas, Nevada. Although reported as the largest mass shooting by a lone gunman in US history, it was also simply the latest in a long litany of fatal shootings in that country that over just the last 20 years has included places like Columbine High School, Virginia Tech., Sandy Hook, Fort Hood and Orlando. The assailant was neither young, nor black, poor nor radicalised. He was a 64 year old accountant, living in a retirement complex. It remains unknown why this seemingly unremarkable man amassed an armoury or used it to such deadly effect. In the days that followed we heard, time and again, from elected officials the usual familiar clichés in the face of such tragic and large-scale killings.
Two days after the shooting Kirsten Powers wrote in an article in the Washington Post – “Why ‘thoughts and prayers’ is starting to sound so profane”. Although herself, ‘a person who prays and who has been prayed for and knows its power’ she wrote:
It’s become a sort of twisted American ritual: A lone white male shooter opens fire on a crowd of people. Americans cry out for someone to do something and are met with shoulder shrugs, mumblings about ‘the price of freedom’ and assurances that the people elected to protect them are sending their “thoughts and prayers.” Politicians have managed to make a once benign, if not comforting, phrase sound almost profane.[i]
What she objects to particularly is the way in which civic and national leaders ‘spiritualise’ the problem by praying for victims rather than offering any practical response or effective action.
Her colleague, Colby Itkowitz, writing after the 2016 nightclub shooting in Orlando described this as ‘a too easy, even insincere, display of empathy in absence of real action…’[ii] While both would agree that prayer can be efficacious both as an expression of empathy for the victims and a way of finding meaning in the face of brutality, nonetheless both would contend that ‘thoughts and prayers’ alone can simply be an evasion of the responsibility to act in the face of wrongdoing. Without action, prayer becomes merely a self-directed act – it makes the pray-er feel better, rather than being something that seeks to help those who are prayed for or to change the way things are. Such observations are charged with both psychological and theological insight.
In his book, Zero Degrees of Empathy[iii] Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of developmental psychopathology in the University of Cambridge, seeks to understand why some people act in ways that demonstrate great cruelty while others are completely self-sacrificing (the kind of contrasting behaviour that we observe in the difference between the shooter and those who covered the bodies of friends or relatives with their own bodies to prevent them from being injured). Baron-Cohen asks whether rather than thinking in terms of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ we ought rather to consider everyone as lying somewhere along an ‘empathy spectrum’.
Without minimising the effects of either ‘nature’ or ‘nurture’, I would resist Baron-Cohen’s too deterministic thesis that our position on that spectrum is largely determined by both our genes and our environment because it leaves little place for moral responsibility. This is why President Trump’s description of the gunman, Stephen Paddock, as ‘pure evil’ leaves me so uncomfortable. By describing someone as personifying ‘evil’ we render that person ‘other’, unlike ‘us’, and so places a distance between us. As a theologian, I agree with Baron-Cohen’s psychological insight that we are all capable of acts of great cruelty and great compassion and so I would argue that we share a moral obligation to go beyond ‘thoughts and prayers’ and to act in ways that promote the common good. While we may never fully prevent the killer’s actions, we may nonetheless, act positively to change a culture in which violence is endemic and the means to enact it are so readily available[iv] Theologically, this reflects a proper understanding of Augustine’s theory of ‘original sin’, not that we inherit the sinfulness of our parents but that by participation in a common humanity we all bear some measure of responsibility for what happens around us. This why Augustine could say, ‘Hope has two beautiful daughters, Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are’ because in Miroslav Volf’s words, ‘Theology is not only about understanding the world; it is about mending the world.’[v]
[iii] Baron-Cohen, S. (2011) Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty and Kindness. London: Penguin.
[iv] Extending this argument to include consideration of the increasing use of motor vehicles etc., deliberately to effect mass casualties or deaths lies beyond the immediate cope of this short article.
[v] Volf, M. (2011) A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good. Brazos Press.
9 thoughts on “Thoughts and Prayers”
I don’t often say I’ll pray for you now – I do sometimes say I am thinking of you. Both seem fairly empty statements. And yet the fact that I have said them does seem to prompt me into some kind of action. What can I do? Is there any practical way that I can serve to alleviate or highlight a certain situation. For me it brings into question the whole idea of prayer and what is is for. In silence I may obtain more clarity and focus, which then allows me to find ways of living out my prayers rather than simply putting words to them. The words / thoughts should be a prompt to ensure action and change.
Some of us are pray-ers and some are activists; the world needs both.
Prayer can and often does lead to action but action without prayer is often just an attempt to control and manipulate.
Thank you Jonathan. You are right, ‘faith without works in dead’!
Thank you for your challenging words here Jonathan. We’re asking searching questions in the Chaplaincy Team at City, University of London about how to offer a meaningful response when another tragedy strikes. The repeated official University statements along with the offering of the Chaplaincy space for a vigil begins to feel almost automated and somehow less authentic. But equally to say and do nothing… Difficult times.
‘Baron-Cohen asks whether rather than thinking in terms of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ we ought rather to consider everyone as lying somewhere along an ‘empathy spectrum’… ‘Without minimising the effects of either ‘nature’ or ‘nurture’, I would resist Baron-Cohen’s too deterministic thesis that our position on that spectrum is largely determined by both our genes and our environment because it leaves little place for moral responsibility.’
We are discovering that many things we thought were black and white (like male and female) are indeed on a spectrum. Perhaps we could address huge issues of ‘evil’ like the recent shooting by looking closer to home ensuring we do not judge too harshly the drug addict, the sex offender, the thug, recognising the possibilities for each of us to fail and for each offender to be redeemed. I cannot answer for degrees of ‘moral responsibility’ and how far individuals are capable of exercising it for themselves – I suspect that too is on a spectrum. A meaningful response may be to begin where we are – accepting there is no relevant response other than accepting we are all lepers in need of healing.
Thank you, particularly Joyce. I find your comments helpful. There is a time for ‘just’ praying and for the person(s) to know that you are thinking of them, but also a time for action, based on prayer and not a knee jerk reaction to ‘evil’.
As a father of an autistic son and a great reader of Baron-Cohen whose analysis of autism makes much sense to our experience, Jonathan you raise here one of the key theological issues that our son’s condition poses, that of personal responsibility. Our son used to wear a badge that said: ‘I’m not naughty, I’m autistic’ to try and save us from the angry comments when he had meltdowns or started banging his head against shop windows.
We sometimes used phrases like: ‘It’s not him, it’s the autism.’ while knowing that we can’t separate him from his autism.
He is at the end of the spectrum where he cannot really make moral choices at all, and has led me to realise the huge complexities around moral responsibilty, and I very much resonate with Joyce’s last sentence.
Thank you Jonathan. I find I cannot be reminded too often of the relationship between prayer and action.
Thank-you for your thought-provoking article, and for presenting the quotation ‘Theology is not only about understanding the world; it is about mending the world’. I find this quite inspirational as you are identifying a significant opportunity for the church today – the opportunity to show the world what sending ‘thoughts and prayers’ really means.
In my opinion, a church that is becoming a dispersal of praying communities and spontaneous generosity makes it easier for public figures to use it as a point of reference at those times when everyone is touched by the spiritual.
I also found your resume of the nature/nurture debate to be helpful, as I believe that spiritual freedom is a part of who God is, and this is important for the effectiveness of the thoughts and prayers that are offered.
With best wishes.