In Defense of Thoughts and Prayers

Tragic school shootings like the one in Parkland, Florida this week are becoming an all-too-common […]

Scott Jones / 2.16.18

Tragic school shootings like the one in Parkland, Florida this week are becoming an all-too-common occurrence in our culture. Ubiquitous screens and news outlets surround us as we encounter these tragedies, in a second-handed fashion, in a strange collective way (only those directly affected can experience them). As with any repeated and communal form of storytelling, the presentation of the events in the media take on a familiar, almost ritualistic form. As different as the various tragedies are, their presentation to us can seem more and more the same. Familiar breaking news graphics, talking heads, pundits and policy advocates are woven in between repeated footage of the horrific events and firsthand recounting of them before reporters. Then comes the inevitable condemnation of thoughts and prayers.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims.” This is something that figures public and private say in the wake of all sorts of tragedies. Sometimes it’s said reflexively without much actual thinking or praying done, or without the intention to do so. Even then it’s usually received as at least a minimal act of decency. But after a mass shooting the reaction to the words “thoughts and prayers” is much different of late. The sentiment is looked at by many, religious and irreligious alike, as a means to maintain the status quo and avoid any and all actions that would mitigate senseless acts of mass violence. Without dismissing a certain healthy skepticism about public political acts of piety (they are among the easiest ways to pander to voters), real thinking and praying, mutually conditioning one another, may be the most radical act that can be undertaken in the wake of tragedies like the one we saw this week in Parkland.

As Alan Jacobs points out in his most recent book, How To Think, most of us don’t think very often or very well, even when we think we’re doing so in good faith with deliberate intention. Interacting with the work of thinkers like Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Haidt, Jacobs points out how reflexive, tribal, and uncritical our thought patterns often are. He relays two stories in the book that illustrate why what we consider thoughtful is often anything but.

The first opens a chapter entitled “Repulsions.” It’s about blogger Scott Alexander, someone Jacobs reads regularly. A few years ago Alexander wrote a post entitled “I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup.” In it he tries to figure out why straight white men can be so kind to lesbian black women and yet so unkind and belligerent toward other straight white men. What happened to ingroups and outgroups? Alexander points out that when it’s convenient, the outgroup can be your neighbor who is much like you, and the ingroup can be made of someone who was formerly a “scary foreigner.” Jacobs then goes on to convey a personal example Alexander offers to illustrate his point:

He mentions being chastised by readers when he expressed relief that Osama bin Laden was dead. More than one person Alexander found reasonable and thoughtful manifested “conspicuous disgust that other people could be happy about [Bin Laden’s] death. I hastily backtracked and said I wasn’t happy per se, just surprised and relieved that all of this was finally behind us.” … But when Margaret Thatcher died, Alexander continues, “on my Facebook wall—made of these same ‘intelligent, reasoned, and thoughtful’ people—the most common response was to quote some portion of the song ‘Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead.’ Another popular response was to link the videos of British people spontaneously throwing parties in the street, with comments like ‘I wish I was there so I could join in.’ From this exact same group of people, not a single expression of disgust or a ‘c’mon, guys, we’re all human beings here.’ ” And even when he pointed this out, none of his readers saw a problem with their joy in Thatcher’s death… And that’s when Alexander realized that “if you’re part of the Blue Tribe, then your outgroup isn’t al-Qaeda, or Muslims, or blacks [etc]—it’s the Red Tribe.” The real outgroup, for us, is the person next door.

Oftentimes when tragedy strikes, our thinking serves our tribal identities and not much else. And this makes some sense. As Jonathan Haidt repeatedly points out in his work, “morality binds and blinds.” In a complex, anxiety-rich world tribes make us feel safer. But as Haidt also makes clear, when we engage in public policy debates, especially after tragedy strikes, we’re not seeking to persuade or understand. We’re trying to convince other members of our tribe that we’re on their team.

The second story that Jacobs relates is about a woman named Leah Libresco. Libresco grew up irreligious but went to Yale and became a Roman Catholic. This happened through engagement, of course, with reflective Christian peers. But even more determinative in opening her mind was her membership in a debating society, the Yale Political Union:

It’s vital to note that, though many of the people in YPU had experience in competitive debate, that’s not what the society did. “At the end of a debate, no one won, and no points were awarded.” But in its own way the society was deeply competitive. “When we kept score,” Libresco says, “we counted in converts.” That is, what really mattered was that you actually won someone over—and not to the position you were assigned for the evening, but to something you actually believed in…

Now, it would be more accurate to say that winning someone over was one of the two things that really mattered. The other was being won over. Members who interviewed for some leadership position in the YPU would usually be asked, “Did you ever break someone on the floor?” To “break on the floor,” in the society’s parlance, was to change your mind in the middle of a debate, right there in front of everyone. To break someone on the floor was a signal achievement. But—and here is the really essential thing—the candidate would also be asked, “So, have you ever broken on the floor?” And to this question, Libresco says, “The correct answer was yes.” After all, “It wasn’t very likely that you’d walked into the YPU with the most accurate possible politics, ethics, and metaethics. If you hadn’t had to jettison some of your ideas several years in, we had our doubts about how honestly and deeply you were engaging in debate.”

James Boswell, in his famous Life of Samuel Johnson, speaks of Johnson’s habit of “talking for victory,” but in the YPU, at least at its best, this would not be a virtue… In that sense the stakes in the YPU were considerably higher than the stakes of standard competitive debate: you didn’t just win or lose according to what some judges decreed about your ability to defend a designated position; you were vulnerable to changes of your own mind. And changing your mind could yield a different you. But the whole ethos of the YPU, in Libresco’s experience, was built around the willingness to expose yourself to just such a risk. To be “broken on the floor” was a token of good faith and an indication of a willingness not just to accept but to live out the values of the community. Libresco internalized those values, and that eventually made it possible, or at least easier, for her to embrace a set of beliefs, and a way of life, that set her at odds with her own upbringing.

Both Libresco and Alexander offer examples of the kind of non-tribal, ideologically resistant thinking that we seldom ever see in public life these days, let alone in the midst of a gun debate sparked by a mass shooting. This kind of thinking that’s willing to look at reality for what it is rather than engage it with tribal colored glasses is what we need more of in light of the mass shooting epidemic, not less.

While prayer can’t guarantee the kind of aforementioned thinking that might serve us well as a culture, especially as we seek to deal with seemingly intractable problems like gun violence, it certainly never hurts. Karl Barth said that, “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.” Given that each fallen, faltering human being is part of this disorder and at its heart, this is quite true. Even the simplest prayers turn us away from ourselves and our tribes and our limited imaginations toward the God of every tongue, tribe and nation. It’s in asking God for daily bread, forgiveness for our sins and for deliverance from evil that we are reminded just how creaturely we are, and nothing is more humanizing.

In a little book called “Behold The Pierced One,” Benedict the XVI makes much of the fact that Jesus died praying. In fact he sees the Last supper as prefiguring the transformation of death into an act of love:

Death, which by its very nature, is the end, the destruction of every communication, is changed by him into an act of self-communication; and this is man’s redemption, for it signifies the triumph of Love over death. We can put the same thing another way: death, which puts an end to words and to meaning, itself become a word, becomes the place where meaning communicates itself.

In “On The Freedom of a Christian” Luther proclaims that the Christian, freed by the grace of Christ received by faith alone, becomes paradoxically lord of all and servant of all. The Christian becomes Lord of all because anyone free in Christ is free indeed. This freedom, rooted in the knowledge of the real unconditional love of God, frees us not just from our sin but for a life of love. As sinners prone to God forgetfulness we need to be constantly reminded of these things. Those reminders come very often through graced thoughts and prayers. Those same thoughts and prayers, prayed by sinners, can be the most sincere expressions of love in a sin and blood stained world.

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6 responses to “In Defense of Thoughts and Prayers”

  1. Duo Dickinson says:

    I love this: It is needed: THANKYOU “Even the simplest prayers turn us away from ourselves and our tribes and our limited imaginations towered the God of every tongue, tribe and nation. It’s in asking God for daily bread, forgiveness for our sins and for deliverance from evil that we are reminded just how creaturely we are, and nothing is more humanizing.”

  2. Howie Espenshied says:

    Spot on. It does seem different this time. The knee-jerk reactions seem angrier. The cries for justice seem louder and more desperate. Our (not so) little community here appears to have had enough. Conversely, the nihilistic “nothing will really change” sentiment feels more pronounced too.

    We find comfort in our micro-communities, and in our group-think….our tribes. Thus, defending the (now seemingly trite) notion of “thoughts and prayers” is fitting and right, and unifying. Good stuff.

  3. Sean says:


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