Posted by: smstrouse | December 5, 2015

Prayer-Shaming: A Time-Honored Tradition

2015-12-03-1449146466-479747-image-thumbThe latest battle between religion and secularism is the issue of prayer. In the wake of San Bernardino, the front page of the New York Daily News screamed, “God Isn’t Fixing This” in response to statements by several GOP presidential candidates, who offered thoughts and prayers for the victims. The point was that prayer isn’t enough; it’s time for these politicians to take action.

Think Progress also jumped in and published the names of numerous congresspeople who had tweeted their “thoughts and prayers,” along with the amount of money they’d received from the NRA and their voting records against gun reforms. http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2015/12/02/3727709/lawmakers-offer-prayers-for-mass-shooting-victims-receive-large-checks-from-the-nra/

Naturally, there’s been a backlash to what has become known as “prayer-shaming.” Some Christian leaders have called for the firing Daily News editor responsible for the story. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention said, “If the news media want to be atheists, that’s their business. But how dare they now ridicule people of faith. This kind of anti-religious bigotry is precisely what fuels Islamic terrorists’ hatred toward Americans.” Others want to teach us that prayer is action, but atheists just don’t understand that.

Once again, the battle lines get drawn between believers and atheists. But this is a false dichotomy. Not all Christians would join the outcry against this so-called attack on the faithful.

dr-martin-luther-king-jr-we-speak-we-pray-we-scream-but-without-action-there-will-be-no-revolutionFirst: prayer-shaming isn’t new. The prophets of old were famous for their condemnation of empty words and rituals. Isaiah himself might weigh in on this issue today:
These people come near me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. – Isaiah 29:13 

There’s nothing wrong with offering “thoughts and prayers.” Sometimes we  don’t know what else to say and our words convey our compassion. But I do not see anything wrong with calling people who claim to offer “thoughts and prayers” to account for their actions which belie their purported beliefs.

a0a6e6c3571d02dfc12c15f26c15273cSecond: I don’t believe the purpose of prayer is to get God to come down here and fix this – whatever ‘this’ is. Prayer is an active way to engage with the dynamic power of the Divine within and around us. Prayer can strengthen, encourage, comfort, teach, inspire, amaze and humble us. It is powerful. But I don’t think that its purpose is to call on God for what John Shelby Spong calls a ‘divine rescue operation.’

I have this argument with prayers in many worship resources. They ask God to come and bring peace, heal the world, save us from danger – come and fix this. The truth is that it is up to us to “fix this.” Prayer empowers us for the work. So if you’re praying for the victims of gun violence, good for you. But also tell me your actions on behalf of them and all future victims. As Jesus said, “By their fruits you shall know them.”

I hope that other Christian voices are heard in this latest fray. It’s not a war on Christianity. It’s not an atheistic attack on prayer. It is a challenge against hypocrisy. And it is a call – to all of us – to action.

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