“Our thoughts and prayers are with you.”
That’s the response many members of Congress have to victims of disaster after disaster. They say it often. In fact, Sister Susan Francois says in the National Catholic Reporter, “Thoughts and prayers have been entered into the congressional record more than 4,000 times by a member of Congress since 1995, which adds up to approximately one offering of thoughts and prayers for each work day in Congress.”
Prayer can be a statement of faith, but it also can be an excuse for inaction. In every major religious tradition, prayer is an acknowledgement that we cannot do everything. But in every major religion, it is a call to do what is ours to do.
The Beatitudes of Christianity, the Torah of Judaism, the Five Pillars of Islam, the Eightfold Path of Buddhism and the Tao of Confucianism all call their followers to action for our brothers and sisters in need. Even nonbelievers are not off the hook. They are called to act by the Ethical Code of Humanism.
Hurricanes are becoming more intense because ocean waters are warming. Some elected officials offer thoughts and prayers for their victims, and then, in the next stroke of the pen, revoke environmental policies that seek to reduce the human-induced factors that contribute to the warming of the oceans.
When I recently heard politicians offer their thoughts and prayers for the hundreds of innocent people shot outside a Las Vegas hotel, their political inaction made me question their moral code. When politicians whose campaigns are funded by the gun lobby promise thoughts and prayers, one wonders what it is they are truly thinking and praying about.
On the other hand, offering thoughts and prayers can be a natural and honest response to tragedy. It gives us an opportunity to pause, reflect and connect with a power greater than ourselves. Such heartbreaking moments also can cause us to discover our best intentions, our better angels, and lead us to act to alleviate and prevent further suffering. This is part of the purpose of prayer.
But thoughts and prayers are not enough. If one’s intention is to only send good energy into the world, it is not enough. If my intention is to leave it all up to a higher power, it is not enough.
We must be willing to get our hands dirty and take up the tasks that are ours to do. This is not easy. It will cause us pain. But it is the only way that “our thoughts and prayers” become believable.