Judging from social media, it appears “thoughts and prayers” is becoming a pejorative statement, and with some justification. People seem to trot out this phrase any time something bad happens in the nation, while shirking their opportunity to even discuss policy changes that might help prevent similar outcomes in the future.
But “thoughts and prayers” shouldn’t be empty words, a truth we are forgetting to our detriment. When we in the pews see our prayers as political statements, we lose a core piece of our faith. Prayers, and the thoughts that must accompany the prayers in order for them to be meaningful, are a first and important step in our journey toward understanding what it means to be brothers and sisters in Christ. Praying for refugees, the poor, immigrants, victims of violence, the unborn, the dying, or those who otherwise are suffering shouldn’t be viewed as “too political,” but as core expressions of our belief that we are all of equal value before God.
As we learn early on in our faith formation, prayer requires not just the rote memorization of comforting words but a real commitment to seeking the good of others in our prayers, and trying to empathize with people whose experiences may be very different from our own. When we offer prayers, we must think deeply about those for whom we are praying. We must look at them not as pawns in political debates but as real people who need an abundance of God’s grace at a particular moment in their life.
Thus, “thoughts and prayers” for immigrants requires us to think about the immigrant not as a “horde” or “invasion,” as politicians may term them, but as an individual person. If we refuse to do so because we disagree with a political position or immigration policy, we miss the whole point of prayer. We don’t pray for a policy, we pray for a person who is struggling so mightily in their home country that fleeing from it seems to be the only option.
The same is true of “thoughts and prayers” following tragic events such as mass shootings. We pray for the victims and their families because we can empathize with the sorrow of losing a life unexpectedly through the selfish and senseless act of another person. Through prayer, we try to walk with the suffering families.
We also pray for the perpetrator of such crimes, recognizing that he too is loved by God despite the heinous act he has committed. Our thoughts are not violent during prayer, but seeking God’s forgiveness and healing mercy for a person who has decided that the only response to his suffering is violent acts against others.
We even pray for our elected officials, not that they will see the wisdom of our preferred policy choice, but that they will make decisions that reflect our belief in the dignity of every person and the sanctity of every life. That isn’t a prayer for or against a given policy, it’s a prayer that the decision-makers will have the grace and wisdom necessary to make decisions that reflect our values and promote the common good.
If we are to be a prophetic voice in this world, we cannot be afraid to pray for people whose suffering may also be debated in the political realm. In fact, our teaching demands that we pray and take part in the debate, not as policy experts, but as people of faith who help provide a moral compass to the broader discussion. Our catechism recognizes that we build a more just and peaceful world through engagement within that world. Thoughts and prayers help us discern where we can engage, and help us engage in a way that reflects what we profess – that we are all one in Christ. Thoughts and prayers result in action, otherwise our prayers are as meaningless as critics maintain.
Jean Hill is director of the Diocese of Salt Lake City’s Office of Life, Justice and Peace. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.