24 October 2023

Thoughts and prayers… and hypocrites.

Whenever disaster strikes—whether natural or manmade; usually manmade—one of the most common platitudes we hear thereafter is, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims.”

Over the past 20 years, this expression has seen a backlash. Mainly because the people who regularly say it, tend to be politicians. Particularly politicians who are in a position to do something about the disaster: Send rescuers. Provide disaster relief. Provide shelter and food and water. Provide healthcare. Ban the sort of lax workplace practices which result in disaster, and jail the owners and executives of those workplaces for their oversight, especially if they knew disaster might be coming, but looked the other way. Ban the sort of dangerous weapons which, in the hands of a dangerous person, would cause calamity, and prohibit such people from ever touching such a weapon. In short, stop enabling evildoers.

But they don’t. They do nothing, or do something empty and meaningless. And by their actions, they demonstrate they’re not really thinking of disaster victims… and more than likely, not praying either. If they are praying, it’s something more like, “Lord, why should I be on the hook for this? Could you please confound my enemies?”

To be fair, some of the backlash comes from nontheists who are pretty sure prayer is bunk. It might make the petitioner feel good, ’cause now the buck’s been passed to God, so they need do nothing more. Or ’cause the petitioner thinks the prayer is the work, which is why they pray so fervently, and imagine themselves prayer warriors. But, figure the nontheists, they’re praying to no one; the invisible man in the sky isn’t real; it’s wasted time and effort.

Give you an example. Thanks to climate change, the United States is getting more and more extreme weather. Hotter days. Longer heat waves. Tornadoes and hurricanes in places where they previously didn’t happen; we had a hurricane pass over California, of all places, this summer. Crazy rainfall and floods where they previously didn’t happen. Rising oceans. Dying species.

But for various stupid reasons, many conservative Christians don’t believe in science, and refuse to believe the data about climate change. They have various harebrained theories about why extreme weather really happens, but in general, they think it’s a passing fluke; it’s nothing politicians intend to make longterm plans about. And nothing they can mitigate, or stop, or reverse, by fighting pollution; plus polluters are their biggest donors. But for the most part they deny it’s happening at all. And certainly won’t pass laws to help those who are suffering from it; namely the poor, who can’t afford to recover from it.

So what good are those politicians’ thoughts and prayers? Functionally they’re the very same as when the apostle James objected to “faith” which lacked works:

James 2.14-17 NRSVue
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Surely that faith cannot save, can it? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

Regularly, our “thoughts and prayers” are no different from wishing the needy well, but doing absolutely nothing to make ’em less needy. Sometimes it’s out of our own laziness and apathy; sometimes our own ill will.

And the needy aren’t dense. They see the godlessness of it. They’re calling us on it. Rightly so. If our thoughts and prayers do nothing, our faith is dead, our religion is hypocrisy, and our God is a joke.

You do realize making our God out to be a joke is blasphemy, right? So don’t do that!

Pray. But also act.

Wanna see change? Well, God’s made us the agents of his change.

When we see hungry people, we’re not to respond, “Aww; I hope God helps you out and feeds you.” We’re to feed ’em. Mt 25.35 We’re to clothe the naked, not leave it to some local clothing drive. We’re to cure the sick, not beg Doctors Without Borders to visit a city with 10 perfectly functional hospitals and charitably help those who’d otherwise never get healthcare. We’re to put together food banks, instead of demanding the government hire passionless bureaucrats to administer a comprehensive welfare program.

We’re to visit prisoners, not case workers and journalists and the occasional do-gooder. We’re meant to act, not wish really hard.

Often that’s the Holy Spirit’s very answer to our prayers. “You really want justice done? About time; so do I! So I’m sending you to do something about it.” Just like he sent Moses to Egypt to go free his people.

Problem is, we balk. Exactly like Moses.

Exodus 4.10-17 NRSVue
10 But Moses said to the LORD, “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” 11 Then the LORD said to him, “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? 12 Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.” 13 But he said, “O my Lord, please send someone else.” 14 Then the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses, and he said, “What of your brother Aaron, the Levite? I know that he can speak well; even now he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you his heart will be glad. 15 You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth, and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth and will teach you what you shall do. 16 He indeed shall speak for you to the people; he shall serve as a mouth for you, and you shall serve as God for him. 17 Take in your hand this staff, with which you shall perform the signs.”

Unlike Moses, who finally did act and freed his people, we pretend we heard nothing, or assume God’s call is our delusion. So we do nothing.

It’s this lack of faith and action which really frosts Christianity’s critics. Even pagans know how prayer’s meant to work: Praying Christians oughta be active Christians, not passive. When we’re passive, they immediately realize something’s inconsistent and wrong with us. When our behavior produces no fruit or bad fruit, they realize God’s not actually among us. So of course they think we’re only talking to the sky: We haven’t proven them wrong!

A Christian who prays for the needy, yet does nothing because we’re not entirely sure what to do, at the very least oughta be more compassionate towards the needy. Oughta mourn with those who mourn, comfort those who suffer, listen to them vent and rage and cry, and not just throw paper towels at ’em. After all, aren’t these needy people crying out to our God for help? Shouldn’t some of God’s concern for the needy and lost overflow into our daily actions? Yet too often we see nothing at all. (Sometimes because people’s warped sense of honor won’t let ’em publicly reveal any of their emotions but anger; but that’s a whole other discussion.) And when we see nothing, it’s a big red flag. Something’s seriously wrong here.

Every expert hypocrite knows they need to fake sympathy, at the very least.

So when we Christians truly are thinking and praying for the needy, we oughta see it in us. If there’s nothing to be seen, there’s likely nothing there.