’Thoughts and prayers’ Christianity makes our sinful passivity look heavenly, says Chris Llewellyn, but we are called to be active participants in bringing about societal change and social justice
I’m writing this from Nashville, Tennessee, a ten-minute drive from the scene of the horrifying school shooting at Covenant Christian School, which claimed the lives of three young children and three adults just a few weeks ago.
This tight-knit community is reeling from the tragedy, grasping for a way to process these events that, ultimately, defy comprehension. Wider secular society has responded with pleas for reform around gun laws. But here in the buckle of the so-called Bible Belt – the evangelical capital of the USA – many are looking to their faith for answers, and my very Christian corner of social media is awash with “thoughts and prayers”. I’ve been trying to work out why it makes me so angry.
As a fan of both thinking and praying, it’s not the activities themselves that rankle me. I believe wholeheartedly in the power of prayer. The problem is that prayer is supposed to be paired with action. I think of Nehemiah who was, simultaneously, a man of doing and praying, even to the point of the two activities overlapping (see Nehemiah 2:4-5).
”Thoughts and prayers” Christianity tries to make our sinful passivity look heavenly. It reminds me of those frustrated Old Testament prophets, who called out the religious establishment for being obsessed with so-called spirituality while failing to address the manifold social problems staring them in the face.
Amos put it like this: “I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I’m sick of your fundraising schemes, your public relations and image making. I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music. When was the last time you sang to me? Do you know what I want? I want justice – oceans of it. I want fairness – rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want” (Amos 5:21-24, The Message).
Equally, in the New Testament, disembodied expressions of piety disconnected from social realities are declared invalid and false. Consider James’ words: “Anyone who sets himself up as ‘religious’ by talking a good game is self-deceived. This kind of religion is hot air and only hot air. Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world” (James 1:26-27, The Message).
I know my fellow Christians are often well-intentioned. They’ve been taught that being a quiet, compliant citizen is their Christian duty. But that overlooks the fact our saviour, who we are called to follow, was executed in part for being a political threat. Protests aren’t inherently sinful. Sometimes they’re godly. To borrow a civil rights phrase from Rev John Lewis, sometimes we’re meant to “get in good trouble”. What if the Church took to heart the truth that advocating for social change is just loving your neighbour on a bigger scale?
Contemplation is crucial. Petitioning God is essential. Christians are called to be prayerful. But we’re also called to be active – showing up in the public square as advocates for positive social and political change. We need to vote in ways that support the last and the least. We need to engage meaningfully and be part of the solution to the problems our communities face.
Otherwise I wonder if our thoughts and prayers are nothing more than asking God to do something simply because we are unwilling to do it ourselves.