Our world is wracked with tragedy. Much of which could be avoided, much of which is the result of cruel chance. Whatever the tragedy, my friends, family, and acquaintances often have the same response:
I’m sick of it.
Those who know me personally know that I’m a tender-hearted cinnamon roll who cries at basically everything. I cry when I watch the Olympics because people are achieving their dreams, I cry at YouTube videos of dogs being reunited with their owners. I cry when I hear about a stranger’s untimely passing. I cried at the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden city because I was overwhelmed by the timeless beauty and history which surrounded me. When I was younger, I rarely cried, but my adult life has more than made up for the stoicism of my youth.
When I hear about tragedies, I cry. I can’t help it. I want to do something, do more than offer condolences and well-wishes. Others have developed the #PrayFor____ out of thesenumerous tragedies, such as #PrayForParis or #PrayForNice or the like.
It’s difficult for me to not be bitter. I don’t want to pray for a city, a country, survivors, or victims’ families. If there’s a God, I want him to step in and stop this. I want him to stop the madness and bring some actual peace on this planet.
I’ve often been told that the Lord works in mysterious ways and we can’t try to understand His ways. Maybe that’s true. I’m not a theologian. I don’t even believe in God. I just wish he’d take care of us. I wish that prayers actually worked.
As a child, I had been told that I could make demons leave by banishing them in Christ’s name. Some nights, I’d lie in my bed and say, “I cast you demons out in the name of Jesus Christ. In my room, in Mississippi, and in the whole world.” I’d pray and pray and pray for peace. I’d clasp my baby palms together until my knuckles went white. I’d beg for a day of peace, a day with no suffering, a day where, for just one blinding moment, the world didn’t have to ache with the pains it has known since its inception.
But nothing ever answered that prayer
I caught the tail end of a “”Two and a Half Men” episode recently where Jake and Charlie have an argument. They both get down to pray about a football game. They have this exchange:
Jake: It won’t work, God answers kid’s prayers first.
Charlie: Who told you that?
Jake: No one, it just makes sense.
I believed this as a child. I believed my prayers had extra potency because of my youth. Jesus loved the little children, after all. If no one else could appeal to him, certainly I could. This was equal parts arrogance and naiveté. I didn’t see myself as the special Lord’s chosen. But I did honestly believe my devotion and childishness could make a dent in the world’s suffering because I asked for it out of the pure goodness of my heart.
Prayers always get answered because God answers: “Yes,” “No,” or “Wait.”
If something answers that way, your prayers always get answered, because those are really the only options available. I could pray to a milk jug and get the same results.
Despite my complaining, I’ve lived a very charmed life. I’ve won awards for my writing, I’ve had my poetry published. I’ve won scholarships, and I seem to be on track for an interesting life. Of course, much of this has come at the expense of close relationships, but that seems to simply be a curveball life has thrown me.
Non-religious people survive ailments at the same rate as religious people. Non-religious people die in accidents at the same rate as religious people. The religious aren’t divinely protected, although part of wishes they were.
I’ve prayed for many things in my life. Sometimes I got what I asked for. Sometimes I didn’t. In the Christian mindset, this means that God answered all of them. In my opinion, this means that life is kind of arbitrary. Some things I earned, some things I got by chance; some things I didn’t earn, some things I didn’t get by chance.
As my friend Neil Carter said on his blog, “The next time someone asks me what I need to see in order to believe, I’ll simply tell them I want to see God heal an amputee.” If prayer could heal an amputee, I’d believe. That’s evidence that’s impossible to deny. Just as Christians could use any situation to say, “God was here,” it’s just as easy (arguably much much easier) to point out why it’s a coincidence. Healing an amputee is undeniable. There’s no man behind the curtain directing it to fool me. If prayer could heal an amputee, I’d be thoroughly convinced.
But prayer doesn’t work, which, to me, makes all of the hashtags to pray for different parts of the world even more frustrating.
Frederick Douglass said, “I prayed for freedom for twenty years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs”
This could very well be summed up by an idea already in the Bible. In the book of James, James discusses the merits of faith and works. James 2:17 says, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (NRSV)
I don’t mind people doing something I see as fruitless if they accompany it with actual effort. Prayer has no obvious results; feeding and clothing the impoverished does. I think that is part of the reason why I still really like certain religious leaders, such as Shane Claiborne. When I was religious, his book The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical honestly changed my person thoughts on religion and its practice. I never reached his level of honest dedication and true practice, but I wanted to. I received the book in 2010—when I went to university 2 years later, I entered as a religion and international studies double major. I wanted to be a missionary.
Life would ultimately lead me down a different path, but I still deeply respect religious people like Claiborne. I won’t complain about faith partnered with works, unless the works aren’t actually helpful. People who send solar powered talking Bibles instead of medical supplies to Haiti have faith and do works, but these works don’t actually help anyone.
If the good works they do only involve conversion, they likely aren’t actually doing good works. They’ve found a way to turn prayer into action: doing something ultimately useless that doesn’t help anyone survive, while still patting themselves on the back. You’re providing an inconvenience that those struggle feel obligated to thank them for.
I find prayer to be fairly masturbatory: it feels good, but it ultimately produces nothing in the long term. I don’t want to #PrayFor a place. I want to make it better.
We can do better
Even as a child, I’ve been a bit of a martyr. I wanted to be self-sacrificial to change the world. I didn’t act on this much—I’ve always been a big fan of using words instead of action. I’m working on this. I’ve found my lack of experience and skills to be limiting, a convenient excuse but an excuse nonetheless.
I do my own equivalent of prayer, I post articles on Facebook like it’s going to change the world. But I also try to educate people in relation to inequality and injustice within society. Under no circumstances do I think education is enough, but it is a dire necessity. I’ve had one major convert on race issues, and his newfound understanding has made me realize I have a lot of potential to do a lot of good.
As I set off for China, I’m going to have to figure out the best way to do good works in a place where I don’t speak the language. I don’t see my teaching as a good work; I’m getting paid to teach at a private language academy which I fear may have predatory approaches. Ultimately, I think this may be a spring-board for the Peace Corps, a dream pursuit I’ve had since I learned what the Peace Corps were.
Like so many things, we are powerless to stop individual tragedies, but, as a society, we have the power to stop tragedies en masse. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we can’t continue doing nothing and be surprised when nothing changes.
Prayer is the equivalent of doing nothing. If prayer fixed things, we wouldn’t be dealing with tragedy after tragedy after tragedy.