Why pray in times of violence

There has been a lot of debate on social media lately about the value of prayer, or the lack thereof, in light of the recent mass shootings. The New York Post ran the headline, “God Isn’t Fixing This”, while the Atlantic Monthly has an article on “Prayer Shaming After San Bernadino.” Meanwhile, James Martin SJ wrote an excellent column called, “God Isn’t Fixing This? No, we’re no listening,” in which he argued that God does care and that prayer is part of how we respond and also ought to lead to action. It’s led me to reflect more on why we pray in times of violence, and what the value of prayer is. Here are my thoughts.

  1. We pray because in times of fear, loss, and grief, we are in need of God, and God wants to come and to comfort those who grieve or are afraid.
  2. We pray because prayer is a way of being with one another in community and holding one another. Prayer is not a purely private experience between oneself and God, but allows us to embrace one another as we encounter difficult situations.
  3. We pray because prayer can help us to move into action. Some of the criticisms of prayer have suggested that prayer as a mere substitute for action is problematic, and I agree. Still, action requires discernment, and prayer is part of how we get there (along with also looking at empirical evidence for what kinds of actions are effective).
  4. We pray in order to lament. Lament is a praiseworthy activity, since it respects the reality of past and present suffering and loss, which future political solutions can never fully solve. Even if gun violence stopped tomorrow, the losses of those who have already died are real and lamentable.
  5. We pray because prayer is a way to love, and choosing to love in times of violence is a way to work for peace as well as justice.

As important as it is to set aside times that are solely for praying, for religious people, prayer is an ongoing relationship with God that helps to ground all of our other relationships, including our political ones.