Thoughts & prayers ltd

The BBC is reporting on another Twitter fuss.

Amidst the news of a mass shooting in California, a lively debate erupted on Twitter over the power and utility of offering “prayers” in the wake of such an event.

It’s political boilerplate to offer “thoughts and prayers” to the victims of violence, and the majority of Republican presidential candidates took this approach after a shooting in California left 14 people dead and more injured.

“Our prayers are with the victims, their families, and the first responders in San Bernardino who willingly go into harm’s way to save others,” wrote Ted Cruz.

Well, you know, I wish they wouldn’t do that. I usually keep it to myself, at least when it’s a natural disaster, because it seems callous and mean and not what anyone needs, but all the same I wish they wouldn’t do that. I especially wish government officials wouldn’t, because I’d prefer the government to be secular, but I wish everybody wouldn’t. The whole idea is stupid. If the god they’re praying to is benevolent, why does it take prayers to get the god to help or comfort or whatever it is? And why didn’t the god just prevent the disaster in the first place? And so on. It’s like crying in the arms of someone who just beat you up.

Before long, the difference in approach was picked up on social media – and rapidly politicised. What followed was a raging debate, in which Democrat[ic]-leaning voices criticised the appropriateness of offering prayers in the face of what many saw as a consequence of “political choice” – the decision not to pass gun reform laws in the US. At the most extreme end, it was dubbed “prayer-shaming”.

“Your “thoughts” should be about steps to take to stop this carnage. Your “prayers” should be for forgiveness if you do nothing – again,” tweeted Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat. He represents the state of Connecticut, where 28 people, mostly children, were killed in the Sandy Hook shootings.

A plan for gun reform was put forth by President Barack Obama after that tragedy, but failed to pass Congress.

ThinkProgress reporter Igor Volsky retweeted politicians who offered “thoughts and prayers,” adding to each tweet the campaign contributions they received from the National Rifle Association.

Igor Volsky tweets that Renee Ellmers took $2,000 from the NRA.

But there was a backlash, from those who said the attack on prayers were partisan and mean-spirited. “The American Left on display today: The hashtag #BringBackOurGirls works. Tweeting ‘Prayers offered’ should be shamed and ridiculed,” wrote conservative pundit Erick Erickson.

Well there’s a clear difference between the two. #BringBackOurGirls addresses real people who really exist. Prayer don’t. Also, of course, the hashtag didn’t work, and I doubt that anyone thought it would in any straightforward sense – the idea was to keep the issue alive as opposed to just letting it fade out. Then again talk of prayers doesn’t always imply belief in their literal efficacy; it’s a way of saying we care. That’s another reason I usually keep my objections to myself.

As the debate wore on, some tried to find room for both messages.

“To be clear: Offering prayers is not the problem. They can be a balm and a sign of good will. But politicians’ actions are relevant too,” wrote the science fiction writerJohn Scalzi.

“Guys. Don’t mock the sincere offering of prayers. Mock legislative inaction or hypocrisy. But offering a prayer is not offering NOTHING,” wrote Ana Marie Cox, a left-leaning pundit who is public about her faith.”

Well it is and it isn’t. It isn’t, in the sense that it expresses fellowship, sympathy, solidarity, caring. But it is, in the sense that it doesn’t reach the desk of a god who will do something in response.

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