by Frederik Seidelin
In some situations—certainly in the English-speaking world—people who are not normally particularly religious suddenly become very devout, or at least express themselves in a devout manner. If someone posts on social media about serious illness of their own or in their family, a string of responses from friends invariably appears saying that they are praying for the afflicted. After terrorist attacks, members of the public express their prayers for the victims and their families. And in the face of natural disasters, such as the current hurricanes in the Caribbean, people pray for those who will be or have been affected. Why do people emphasise prayer in these situations, and what can their prayers signify?
For many, prayer is used for daily meditation and spiritual reflection, often during ‘compartmentalised’ sessions, for instance for bedtime prayers or in church. By contrast, the act of prayer in the situations mentioned above is perhaps done more out of desperation and a feeling of powerlessness. Our question relates to one of the perennial dilemmas in Christian theology between the evidential problem of evil and theodicy. In other words, why do evil and suffering exist in the world if God is omnipotent?
There is no reason to suspect whether the expression of sympathy implicit in a prayer is genuine; it no doubt is in the vast majority of cases. But what do public expressions of prayer, e.g. on social media, mean? Is it a linguistic convention that we revert to because we are speechless when faced with injustices in life? Is it also a speech act through which the speaker tries to break free of their speechlessness and signify that they are, in fact, doing something to make a meaningful difference? It is probably a bit of both. In relation to the latter, however, by using such a speech act, the speaker could be said to effectively absolve themselves of any obligation to do more by handing responsibility over to divine fate instead of recognising the role that they themselves could have played
Expressing prayers for someone who has lost e.g. a family member—whether through a public or a private catastrophe—might seem like the best course of action. However, people in distress do not simply need expressions of sympathy; they also need to talk to others about the dreadful experience they have had. Bystanders at accidents are offered counselling precisely because we recognise their need to process what they have witnessed. If instead of offering prayers, friends offer to talk to the bereaved, their action can make an actual difference by helping the bereaved cope with and understand their situation.
In relation to public disasters, prayers and similar expressions of sympathy can come to stand instead of political action which could perhaps prevent—or at least alleviate—the emergency in the first place or in future. Harvey was the third ‘once-in-500-years’ hurricane in three years to hit Houston. Mere weeks later, Irma completely devastated infrastructure and houses in many Caribbean islands, including Barbuda, whose prime minister explicitly linked the destruction to climate change. Yet British Green Party MP Caroline Lucas was castigated by Conservative MP Alan Duncan as lacking humanity because she asked whether the government intended to tackle climate change now rather than wait until similar destruction reached Britain.
Prayers are certainly useful for personal spiritual reflection, but it might be worth considering whether we help sufficiently by expressing publicly on social media that we are praying for the victims of a personal or public tragedy. The offer to drink a cup of coffee with the friend who just lost a loved one, organising to provide disaster relief for victims of a natural disaster or terrorist attack, or even something as simple as voting politically to tackle humans’ impact on the environment might prove to make far more of a difference.