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After Mass Shootings, People Turn To Prayer — And Prayer Shaming

People hold candles during a vigil for shooting victims in San Bernardino, California.
Mark J. Terrill
People hold candles during a vigil for shooting victims in San Bernardino, California.

What is the power of prayer? Is there any?

The front page of Thursday's New York Daily News featured quotes from prominent Republicans about the murders in San Bernardino. Headline writers thought they saw a theme.

Dr. Rand Paul had tweeted, "My thoughts and prayers are with the victims." Sen. Ted Cruz tweeted, "Our prayers are with the victims." They echoed Speaker Paul Ryan, who tweeted, "Please keep the victims ... in your prayers."

The Daily News front page thundered: "GOD ISN'T FIXING THIS," in bold letters, and said below, "cowards who could truly end gun scourge continue to hide behind meaningless platitudes."

A debate broke out on Twitter. Many passed along the tart reaction of Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut.

"Your 'thoughts' should be about steps to take to stop this carnage," he tweeted. "Your "prayers" should be for forgiveness if you do nothing — again."

The senator's staff later explained he aimed his words at politicians who vote on gun policies, not citizens who find comfort in prayer.

Zack Ford at ThinkProgress was sharper yet.

"If you think talking to the voice in your head is helping anyone but yourself, you're wrong," he tweeted. "I'm not going to be bashful about saying so."

Some people complained about — it was a new term to me — prayer shaming.

I don't know how many weeks I've been at my desk in the middle of the day and seen a bulletin cross the screen: URGENT — SHOOTING. It could be most any and every week. The names of towns — Colorado Springs last week, San Bernardino this week, Roseburg, Oregon in October, Platte, South Dakota in September, Lafayette, Louisiana in July, Omaha, in January — and of victims, heroes, and assailants sometimes seem to run together.

There is almost not enough time to mourn before the next crime. And within minutes, familiar voices chime in on social media and news channels to say the latest shooting simply proves that they're right — both those who say greater gun control is needed, and those who say gun regulations don't work.

I think a lot of people who pray don't think of it as a replacement for deeds, or an occasion to utter a gift list of desires. They pray to open their minds and hearts. They pray when words won't come, and emotions overwhelm. They pray to mark a loss, and to try to make a moment of peace in a landscape of turmoil. They don't see prayer as a substitute for action, but the beginning. The merit of prayer is what people do after we say Amen.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.