An exhausting routine has developed in the aftermath of mass shootings: Politicians offer “thoughts and prayers” and gun-control proponents respond with justified outrage, pointing out that only political action—the kind that those politicians are blocking—can stem such tragedies. Of course we need real policy change to end gun violence.
After the tragedy in Uvalde, Texas, last week that killed 19 children and two teachers, a wave of Republican leaders offered prayers—including Senator Ted Cruz, who spoke at the National Rifle Association convention days later, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who’s led opposition to gun-control measures for more than a decade.
When people—especially those in power—call for thoughts and prayers without doing anything more, it’s meaningless. But prayer can be more than just a figure of speech; in its best form, it combines reflection with intent to act.
In Islam we are taught that nothing can happen without the will of God. My prayers cover small, immediate goals and lofty dreams; I seek protection from calamities, and I also ask God to help others when hardship befalls them. There are times, according to my faith, when our prayers are more likely to be heard—when it rains, when traveling, just before the dawn prayer—so I try to make the most of these moments whenever I can. I keep a little book for jotting down my wishes, lest I forget anything.
But prayer must be partnered with action. According to one Hadith, an account of sayings from the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), the Prophet once came across a man leaving his camel without tying it down. When the man explained that he was instead putting his trust in God, the Prophet replied that he should tie his camel and trust in God. Similar stories can be found in the Bible. “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food,” reads James 2:15–17. “If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”
A key component of faith is that we have free will; ultimately, we are judged for our behavior. All humans will falter at times—but that’s why prayer is a starting point, at which we clarify our goals and values and ask for God’s help along the way. And then, in tandem, we try.
That effort could mean bringing food and essentials to grieving people, donating money or volunteer time, calling congresspeople. For politicians, it means pushing for sensible gun laws. Otherwise, thoughts and prayers becomes a useless term. It means asking God to take care of something they won’t.
At a memorial service for the children of Uvalde, Carlos Contreras, a minister at the community’s First Baptist Church, said, “We may not understand what happened here yesterday, but we seek the Lord, as best we can.” The mix of humility and resolve, uncertainty and hope, reminded me of my own talks with God. Every prayer is a reminder of what I need to do, for myself and for others.