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Criticism of “thoughts and prayers” often appear on protest signs, charging that “thoughts and prayers” don’t change anything.
Of course, there is some truth to that.
If we think and pray but take no action, what have we done?
How do “thoughts and prayers” reduce racial injustice or global warming?
While acknowledging this criticism, I don’t want to dismiss thoughts, prayers, meditation, and other spiritual practices.
They can create a rich spiritual life that supports activism against injustice.
The insightful thinker on spirituality and activism Howard Thurman wrote in “Jesus and the Disinherited” that it was integral to Jesus’ life and teachings that he was a real-life Jew, a poor Jew and member of an oppressed minority who faced real oppressors—the occupying Romans.
Thurman said we can’t separate Jesus from the social issues around him.
Accordingly, spirituality that is tied to our relationship with God is also tied to social justice matters that are around us.
Thurman believed that personal spiritual renewal was important to the liberation process and that inward liberation was a prerequisite for social transformation.
Thurman’s grandmother, who was a slave, told a story about a slave minister, who in secret church services would end his sermons with, “You are not slaves. You are God’s children.”
Thurman wrote that this established for them the basis of personal dignity and worth.
He concluded that theology has to deal justly with one’s life situation and affirm one’s worth as a child of God, as someone created in the image of God.
My ethics teacher taught us that instead of trying to figure out if our relationship with God is primarily vertical (spiritual matters) or horizontal (earthly concerns), we should say our relationship with God is “horizitical.”
The vertical shapes and motivates the horizontal.
Someone can experience the personal joy of having a relationship with God AND promote liberation and justice on a broader scale.
One example took place before the 2020 presidential election.
The National African American Clergy Network published a letter that described this synergy between spirituality and social change.
Concerned about racism, climate change, economic justice, and voting rights, they said, “We know from our scriptures that sometimes it takes prayer and fasting to move heaven and earth.”
They called for a 40-day prayer fast, “trusting and believing that God will hear our cries and answer our call for justice, mercy, and a fair and safe election.”
Here we see the process Thurman described.
Meditating on the image of God (a spiritual practice) leads to believing ALL people are in that image, which leads to recognizing the powers trying to deny the image of God in certain people, which leads to prayer and discernment, which leads to action to change what is wrong.
In addition to reflecting on the image of God as a spiritual practice for an activist church, another spiritual practice is confession, especially for Christians who benefit from injustice—for example White Christians in the American context.
In Lamentations 3:40, those who are grieving loss and violence make a powerful turn toward corporate confession: “Let us examine our ways and test them; let us return to the Lord.”
Repentance moves the community toward a changed life.
We take responsibility for personal sins and omissions but also the corporate sins of our unjust systems, and, for White people like me, one implication is that I confess how those unjust systems benefit me.
An important lesson for me, when I attended a workshop on personal and systemic racism, was to realize I was BOTH responsible for my individual actions/beliefs AND a part of something systemic that is bigger than myself, which I didn’t necessarily create but that I am a part of and benefit from.
It was like I woke up and realized I was on a train going in a direction I didn’t want to go.
I didn’t build the train or the track or make the schedule or put in the fuel, but I was on it whether or not I intended to be.
Realizing I benefit from racism helps me see my responsibility not so much as a person who created the problem individually but as someone who has responsibility because I benefit from it.
In prayerful meditation, we can be open to recognizing and confessing our own racist thoughts—not with guilt but with awareness.
It doesn’t mean we’re wrong, necessarily; it means we are normal humans, subject to the cultural forces in which we live.
Recognizing our biases is uncomfortable but also moves us toward truth and liberation. Let’s feel and experience that discomfort, then do something about it.
I have unintentionally participated in racism, including good-liberal condescending racism, such as trying to be the “white hero,” and once I realize it, I need to repent and say, “In some parts of my life I’m still on that train.”
Instead of feeling shame and guilt, we face our privilege with courage and put it to work for targets of racism.
Spiritual practices are designed to bring us into the presence of God and God’s transformation.
So here are two ways activist Christians can pray.
Spiritual Director and Writer