Thoughts and Prayers

Read: 2 Samuel 10

The princes of the Ammonites said to their lord Hanun, “Do you really think that David is honoring your father just because he has sent messengers with condolences to you? Has not David sent his envoys to you to search the city, to spy it out, and to overthrow it?” So Hanun seized David’s envoys, shaved off half the beard of each, cut off their garments in the middle at their hips, and sent them away (2 Samuel 10:3-4, NRSV).

It started out as a simple gesture of sympathy. It wasn’t received that way, however, and the whole thing escalated into a bitter battle.

If you haven’t read the story in 2 Samuel 10, you might think I’m talking about contemporary tensions over whether “thoughts and prayers” are a sufficient expression of sympathy in response to mass shootings. Hold that thought. The two stories do have some things in common, and we’ll come back to that in a moment.

First, though, let’s take a look at the story from 2 Samuel. Just as he did in the previous chapter, David starts out by talking about ḥesed. (That’s the Hebrew word that’s variously translated as “kindness,” “loyalty,” or “steadfast love.”) Some scholars have pointed out that bad things tend to happen soon after David uses this word. Be that as it may, there is nothing in the immediate context that would suggest that David is being anything less than sincere when he responds to the news of the Ammonite king Nahash’s death by saying, “I will deal loyally [i.e., show ḥesed] with Hanun son of Nahash, just as his father dealt loyally with me” (v. 2).

Even if we decide not to doubt David’s sincerity, the Ammonites do. They suspect the envoys David has sent to express his condolences are really there to “search the city, to spy it out, and to overthrow it” (v. 3). So the Ammonite king, Hanun, throws David’s human sympathy cards back in his face in an unforgettable fashion. He seizes the envoys, shaves off half their beards, cuts off their garments at the hips, and sends them home humiliated.

You don’t need the notes in your study Bible to sense why this might not be well received. But the notes point out that this act of public shaming was even worse than it appears. The notes in my Oxford Annotated NRSV point out that “the beard was a symbol of masculinity, and cutting off half of it was symbolic emasculation. Cutting off their garments below the waist was symbolic castration.”

Ok, then. Message received. Chaos and death ensue.

I promised we would circle back to the contemporary chaos brewing over whether “thoughts and prayers” are sufficient as expressions of condolence in response to mass shootings. As I write this in April 2023 there have been 148 such shootings in the USA to date this year. That’s more mass shootings than days. Is it any wonder that the survivors and families of the victims have started to chafe at “thoughts and prayers”? No matter how sincere these condolences are (and one cannot doubt the sincerity of all of them), one has to recognize their limitations. As Reinstated Tennessee State Representative Justin Jones said last week, “Prayers are good, but action is better.”

Maybe it’s not an either/or. “Thoughts and prayers” can be a way of expressing both sympathy and solidarity. And if we believe in a God who both hears our cries and has the power to intervene on our behalf, then prayers are a potent option. But we also need to remember the wisdom of Rabbi Joshua Heschel, who once said, “I prayed with my feet.” Maybe those feet should lead us straight to the voting booth.

Ponder this quote from Rabbi Jill Jacobs: “We cannot praise God for divine acts of justice and mercy without hearing the call to imitate God through our own actions.”

Pray: Merciful God, help us out of this spiral of chaos and death. Show us how to pray with our votes as well as our voices–our actions as well as our words.