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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Prayer in a Violent World


On Tuesday, September 25th, the Boisi Center hosted Andrew Prevot, Boston College Associate Professor of Theology, for a luncheon colloquium on “Prayer in a Violent World”. Based on his first publication, Thinking Prayer: Theology and Spirituality Amid the Crisis of Modernity (South Bend, IN: Notre Dame Press, 2015), Prevot deconstructed the concern that prayer causes more harm than good and perpetuates violence against others, arguing instead that prayer can play a powerful role in opposition to violence.

Prevot began his presentation by outlining the most common objections to prayer. A basic argument against prayer is that it does not prevent violence from occurring. Prevot noted, however, a stronger grievance in opposition to prayer: claims that it is an “instrument” that directly causes violence or encourages perpetrators to do so. Prevot outlined several possible reasons for holding these arguments. First, praying may induce greater victimization, especially when the victim feels that God is not listening. Second, many perpetrators of violence pray and are yet responsible for horrendous acts against humanity, sometimes crediting that act to prayer or God’s will, as in modern religious violence. Finally, many people view prayer as not producing, or even as inhibiting, tangible action and change to combat violence, as with the call for “thoughts and prayers” in response to American gun violence. This call is often unaccompanied by meaningful steps to address the problem.

In response to these objections, Prevot presented two ways that prayer plays a role against violence: victims often rely on prayer as a refuge, and prayer can be essential in the shaping of moral character. Many European Jews, for instance, held onto prayer in the midst of suffering in concentration camps, prayer playing a critical role in providing hope and comfort to those otherwise left bereft of recourse. Prayer has been known to play a critical role in shaping the moral character of major actors in liberation movements across the world. Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer have all famously attributed their perseverance and desire for justice to experiences in prayer. Prevot concluded that one way to begin to make a tangible difference against violence in the modern world is to cultivate a prayerful state of mind; one not absent of the desire for change, nor ignorant of the potential harms of prayer, but is instead a “thinking prayer”.