Pray if you like, but don't #PrayForParis: Not every emotional response to tragedy needs a hashtag

Prayer isn't something you force on someone else without their request—nor should it be a public spectacle

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published November 16, 2015 8:56PM (EST)

  (<a href=''>KieferPix</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(KieferPix via Shutterstock)

On Sunday morning, I sat in church and listened to our parish priest talk about the horrible events in Paris on Friday evening. He spoke of the need for hope in times when hope seems very hard to find, and to strengthen our resolve to practice peace and compassion in the world. He asked us, as many have over the past few days, to pray for Paris. And in the company of my community, in the quiet of my own heart, I do. But the rest of the time, I'm going to keep my prayers to myself. I likewise won't be washing my profile picture to the colors of the French flag. I just don't see the point.

Despite the devastating amount of practice we have with public tragedy, there's no one correct way to respond to a fatal natural disaster or a senseless act of mass violence. If saying "Je suis Charlie" or "Bring back our girls" offers a sense of cohesion and solidarity to some, that's fine. In the best version of itself, social media makes us feel less alone in our moments of fear and pain. It unites us in the family of humankind. But just understand that there's a difference between the people who were using the #PorteOuverte hashtag on Friday to help their neighbors find shelter in a chaotic situation and making a public display whose tangible benefits are harder to pin down.

To change your profile pic as a show of support for a cause makes a degree of sense — whether it's marriage equality red or Planned Parenthood pink a sea of color sends a message to those in power of who's watching the issue. But when I awoke this weekend to a direct invitation from Facebook to alter my profile picture for Paris, I bristled. It didn't feel like a spontaneous act of solidarity but a forced and insufficient gesture. I accept that if a profile picture tells our friends in Paris we are thinking of them, that can be a meaningful act, but it's not like the French colors are going to persuade terrorists. Nor is a Mister Rogers quote meant for children about finding the helpers necessarily the most apt message to post and repost in a moment of carnage. And I say that as someone who wholeheartedly believes in both speaking and practicing peaceful ideals.

But I flinch when those ideals seem to tip over the line from being openly shared to insistently pushed, and I don't need Facebook to tell me how to color my feelings about terrorism, or promote them to my friends. I likewise find myself uncomfortable when someone helpfully offers to pray for a person or group who might strongly prefer to not be prayed for. In an Instagram message this weekend, Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Joann Sfar pointedly asked for people to refrain from prayer, saying, "Friends from the whole world, thank you for #prayforparis, but we don't need more religion. Our faith goes to music! Kisses! Life! Champagne and Joy! #Parissaboutlife."

I believe there's a difference between religion and prayer — and that while misguided religion unquestionably is behind a lot of the world's messes, prayer can be a powerful and nonintrusive act. But like religion, it shouldn't be imposed on the unwilling. And prayer is not a gift to bestow on someone who may not want it. As Jesus said, "When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others." I think if he were here now, I think he'd be adding, "or tweeting their #PrayForParis hashtags to their followers."

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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