Having apparently exhausted all the human, technological, and governmental resources at our disposal--this includes Kevin Costner's really big centrifuges, which didn't work at all--Alabama Governor Bob Riley has turned to another resource: God.
That is to say, he named yesterday a state day of prayer and urged Alabamians to pray for those affected by the oil spill.
Now, there's a long history in this country of declaring days of prayer. The Puritans did it (usually when the crop was bad, witches were causing trouble, or Native Americans were peskily taking up arms to remain on their lands). Presidents have called such days during times of social unrest, economic downturn, and war. It seems that a group called "Catholics against Obamacare" called a day of prayer for September 11, 2009 in hopes of "Barack Obama's conversion and for the truth about his health care bill to come out." So there's ample precedent for Riley's call.
And I guess, in the big scheme of things, such a call is fairly harmless. That is, while it's unlikely to produce any tangible benefits--it certainly won't plug the leak, purge the waters and beaches, save the pelicans, or contribute one iota toward the clean-up effort--it won't actually make matters worse (as most of the technological shenanigans of the past months have).
But there is a way of thinking that suggests that days of prayer are ultimately counter-productive. If we content ourselves with praying, are we not avoiding the actions (both short-term and long-term) that might truly resolve the problem? Even worse, are we not giving ourselves license to continue performing the actions that are producing the problem? Hey, I PRAYED! So what if I bought an SUV and voted for a "drill, baby, drill" candidate?
This is why civil rights leaders such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King always linked prayer to action and reform. For these leaders, prayer was not an end in itself; it was preparation--mental, spiritual, social--for the real work that had yet to be performed. It was a means of purification, yes--but purification in the interest of selfless action, not purification in order to proclaim, self-servingly, one's own moral rectitude. Prayer to address the problem, not to wash one's hands of it.
That's the kind of prayer we need now. Because frankly, that water's pretty oily for hand-washing.