This week, in the wake of the Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church massacre, we once again heard the same tired formula that too many politicians trot out every time there’s a mass shooting.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the victims.”
Hundreds of thousands of Americans are sick and tired of this easy, do-nothing response. So they’ve come up with their own tagline.
“Thoughts and prayers aren’t enough.”
They have a point. In the first place, standing before reporters and solemnly mouthing the thoughts-and-prayers platitude has become too predictable to sound authentic. It’s not unlike the old “I’m sorry for your loss” soundbite that we mechanically throw out at wakes and funerals when we don’t know what else to say.
In the second place, the formula is a blatantly insincere bit of rhetoric if it’s not followed up with a genuine effort to enact public policies and laws that minimize the likelihood of future mass shootings.
To better appreciate its disingenuousness, just consider a few analogies.
A teary-eyed carnival owner tells us that his thoughts and prayers go out to the families of kids killed on one of his mechanically faulty rides — but refuses to actually make repairs so that it’s less dangerous in the future.
A greengrocer solemnly assures everyone that his thoughts and prayers go out to the family of loved ones who have died from eating his tainted produce — but refuses to remove the produce from his shelves to protect future customers.
A medical board offers thoughts and prayers to the family of a patient butchered by an incompetent surgeon — but refuses to yank her license to forestall more botched operations.
In each of these cases, who among us wouldn’t be dismayed and disgusted? Talk is cheap, we’d quite properly say. Such refusals to act in order to prevent future tragedies highlight the hollowness of any “thoughts and prayers” that may be offered. At best they’re callous. At worst, hypocritical.
So it is with the thoughts and prayers of politicians, NRA lobbyists, gun manufacturers, and assault weapon enthusiasts in the wake of mass shootings. They have the power to seriously curtail future gun-related atrocities, but refuse to do so. Their talk is cheap.
But not all prayer is.
This week, my parish held a memorial service for the 26 children, women, and men gunned down last Sunday at the Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church by a man wielding an assault weapon. Barely a month ago, we held a memorial service for the 58 women and men killed in Las Vegas with assault weapons.
In them, we prayed with intensity and conviction, trusting that our prayers make a difference in the world.
Because thoughts and prayers in such circumstances — genuine, heartfelt, and sincere thoughts and prayers — really are essential. We persons of faith should never doubt that, even when politicians and public figures debase the words by casually tossing them around in front of television cameras.
When we pray in the wake of a mass shooting, we first and foremost ask God to embrace the victims and comfort their survivors.
But we also pray for forgiveness, confessing our own complicity in the tragedy by failing to do more to pressure elected officials to address the gun problem.
We additionally pray for the gift of genuine repentance, which means, minimally, refraining from repeating the sins of the past. We vow to God to forsake our earlier indifference to gun violence, to do what we can to foster a less angry social and political climate, and to take seriously the Lord’s commands to love our neighbors as ourselves.
And then we act in the world. As St. Benedict of Nursia said 16 centuries ago, ora et labora. We pray, and we work, and the work is a resolute and courageous continuation of the prayer.
Soundbites about thoughts and prayers are cheap. But real prayer isn’t.