What I hear when I hear “thoughts and prayers” and what I’d like to hear instead

“Thoughts and prayers” (or some cognate thereof) has become the standard response from our lawmakers in the wake of mass shootings. The phrase “thoughts and prayers” has become the tragic version of “LOL,” something we say when we don’t have anything else to say but feel compelled to say something. When I use “LOL” in the context of  a conversation via text or social media, very seldom am I actually “laughing out loud” (sometimes I’m not even laughing). I use it to acknowledge that I’ve seen something that is supposed to be funny.

But mass shootings are not funny and the American people deserve more than “thoughts and prayers” from our politicians whom we elect and pay to enact legislation to frame a more safe and prosperous society.

To be clear: I actually do think that time for reflection and prayer in the wake of tragedy is really important. Too often we are wired to react instead of respond. We do something because we are uncomfortable with tragedy so the doing of the something distracts us from the actual tragedy itself. On a smaller scale this happened a lot when I was a hospital chaplain. Visiting someone in deep physical pain or emotional turmoil is difficult and it is so tempting to fill the space with something. Taking a breath in the wake of tragedy gives us time to consider a thoughtful response interpersonally and systemically.

I have no evidence to support this, but I don’t actually believe that many of the politicians sending their “thoughts and prayers” are “thinking” or “praying” about the victims of mass shootings and their families. It feels to me that they are merely reacting, clicking the “sad” response of the Facebook thread of our tragedies, or acknowledging that, contrary to what their actions might actually suggest, they aren’t living under a rock.

But the victims of mass shootings and their families deserve more than a cursory reaction with no tangible response, and the American people deserve more than tweets or soundbites.

When I hear “thoughts and prayers” I immediately go to Amos 5.21:

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

Apparently God gets tired of “thoughts and prayers” too, especially when we possess the power to act the frame a more safe society that protects the most vulnerable among us, not just our own personal interests. You know what God prefers to “thoughts and prayers”? Justice that rolls like waters and righteousness like ever-flowing streams (Amos 5.24). God is not here for our cursory responses to the growing narrative of tragedy and we shouldn’t use God to outsource the actual hard work of doing justice and righteousness.

The issue of gun violence in America is a complex one that combines passion and fear on both sides as well as various readings and interpretations of the 2nd Amendment of the Constitution. I completely understand that guns by themselves don’t kill people. I also understand that guns make people more efficient at killing other people, particularly when they are semi-automatic and equipped with high-capacity magazines. I also understand that the action of killing is often the symptom of a deeper issue – hatred, prejudice, violent and extreme religious ideology, and the utter lack of regard for human life. Such a complex issue requires a complex response. But we can do this. We have the ability to frame a safer society for ourselves and our children.

“Justice and righteousness.” Maybe that should be the 3-word response our lawmakers given in the wake of mass shootings, because clearly “thoughts and prayers” ain’t working.

What I hear when I hear “thoughts and prayers” is: “it sucks to be them, but that’s not my problem.” What I’d like to hear is: “such a deep tragedy demands an even deeper, thoughtful response. Not xenophobic scapegoating. Not opportunistic posturing. Not fearmongering. This demands the best of who we are.” And then I want to hear dialogue, compromise, and progress.

Doing nothing is no longer an option.

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