For the past few years, I have had an internal dialogue going that has left me wavering about the near-constant debate over “thoughts and prayers” that comes up basically any time a violent act occurs in America (although these days, this is almost always a mass shooting, which are about as frequent as bank holidays).
The last one of these — a mass shooting at a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, TX, which left 26 dead and many more wounded — has solidified these views somewhat for me.
For some time, I stood firmly behind the criticism levied against those who offer up “thoughts and prayers” in the wake of tragedies but resist any steps toward policy change, decrying “politicization” or whatever excuse allows them to express sympathy without taking concrete action. Last year, I wrote a piece to this effect explaining how these criticisms do not constitute “prayer shaming.”
I didn’t change my mind about any of that, really. But at a certain point for me, it began to feel like the cycle of tragedy, #PrayFor[insert place here], and prayer criticism had become just an obnoxious call-and-response with no sign of anyone learning anything.
And, to be perfectly frank, the criticism began to feel a bit gratuitous to me. For most of the people offering prayers, they could do nothing to provide relief for those who are suffering, the victims, their families, and the communities dealing with such turmoil. There’s a helplessness that is natural to feel when people are suffering and you cannot fix the direct cause of their suffering, and praying, for the believer, is a way to channel that helplessness and signal their own support for the grieving (and in many cases, to help process their own grief).
What has changed for me is that I have begun to reflect on my own reactions to these tragedies, and in some ways, I realized that I have actually been a little uncharitable to the critics and their own motivations.
Part of this has been remembering how I responded to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary back in 2012. When I praised President Obama for his display of emotion about these murdered children — children who, like my oldest son, would now be in the sixth grade — and our collective inability to do any damn thing at all to prevent it from happening again, I was commending him as much for his passion and anger as his willingness to shed tears as a male role model.
It has been said many times in the aftermath of Sandy Hook — so many times that I literally do not know who to credit for the observation — that the debate over gun control in America was decided when we allowed first-graders to be murdered and refused to do anything. And this statement is not only so obviously true but also absolutely infuriating.
So when more innocent people — many of whom were also children — die in seemingly entirely preventable ways, I remember Sandy Hook. And Orlando. And San Bernardino. And Virginia Tech. And so many other places that I could not possibly hope to remember them all, no matter how much I want to.
After all, isn’t it also true that criticizing this reflexive response is an expression of a similar despair? We are now at the point in America where The Onion can post virtually the same satirical piece over and over and freaking over again because we won’t learn and we won’t do anything. All of this reminds me how we won’t change no matter what kinds of tragedies befall us, and I feel that sense of helplessness.
But I also feel that same anger – because we shouldn’t feel helpless. Not every tragedy is a natural disaster or a freak accident. The victims in Newtown and Aurora and Charleston and Sutherland Springs didn’t die because a building collapsed or a tornado rushed through. They died because individuals were able to purchase firearms that could murder with stunning effectiveness when they should not have been able to do so. This is not out of our hands; it is a danger that can actually be prevented or mitigated.
And to me, that ultimately is the point of the criticism. Praying people offer prayers because they feel it’s the least they can do, and in more than one sense, they’re right.
But the least we can do is not the least we should do.
And until we stop making the response to tragedy about offering prayers instead of offering concrete solutions, when they are available, this criticism is both pointed and necessary.
Image by George Hodan via PublicDomainPictures.net