The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why ‘thoughts and prayers’ is starting to sound so profane

People hold hands in prayer while hiding inside the Sands Corp. plane hangar after the Oct. 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas. (Al Powers/Invision/AP)

This piece was originally published on Oct. 3, 2017.

It’s become a sort of twisted American ritual: A lone white male shooter opens fire on a crowd of people. Americans cry out for someone to do something and are met with shoulder shrugs, mumblings about “the price of freedom” and assurances that the people elected to protect them are sending their “thoughts and prayers.”

Politicians have managed to make a once benign, if not comforting, phrase sound almost profane.

It’s not that there is anything wrong with praying for those who are suffering. In fact, if you are a religious believer, it’s an imperative. I’m not in the camp that dismisses prayer as superstitious mumbo-jumbo embraced only by the unenlightened. I’m a person who prays and who has been prayed for and knows its power.

But it’s not enough. Nor is it what we hire politicians to do. We elect them to fix problems, enact policies and keep us safe.

As America grapples with the increasing frequency and deadliness of mass shootings, politicians are turning to scripted reactions to respond to the tragedies. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Instead, we have elected officials — many of them self-described conservative Christians who also happen to take money from the National Rifle Association — using cries for “thoughts and prayers” as some sort of inoculation against responsibility or action when it comes to gun violence.

In his address to the nation on Monday, instead of offering specific action, President Trump and his White House team avoided any discussion of policy, as though it were only a spiritual matter.

“We pray for the entire nation to find unity and peace, and we pray for the day when evil is banished, and the innocent are safe from hatred and from fear.”

But Christians especially believe that our faith leads us to action.

“If we profess to follow Jesus, all of our talk must be indivisibly connected to all of our deeds. If there are no deeds, then the talk is meaningless,” the Rev. Eugene F. Rivers III told me. “The contrived, empty platitudes [from these politicians] are a public relations gimmick to avoid confronting this ideologically captive religion which bears no fruit.”

The “ideologically captive religion” to which Rivers refers is white evangelical Christianity, which has so intertwined itself with the Republican Party and conservative political ideology, it’s hard to know where one ends and the other begins.

Strangely, when it comes to other issues these same Christians don’t feign helplessness and limit solutions to “thoughts and prayers.” If the shooter in Las Vegas had been named Mohammed, you can be sure that these same leaders would be offering a laundry list of “solutions” to keep more Mohammeds out of America. For that matter, have you ever seen a politician just throw up his or her hands about legalized abortion — which has been the law of the land for 40 years — and say there is nothing that can be done, but “thoughts and prayers” all around?

How ‘thoughts and prayers’ became so polarizing after mass shootings

There is something deeply hypocritical about praying for a problem you are unwilling to resolve, renowned Christian theologian Miroslav Volf pointed out to me.

“It’s analogous to what is going on in the book of James 2:16: If a person says to those who are cold and hungry, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? Or if you look at the story of the good Samaritan, we can easily imagine that the priest, who walked by a person robbed and left half-dead by the road, prayed as he was passing by. Still, he was a bad priest. The Samaritan was good because he did something to help the suffering person.”

For those of us who identify as Christians, it’s particularly painful to watch elected officials use their Christian faith to attempt to spiritualize mass murder, while their inaction leads to people traumatized, maimed, disabled or dead. Mass shootings are not acts of God. They are not natural disasters. We know they are preventable, because no other country lives with this kind of madness. Contrary to NRA propaganda, those countries that are not beset by gun violence — such as Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom — are no less “free” than the United States.

Mark Kelly, husband of former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, said “thoughts and prayers” from politicians “aren’t going to stop the next shooting.” (Video: The Washington Post)

At a minimum — and even if it wouldn’t have prevented the most recent tragedy in Las Vegas — why can’t these leaders support the simplest gun control measures such as requiring criminal background checks at gun shows and on Internet sales?

Jesuit priest James Martin summed it up to me this way: “If your thoughts and prayers are truly with somebody, it means you are going to do something to help them. Jesus prayed. But he prays and then he acts. We also have to act.”

Every week, millions of Christians around the world join in confession around the world with words like these:

“We confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”

We know what we have left undone: enacted lifesaving policy protections for millions of Americans who simply want to safely go to a music festival, nightclub, church, university, movie theater or elementary school.

Kirsten Powers is a D.C.-based writer and political commentator. Follow her on Twitter at @KirstenPowers.