It happened Wednesday morning 12/2/15, there was another mass shooting in the United States. This was followed by the usual storm of media information, misinformation, repetition, and general chaos that often ensues around Americans not knowing every detail of an event. Though this attack had its unique factors, it was also followed by a phrase that has become a part of the American lexicon.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.”
I don’t know who said that phrase first, or how old it is, but it is a common phrase that people repeat after incidents of tragic violence.
This time, however, there was also a storm of a different sort. This time the phrase, and all phrases like it, seemed to fall under serious public scrutiny. Several news sites and a myriad number of twitter users decried the use of those words and insisted that it was not enough.
So what could this phrase mean, and why do people get angry when they hear it?
First: This phrase has become a cliché.
It has become as trite and as tired as “How are you doing?” or “when it rains, it pours”, or “I guess you get what you pay for.” On the surface it is the kind of thing you say: when something bad happens. So it often seems to function as a kind of social normalization. We say the thoughts and prayers line because it is what people say when something terrible has happened. And indeed, if I write or say this phrase in the socially normalized clichéd fashion, then the anger and disbelief of people makes sense. Clichés do not make things better.
Second: This phrase is politically “safe”.
It is utterly disheartening to hear this phrase coming out of the mouths of politicians, presidential hopefuls, and elected officials. Since when they say it we know exactly what it means. They say “thoughts and prayers” but they mean, “This event was obviously bad, but I am not about to take any responsibility for this, nor do I want to take a political stance on this issue until I know how I can use it to further my own agenda.”
It is the political equivalent of “Um”, “You know”, “I mean”, and all those other phrases we utter while our brains are trying to figure out what we really want to say. It is the very image of political passivity, and that is really frustrating because you would think that the people who are in charge of things, or at least want to be in charge, should have something to say about these kinds of events.
So the anger and disbelief levelled at politicians is an anger which demands that our leaders say something about rampant violence in a country that they are supposed to be guiding.
Third: Saying this phrase is all I can do.
In the face of human violence that happened in our own country we often feel quite helpless. So when it has been less than a week between mass shootings you feel a kind of nausea start to overwhelm you. In the face of what seems to be an ever rising tide of violence we offer platitudes to hide our fear and despair. This is not the same thing as the cliché because in this case the phrase “thoughts and prayers” stems from a place of overwhelming impotence. You feel that all you can do is offer up some small comfort and hold your family against the oncoming night.
The anger and disbelief in this case is being directed at the way we are giving in to apathy and terror. The angry response screams at us to do something, and we meekly respond “thoughts and prayers.”
Fourth: We say this phrase because we really believe it.
The theologians will tell us that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, everywhere present, and all-loving. So I know that I don’t have to pray in order to tell God to do something about the fact that my neighbors are using weapons to murder my other neighbors. I know that God cares, and I know that God is capable of stopping whatever God wants to stop. I say “thoughts and prayers” because I am praying for God to reveal to me the meaning of this event.
If I believe that God is sovereign then I believe that all the events that transpire in this world, for good or evil, transpire within the purview of Her will. I know that He has a purpose and a plan. She brings a screaming infant into the world at the same time that she takes 14 people out of it. He raises up good women and good men to confront, diminish, and reduce the evil of wicked women and wicked men. I know that God loves the killers as much as He loves the people that they kill. So I pray to discern the meaning and purpose that She has put into these events.
Yet my prayer is not passive, my prayer is active and alive. I am beseeching the Being that made the heavens and earth and I am begging Them to make this right. I am asking that the God which has already foreseen Its will for the universe should stay Its hand. I am Esther, I am Abraham, I am Noah, I am Ruth, I am David, I am Paul, and I am Jacob.
I wrestle with God and I beg the Omnipotent Power that moves the Universe to keep the hearts beating in people who are bleeding to death. I beg the Omniscient Creator to turn the minds that are filled with hate to minds that are wrought with grief. I beg the Omnipresent Trinity to cradle the souls of the dead and to judge them with mercy, for these are souls that were ripped from this world before the fullness of their years. I rail and weep at the loving God whose love should require such sacrifice. I pray because I believe that my prayer can move the Divine to change the laws and events of the universe.
Then, when I am done praying, I get up and I go out into the world and I take hold of all mortal human means available to me and I start doing my part to end the violence in my society.
They might still be angry with us because they don’t understand what we believe, but we have to show them that love and action go hand in hand.