After every tragedy, a familiar rhythm of grief emerges. Politicians, religious leaders, and other public figures emerge to offer “thoughts and prayers” to those afflicted. In fact, “thoughts and prayers” have been deployed in the wake of so many mass shootings, including the Columbine High School massacre (1999), the November 2015 Paris attacks, and the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting, as well as offered to victims of natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina (2005), the 2017 Central Mexico earthquake, and Hurricane Maria (2017).
I must speak bluntly here; the phrase is nothing more than a platitude used in place of meaningful action.
After the revolting and despicable attack in Las Vegas, the same note was plastered on hotel marquees throughout the city: “Pray for Vegas.” The city authorities actually had to tell residents that, although thoughts and prayers are appreciated, the most effective way to help is to give blood; I couldn’t agree more.
I’m talking mostly in reference to the Christian version of thoughts and prayers, of course; my atheism is rooting in a Christian upbringing, and my knowledge of Islam’s, Buddha’s, Shiva’s, and Thor’s versions of thoughts and prayers is strictly limited, but I’m sure they have their equivalents. In the New Testament Epistle of James, it notes that “there is something deeply hypocritical about praying for a problem you are unwilling to resolve”: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (James 2:14-2:16)
Following the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, which occurred in Orlando, Phil Plait wrote that while it was “natural and very human” to “send their thoughts and express their grief … it’s cynically hypocritical when politicians do it and nothing else“, later noting it was “particularly galling” to see “all the NRA-funded lawmakers tweeting their ‘thoughts and prayers'”. An accompanying Slate post provided a select list of members of Congress who had tweeted “thoughts and prayers” along with the amount of campaign contributions they had received from gun rights groups, based on research provided by Igor Volsky of the Center for American Progress.
The trope of “thoughts and prayers” after a tragedy is so common that it has become a model for sympathy and inaction. It’s the title of a satirical video game, designed by Mike Lacher, in which players are challenged to use “thoughts and prayers” to stop school shootings (spoiler: it doesn’t work). It’s the title, too, of a particularly cynical BoJack Horseman episode about mass shootings, in which beleaguered film producers find themselves rolling their eyes while they trot out the phrase, again and again, in response to real events as they try to get back to the “actually pressing business of making sure the movie gets made.” The game also has some critiques of Republican politicians in the loading screen.
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. I often think the “thoughts and prayers” trope, especially in the immediate wake of a tragedy like this one, is utterly useless. They usually only serve to alleviate the guilt that the “thinker” or “prayer” has for not being able to (or being willing to) do anything more.
Besides, what does it even mean that your “prayers are with the victims,” like they were flowers left at a roadside vigil? The “thoughts and prayers” approach is lazy. People know they need to respond somehow, but know that no words will ever do, so they “think” and “pray.” I’d rather have people vote and act. Thoughts and prayers won’t change gun control laws in America. Only actions and votes will. Rabbi Heschel once said that “I prayed with my feet.” What a courageous man; I applaud him for that.
To offer thoughts and prayers is quite arrogant and conceited in many ways; it offers people a get-out clause from taking more direct action; it allows them, perhaps, to feel morally superior from others who don’t offer the same generic, vague response to a national tragedy. They can say, “Well, I’ve done something” when, in fact, they’ve done absolutely nothing to offer practical help, merely smeared our faces in the fact they have a direct connection to the apparent creator of the cosmos. They don’t; they merely have a connection to the inside of their own head, and yet had convinced themselves that offering thoughts and prayers actually does something.
We elect politicians to fix problems, enact policies, and keep us safe. Instead, Americans 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.
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. They’re also significantly less religious, but perhaps that’s a topic for another day, else this article goes on forever.
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 very clearly: “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.”
For thoughts and prayers, call a Priest or Rabbi. For decent gun laws, call a congressman.