Look, I get why “thoughts and prayers” annoys, even angers, people in the aftermath of a mass shooting. I feel kind of the same way when people will respond on social media by telling those in harm’s way — say, in the path of a hurricane — to “be safe.” As if they weren’t going to take every possible precaution!
Christians and many other religious people believe that prayers are appropriate responses to such events. There is no greater thing we can do in that moment but to petition God to show mercy to the suffering. Mature believers of any faith do not believe that prayer is transactional. It is ultimately impossible to fathom to one’s satisfaction why an all-powerful, all-good God allows things like the church massacre to happen. Yet Christians believe that God Himself took human form, and willingly suffered an unjust, excruciating death so he could defeat death by His resurrection. This is a great mystery, but it does not become untrue because we cannot understand it.
I’m not asking unbelievers to share Christian belief. I am asking them to understand that for us, “thoughts and prayers” are meaningful responses.
It is not unfair, though, for you to be frustrated, even angry, at people who believe that “thoughts and prayers” are always sufficient. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, God’s favor rests on the stranger who did something to help the wounded traveler, as opposed to the two who walked by and did nothing. It is certainly the case that we cannot allow ourselves to rest in having arranged our thoughts and our emotions in a correct way, when there are actual things we could do to relieve suffering and prevent more of it.
But that’s just the thing, isn’t it? I wonder to what extent the visceral anger at “thoughts and prayers” is a way of expressing fear and anger at our inability to control irruptions of evil into our ordered lives.
Devin Kelley ought not to have had a gun. As we now know, the law would have prevented him from buying guns, but human error: the Air Force neglected to report his domestic violence court martial to the federal database. We will never know if that would have saved the lives of those people in Texas. Kelley lived on his well-off parents’ property in New Braunfels, in a barn. It would have been unusual if his father, living in rural Texas, had no guns on the property. If the elder Kelley did have guns, then his son might have taken them and committed the same crime. The Sandy Hook shooter had access to his mother’s extensive gun collection.
Unless you plan to have the government abrogate the Second Amendment and confiscate all the guns in America, there will always be a risk that a homicidal maniac is going to put his hands on a gun, and do what Kelley did. Why don’t we ban AR-15s, the semi-automatic rifle that Kelley and many other mass shooters use? Because there’s nothing unique about the AR-15. Kelley could have walked into that church with three or four semi-automatic pistols strapped to his body, and done just as much damage. Again, unless you’re going to confiscate every gun in America, there will always be a risk of this.
Let me be clear: I don’t believe that the fact that we can’t stop all gun violence by gun restrictions means that all kinds of weaponry ought to be on sale to the general public. I don’t. Nobody should have the liberty to amass the kind of arsenal that the Las Vegas shooter had — but then again, Kelley had only a tiny fraction of the Vegas killer’s armory, and he still murdered half a church. The point I’m making is that gun control is at best a partial solution.
We are in a situation that has more in common with Europe’s Islamic terrorist situation than we care to admit. Because of Nice, Barcelona, and most recently, Manhattan, we know that automobiles can and will be weaponized by terrorists. Nobody is talking about banning cars, because that would be unrealistic. The best any of us can do is try to figure out how to reduce the odds that a would-be mass murderer will be able to get his hands on a car or truck. That’s extremely difficult. Now, a gun is not the same thing as a car, but the problem with keeping them from being used for mass murder is similar. Guns are everywhere, and 99.99 percent of those who own them — and I am a gun owner — use them for perfectly legal ends, and are unwilling to allow the government to ban the sale of firearms across the board.
Here’s a link to recent Pew research data on American attitudes towards guns. Like it or not, America has a gun culture, and has always had a gun culture. When liberals demand that Congress “do something” about guns after a mass shooting, they’re insisting that members of Congress from pro-gun parts of the country go against the will of their own constituents. And for what? It would be a brave thing, arguably, if Republican Congressmen would defy their own constituents and cast a career-ending vote for a gun control measure, if that measure stood a good chance of dramatically curbing gun violence. But for a number of reasons — for example, with gun ownership as widespread as it is, and guns as ubiquitous as they are, with the Constitution unambiguous about gun rights, and with a huge number of Americans in favor of gun ownership — it is very hard to demonstrate that more legislation would be effective.
Again, the law was supposed to have prevented Kelley from buying a weapon. Human error short-circuited the law. We cannot legislate against human error. And as I said, it is likely that Kelley would have had access to weapons anyway.
Now, if you’re going to accuse me of making excuses for Not Doing Anything, understand that I do not believe gun rights are absolute. I think we have reasonable gun purchase restrictions now, and in principle I would be in favor of tightening them, if this could be shown to be effective. The Pew research shows that 42 percent of all Americans live in households that have guns. All guns aren’t created equal, of course, and it’s much easier to commit mass murder with a semi-automatic rifle than with a handgun. But you could walk into a church on Sunday morning or a shopping mall on Saturday and kill a lot of people with a revolver or semi-automatic pistol before anybody could take you down. This is just something we are going to have to live with, I’m afraid.
This is why I think lots of people on the left get wound up about “thoughts and prayers.” They wish to believe that the only thing keeping us from stopping these events is the lack of legislative will. That is a belief that has more to do with faith than with reason. The scary fact is that all of us are far, far more vulnerable to the acts of madmen than we realize, and always will be. This “thoughts and prayers” controversy is a bit like conspiracy theory. People are susceptible to conspiracy theories because it is more reassuring to believe that somebody, somewhere, is in control of events — however malicious those somebodies might be — than it is to believe that we live in a world in which a random nobody like Lee Harvey Oswald can end the life of the most powerful man in the world in a second. Similarly, it is more comforting to believe that Congress has in its power the ability to stop the Devin Kelleys than to accept that we live in a world in which an evil man can walk into a church, an elementary school, or a high-rise hotel, and kill a lot of people.
It requires faith to leave the house in the morning and believe that you will make it home at the end of the day, because we live in a world in which chaos and evil cannot be banished completely, only endured without losing our minds and our humanity. Some see that more clearly than others, and they tend to be the thoughts-and-prayers people. Sometimes — not all the time, but sometimes — thoughts and prayers are our only weapon against the disintegrating power of malice.
UPDATE: Pastor Charles Featherstone:
A fairly large number of the “don’t give me your thoughts and prayers” crowd are liberal and progressive Christians, for who the Gospel witness demands action. Jesus didn’t just pray for the hungry who followed him into the wilderness, he fed them. The Good Samaritan didn’t just pray for the man beaten half to death on the side of the road, he bandaged his wounds, took him to an inn to recover, and paid for it. They cite James, saying what good is it to tell someone to be warm and filled when they have no clothes and little food. Faith without works is dead, they say.
And they aren’t wrong.
But to demand legislative action in this political environment is also little different than saying “Go in peace, be warmed and filled” to someone lacking food and shelter. It is little more than saying “The Lord helps those who help themselves.” It is political piety and moral posturing designed to identify the speaker as one who believes it is clear what must be be done so nothing but evil intentions keep that from being done. It is another mark of our partisan identities (we use the word, but the Arabic term shi’a, which means “partisan” or “follower” works really well) as moral identities.
I am tired of the political and moral arguments we have about guns, both for and against. I too am tired of the violence we visit upon ourselves. I am tired of the belief there is an answer and its clear and if only we did that one thing — allowed everyone to open carry, or banned all firearms everywhere — then evil would come to an end or at least be seriously limited in its ability.
I look at America today, at its insubstantial churches preaching little but nonsense, at our inability to meaningfully care for or even about each other, at our idolatry, and I can only think of the word the Lord spoke to Jeremiah:
“As for you, do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer for them, and do not intercede with me, for I will not hear you.” (Jer 7:16)
“The Lord said to me: ‘Do not pray for the welfare of this people. Though they fast, I will not hear their cry, and though they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I will not accept them. But I will consume them by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence.’” (Jer 14:11-12)