After San Bernardino Shooting, “Thoughts and Prayers” Anger Is Wrong

For religious people, prayer is not the opposite of action — it's the beginning.

After Tuesday’s massacre in San Bernardino, this is almost certainly the most viral, most-Facebooked newspaper cover in the country today:

The idea? That “thoughts and prayers” are useless — that it’s time to take action and pass some gun control already!

I’m not unsympathetic to that idea. As has been widely noted, we’re experiencing about one mass shooting per day in the United States this year; and while it’s true that the number of homicides in this country is down, radically, from the 1990s peak, it’s also true that we’re still experiencing levels of gun violence that other countries endure usually only if they’re in the middle of a civil war or some other sectarian violence. And our violence is gun-fueled: We’re not counting the number of “mass stabbings” in America, are we?

Still, the anger over politicians expressing “thoughts and prayers” is misplaced, for two reasons:

It’s a commonplace expression of sympathy for victims and survivors. And that’s, uh, what normal people do when something awful happens — they express sympathy. Then they talk about what to do about it.

Take President Obama, for example. He was doing an interview with CBS when news of the San Bernardino shootings emerged. Here were his first words:

“It’s still an active situation. FBI is on the ground offering assistance to local officials as they need it. It does appear that there are going to be some casualties. And, obviously our hearts go out to the victims and the families. The one thing we do know is that we have a pattern now of mass shootings in this country that has no parallel anywhere else in the world. And there are some steps we could take not to eliminate every one of these mass shootings, but to improve the odds that they don’t happen as frequently: common-sense gun safety laws, stronger background checks.”

See there? First the expression of sympathy: What is “our hearts go out to the victims” if not a secular version of “thoughts and prayers?” Which is the right thing to do, of course. I’m not sure it does us much good to start ripping public figures for how they choose to express sadness at mass death.

There’s another, probably subtler, reason the “thoughts and prayers” anger is misplaced:

For religious people, “thoughts and prayers” aren’t the opposite of action. It’s often the beginning.

I think this is something that might be difficult for secular people to comprehend: Religious people don’t see prayer as an alternative to action. When they pray, they believe they’re seeking inspiration and intervention from a mighty God who has the power to move the universe, and who — not incidentally — hates the kind of evil that is apparent in mass shootings.

This is not a metaphor to religious folks. This is real to them.

You might think that’s crazy, or at the very least, wrong. (I’m a lapsed Mennonite, myself, so I don’t spend a lot of time in prayer, but I come from folks who did.) But you shouldn’t mistake it as passive, or even necessarily hypocritical. When religious folks pray, they really, truly believe they’re taking action.

On Wednesday night, social media was filled with examples of politicians who expressed their “thoughts and prayers” but who also had taken money from the NRA and supported its agenda:

Which is by and large the thing to do. Polls show most Americans want tighter gun regulations; hell, polls show most NRA members want tighter gun regulations. We should do everything in our power to persuade and prod our leaders into finding smart solutions to the violence that plagues us, and we should point out which leaders are failing us, and why. And loudly.

But maybe we should avoid doing it in a way that makes religious people feel mocked. We’re not winning this political battle, after all, so we’re going to have to win some people to our side who aren’t on it now. That’s probably going to include a few people who believe in prayer. We shouldn’t let our justifiable, righteous anger blind us to this truth: Persuasion rarely starts with alienation.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.