Donate to RNS

After shootings, we need more than “thoughts and prayers.”

Yes, I am praying -- for a change in our way of dealing with guns in this country.

Credit: A Katz, courtesy Shutterstock
Credit: A Katz, courtesy Shutterstock

Credit: A Katz, courtesy ShutterstockYes, I like prayer.

Yes, I like prayer.


In the wake of the recent shooting in San Bernardino, politicians (Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, and John Kasich, among them) and others said: “The victims and their families are in our thoughts and prayers.”

I admit it. I felt uneasy.

My unease would make columnist Peggy Noonan uneasy. This past Saturday (sorry, there’s a firewall) in the Wall Street Journal, she railed against those on “the progressive left” who, she said, told people that they could “take their prayers and stuff ’em.” She criticized those who criticized the leap to prayer, for “politicizing” the tragic moment. She quotes Senator Chris Murphy: “Your ‘thoughts’ should be about steps to take to stop this carnage. Your ‘prayers’ should be for forgiveness if you do another — again.”

I share some of Peggy Noonan’s frustrations about the (somewhat immature) disdain with which many on the “progressive left” hold religion.

Peggy Noonan and I have this much in common: we are prayerful people. I believe in prayer. I engage in prayer. I lead prayer. I write prayers. When people are in pain and in distress, I am right there with my prayers.

And, you know what? It “works.” When people know that others are thinking about them and praying for their healing, it gives them a boost of spiritual energy that cannot be separated from the potential of physical healing.

That’s how I live. It is also how I earn my living. I am in the “thoughts and prayers” business.

So, what don’t I like about the whole “our thoughts and prayers are with you” school of thinking — when it comes to gun deaths?

There is something hollow about it, something Hallmark about it, and something passive about it. Yes, they will think of the deceased and pray for those who are injured. They are happy to talk to God about it.

But, as I have written in the Forward, when it comes to:

  • the plague of guns in this country
  • the fact that In the past 336 days, there have been 355 mass shootings in this country.
  • that these numbers are already higher than the 2014 numbers, which surpassed 2013’s numbers.
  • that of the 355 mass shootings in 2015, 52 of them were at schools, leaving 30 people dead and 53 others injured…

…the “thoughts and prayer” folk would just rather leave things the way they are. They will cluck their tongues. Until the next inevitable shooting — when (thank you very much, in advance), they will offer their thoughts and prayers.

I would offer an alternative — religious people who can offer thoughts and prayers, who know that there is a time to pray — and a time to act.

They are among those who would change this country’s culture for the better, who want to dismantle our nation’s love affair with guns, who want to battle against the heresy of “gunolatry” and the unreasonable, ultra-orthodox reading of the Second Amendment by people who still think that we need militias to fight the government.

It’s about the fact that often, prayer needs to take a back seat to action. My RNS colleague Jonathan Merritt made this point, from the Christian perspective.

But that idea is also very Jewish. When the Israelites come to the Red Sea, Moses starts to cry out to God. “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.'” (Exodus 14:15).

Translation: Stop praying, and get moving.

In the Reform prayer book, Mishkan T’filah, there are two prayers that illustrate the kind of prayer that is sometimes necessary.

  • “Pray as if everything depended on God; act as if everything depended on you.” Piety is fine, but action is necessary.
  • “Disturb us, Adonai, ruffle us from our complacency; Make us dissatisfied. Dissatisfied with the peace of ignorance, the quietude which arises from a shunning of the horror, the defeat, the bitterness and the poverty, physical and spiritual, of humans.” Don’t think that prayer will put you in a hermetically sealed room of the spirit. Look outside at the world (which is why, according to Jewish custom, synagogue sanctuaries must have windows).
Or, to us the old, useful chestnut: The role of religion should be to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable.

That’s the problem. Too many are too comfortable with our gun culture.

Many of those people read the Bible. I love the Bible, too.

  • I view the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as a story of a callous, violence society that simply self-immolates.
  • I read the Ten Commandments and I note the sixth commandment: “You shall not murder.”
  • I take seriously Deuteronomy’s injunction to take care of yourself, to build a parapet for your roof to protect yourself.

That sense of action over piety is even part of American popular culture. In 1942, Frank Loesser wrote the patriotic song, “Praise the Lord And Pass the Ammunition.” The song was supposedly inspired by Army chaplain William Maguire, who, instead of praying for the men who were firing at incoming enemy aircraft, put down his Bible and started firing.

Well, no.

Actually, now it is something else.

It’s “praise the Lord…and do something about the ammunition.”