Opinion

3 things not to say after a gun massacre

A woman prays with a man after a fatal shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Nov. 5, 2017. (Nick Wagner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

(RNS) — Sutherland Springs is now one more name inextricably linked to murderous gun carnage in America. Even a partial listing of recent bloody assaults is chilling, and the number of domestic killing fields in our nation is rapidly increasing: Texas and South Carolina houses of worship, a Colorado movie theater, a Planned Parenthood facility, a Connecticut elementary school, a Nevada country music festival, a Florida nightclub, a Virginia university.

No person is safe and no physical location provides total security.

But we can permanently eliminate three overused and well-known linguistic phrases that prevent us from recognizing the grim reality, the brutal truth of gun violence in the United States. These stale phrases are frequently invoked after a mass shooting and they provide, especially for political leaders, the necessary and shallow protective cover that allows them to take no action on meaningful gun control.

The first phrase that needs to be removed from our public discourse after a gun massacre is: “What happened is simply unbelievable.”

It is not true. The slaughter of the innocents is quite believable and it is a convenient self-deception to believe otherwise. Dr. Sigmund Freud had it exactly right in 1930 when he warned that human beings have little difficulty “exterminating one another to the last man.”

Of course, the founder of psychoanalysis was sharply criticized when he wrote his pessimistic view of human behavior. But the catastrophic mass murders of the past hundred years remind us that nothing in human behavior is “unbelievable.”

Perhaps Freud (subconsciously!) was reflecting the Jewish concept of the twin opposing forces that exist within each person: the yaytzer ha-tov and the yaytzer ha ra … from the Hebrew, the good inclination and the evil inclination that constantly wrestle for supremacy within each of us. And the mass gun killings are examples of the evil inclination at work. It’s not “unbelievable.”

The second phrase that needs to be scrubbed from our lexicon is the oft-heard “It can’t happen here.” There remains deep within the national psyche the false belief that terrible events like mass shootings happen “somewhere else,” but not in America’s idyllic supposedly peaceful small towns “far from the madding crowd.”

This protective phrase perpetuates the myth that America’s urban centers are more dangerous and crime-ridden than tranquil rural America. The truth is, gun violence takes place everywhere, whether in street shootings in Chicago or in a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

Human nature and the evil urge to murder are not based on population density data or voting patterns. It is time to stop demonizing cities and sanctifying small towns. The orgy of mass shootings carried out by either legal or illegal weapons continues to accelerate in all parts of America.

The idealized America where people proudly leave their cars and homes unlocked in picturesque villages with one “blinking amber traffic light” on Main Street are not now and have never been safe havens oblivious to or protected from gun violence.

The third phrase that must be eliminated from public discourse is the one that comes “trippingly off the tongue” of many politicians after a massacre like Sutherland Springs: “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and their families.”

This phrase provides our leaders with a thin gauzy veneer of spiritual concern and caring. But the words, usually spoken in rote fashion, meant to convey an expression of spiritual comfort and solace, have become an insulting cliché.

When was the last time a political leader was seen in authentic deep prayer asking God for guidance in the face of withering lethal gunfire? When have we heard a leader cry out for repentance for having condoned, or worst of all, facilitated the easy access of life-ending weapons?

Few are the leaders who actually visit the broken families long after the TV news cameras have disappeared from the scene of mass murder. Few are the leaders who, after uttering the formulaic words “thoughts and prayers,” take any significant action to stem the wave of shootings that has endangered each of us.

Prayers after a shooting spree are too precious and too painful to be trivialized by robotlike predictable recitations by our leaders. So let’s remove “thoughts and prayers” from our national discourse. The phrase has lost all meaning and is a disservice to the sacred task of healing and reconciliation.

(The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.) 

About the author

A. James Rudin

18 Comments

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  • I appreciate this article because it confronts this difficult topic head on.
    I understand what people are trying to convey when they write, ‘Thoughts and prayers’ because it’s intrinsically human to want to comfort those who have been through such a tragedy. In the past, I have mirrored such sentiment, not knowing how else to comfort or stand in solidarity with hurting people.

    As evil events like the one in Sutherland Springs seem to happen with increased frequency, my desire is not to keep on mirroring well meaning sentiment that comes from all directions, from people of faith and the secular world as well. I want to simply point people to the only One who is near to those who are broken and crushed in spirit. When the bottom falls out, tragedy strikes, or evil people seem to prevail, Jesus is the One who can provide comfort and true peace in the middle of it. When people discuss these horrific events in the office, marketplace or online, we can point them to the God who loves them.

  • The Texas governor who said, “The church shooting is not as bad as the Holocaust.” Who would think that’s helpful to anyone?

  • Wouldn’t even be true.
    Mass shootings were a part of that as well.
    http://www.memorialdelashoah.org/upload/minisites/ukraine/en/en_exposition1.htm

    The Texas governor is also a lying apologetic for the gun lobby. The guy claimed the shooter would not have been able to get a permit for his gun legally. Texas doesn’t issue permits or have registration for guns of any type. The shooter bought the gun from a store, had a history of domestic violence, a felony record and listed an out of state address on the background check. In any state with sane regulations he would have have been denied the purchase.

  • You fail to mention the 4th “thing not to say after a gun massacre”, brother A. James Rudin. And that is: Admitting to being “the best gun salesman on the planet”, when advocating gun control legislation in the name of God! Which was exactly what X-Prez Barack Obama tweeted this past Sunday evening (@BarackObama, Twitter, November 5, 2017, 7:51 PM):

    “May God also grant all of us the wisdom to ask what concrete steps we can take to reduce the violence and weaponry in our midst. We grieve with all the families in Sutherland Springs harmed by this act of hatred, and we’ll stand with the survivors as they recover…”

    Those are all just code words, you see, for “America’s top gunmakers – leaders of the nation’s most controversial industry. They have kept their heads down and their fingerprints off regulations designed to protect their businesses – foremost a law that shields gun companies from liability for crimes committed with their products”, that, in the meantime, are making a killing in an “$8 billion firearms industry”! For “as the debate over gun laws has grown louder, sales have soared.” Just one mass-shooting incident alone “netted more than $390 million in profits on record sales. Shares in publicly traded [firearms companies] jumped more than 70 percent that year … The hedge fund that owns … the assault rifle used in [a single massacre] saw the annual return on its investment grow tenfold. … [So, you see] President Barack Obama [might have] mournfully addressed the nation after [a] massacre … carried out with a [firearms company’s] assault rifle designed for US special operations forces” – but truth be told – “Mr. Obama is the best gun salesman on the planet”! Simply by tweeting the very 4th “thing not to say after a gun massacre”!

    (Source: Josh Harkinson, “Fully Loaded: Inside the Shadowy World of America’s 10 Biggest Gunmakers: Meet the moguls making a killing from gun sales in the United States”, Mother Jones, June 14, 2016.)

  • Now, why would you say the very 3rd “thing not to say after a gun massacre” – “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and their families”?

  • Isn’t this massacre, as the gov put it, so “close in time to us right now [that] we think this is something heavy right now”? Not so, is your answer? Then your quarrel with the gov is worth having.

    (Source: “Texas governor says church shooting not as bad as Hitler”, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, November 7, 2017.)

  • Wow! What religion is promoted at the “Religion News Service?” I would doubt that it is related in any way to Judeo-Christian religion. Perhaps they are going for the secular humanist religionist or pop psychology cultist perspective. I don’t think there were any actual brain cells exercised in this piece. Once the idol of government “action” overtakes prayer as an initial and appropriate response to a tragedy, it is time to strip the word “religion” from website banner. And the atheists and secularists wonder why Christians reference Christian websites to support reasonable and logical arguments….

  • You mis-quoted me as writing a sentence I didn’t write. (see above)
    Our prayers and thoughts are a lifeline of hope to the One who provides lasting comfort. My intent here is to encourage (actual prayer and tangible outreach). That is why I stated, ‘point them to the One who can provide comfort.’
    Many people understandably have a knee jerk reaction to tragedy and will quickly tweet ‘thoughts & prayers’ and I often wonder if many of these people are really praying…..much like the automatic “God bless you” we hear after a sneeze in a public place.

    Saying or writing thought and prayers is understandable and expected, so long as they are followed up with actual prayers, sentiment, and actions that point people to Jesus, who gives peace that passes understanding. To break it down to the ridiculous:
    Our highly viewed public sentiment should be followed up with genuine tangible caring for people, even way after the Twitter and Facebook frenzy die down. Our only motive should be to make disciples & followers for Jesus and focus attention on Him and not ourselves.
    Do we truly love people and want to provide God’s comfort to them in time of need or do we simply want to elevate ourselves and receive the praise of Men. It comes down to motives and only God knows the intents of the heart.

  • You & A. James Rudin pretty much clarify the same point, raise same issue, etc. Yet, and yet, he decides, “Let’s remove ‘thoughts and prayers’ from our national discourse.” Why do you think that’s a bad decision on his part and yours a better one than his? Why not remove them a 100%?

  • Because we are sick of politicians who refuse to do anything except cash their NRA checks, and then say ‘thoughts and Prayers’

  • So according to you, said “politicians” really don’t care about said “victims and their families”?

    So according to you, said “thoughts and prayers” of said “politicians” actually going to “NRA”, instead of said “victims and their families”?

    Answer those 2 questions point by point, and maybe you’ll be worth my time in this discussion in light of the Parkland, Florida school massacre.

    As you can see, I’ve been trying to commit the Howard Green of this discussion thread to the same thing. As I’m now hoping that you’d follow suit.

  • You seem to have some trouble reading what I, or Howard write. I will make it more plain for you. The NRA is much more important to the Republican politicians than our children. We are completely fed up with empty ‘thoughts and prayers’ and no action. There have been 18 school shootings in a month and a half; and cowardly Republicans do nothing.

  • Does this Rabbi who wrote the article forget that it was “meaningful gun control” which immediately preceded the extermination of 6 million Jews?

  • Not just GOPs. Dems too as per what X-Prez Barack Obama tweeted (@BarackObama, Twitter, November 5, 2017, 7:51 PM):

    “May God also grant all of us the wisdom to ask what concrete steps we can take to reduce the violence and weaponry in our midst. We grieve with all the families in Sutherland Springs harmed by this act of hatred, and we’ll stand with the survivors as they recover…”

    Those are all just code words, you see, for “America’s top gunmakers – leaders of the nation’s most controversial industry. They have kept their heads down and their fingerprints off regulations designed to protect their businesses – foremost a law that shields gun companies from liability for crimes committed with their products”, that, in the meantime, are making a killing in an “$8 billion firearms industry”! For “as the debate over gun laws has grown louder, sales have soared.” Just one mass-shooting incident alone “netted more than $390 million in profits on record sales. Shares in publicly traded [firearms companies] jumped more than 70 percent that year … The hedge fund that owns … the assault rifle used in [a single massacre] saw the annual return on its investment grow tenfold. … [So, you see] President Barack Obama [might have] mournfully addressed the nation after [a] massacre … carried out with a [firearms company’s] assault rifle designed for US special operations forces” – but truth be told – “Mr. Obama is the best gun salesman on the planet”!

    So wrote Josh Harkinson, “Fully Loaded: Inside the Shadowy World of America’s 10 Biggest Gunmakers: Meet the moguls making a killing from gun sales in the United States”, Mother Jones, June 14, 2016. And I agree with him. The entire US government is pro-guns!

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