On the heels of the California food festival mass shooting in Gilroy, two more senseless shootings occurred within roughly twelve hours of each other over the weekend in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio.
Collectively, these back-to-back murderous acts of gun violence have left 29 dead and at least 53 injured. Many Americans, grieving across our nation, will want to help but feel helpless to do so in the aftermath of these shocking events.
One doesn’t have to look any further than social media feeds to see countless posts from well-meaning people offering “thoughts and prayers,” a phrase that has become a common condolence used in the public square in the aftermath of a mass shooting. Because we are at a loss for what to say — let alone do — after these tragedies occur, it can be tempting to offer trite platitudes.
But this does more to help ourselves deal with fear and discomfort than it does to help those who have been impacted.
The phrase “thoughts and prayers” has been used so commonly that there has been public backlash of late — and for good reason. For many, the phrase has become nothing more than an empty cliché, as oftentimes no further action is taken by the person offering up said “thoughts and prayers,” especially among prominent Christian public figures and influencers who tend to invoke it.
It is understandable that the phrase often triggers a negative reaction and comes across as nothing more than a soothing sound bite. As a Christian, I even find myself quick to judge “thoughts and prayers” sometimes as a shallow statement following the latest mass shooting.
However, it is important to remember that for many Christians, prayer is more than a mere afterthought. Rather, Christianity teaches that praying is one of the most powerful ways people can help. When Christians authentically offer up prayers in the aftermath of a senseless act of gun violence, it’s more than a meaningless gesture.
Within the Christian tradition, prayer is a pathway to God. Throughout the Scriptures, there are examples of the faithful calling out for divine help on behalf of others facing hardship and hurt and of God hearing and responding to their prayers.
As a praying Christian and disaster psychologist who has studied numerous mass shootings and has provided trauma care in the aftermath of the Aurora, Illinois, shooting, I would argue that prayer is not the problem — how we have prayed is the real problem.
Many are quick to offer words but slow to act — if at all — and therein lies the rub.
Author Philip Yancey, sharing his insight on what it means to pray, said:
“Now I view prayer as two things: inviting myself into God’s life and inviting God into my life. I know what God wants done in the world by looking at Jesus, who brings mercy and grace and justice and compassion. What part should I play as a partner of God’s activity on earth? Prayer connects me with God so that I ‘tune in’ to what God wants accomplished through me.”
Though Yancey was not addressing the topic of gun violence, his thoughts offer helpful guidance for how Christians can begin to redeem our “thoughts and prayers.”
As Christians, we have a moral obligation to give serious thought and prayer to what God is calling each one of us to do to help address the issue of gun violence in our country. We should begin by lamenting how our collective apathy has allowed so many countless deaths in our country. Let’s ask God to reveal how our ways, including our inaction, may have contributed to the societal ills, including ideologies of hate, and systems of injustice giving rise to these mass traumas, so that we may repent. Let us also ask what it might mean if we were to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8).
But don’t stop there.
I am a founding signer of the Prayers & Action petition, and I encourage Christians to join me in committing to coupling our prayers with action in order to end gun violence in our country. This can take the form of holding a Survivor Sunday event at your church, engaging in political advocacy, or joining in a peaceful demonstration to protest harmful policies.
Please keep praying — loving our neighbors in word is important, but not enough. We must also act if our thoughts and prayers are to have meaning and ring true in our country today.
(Jamie D. Aten is founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College and a founding signer of the Prayers and Action petition. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)