Thoughts and prayers won't save America

Here we are. Another school shooting. More of the same banal talking points. In a scene reminiscent of the Columbine tragedy, a 17-year-old high school student, adorned in a black trench coat, entered Santa Fe High School in Texas on May 18th and killed 10 people. Like many of the responses to other mass shootings in this country, the chain of platitudes has been bland, unimaginative and, perhaps worst of all, self-serving. This is particularly noticeable in theological responses among evangelical Christians and in civil religious rhetoric from politicians.

What, pray tell, does the offering of one’s “thoughts and prayers” as a pleasantry in the face of human angst and suffering accomplish? I cannot shake the feeling that the perpetual offering of these “thoughts and prayers” after every school shooting has become an empty rhetorical device that removes us from moral and ethical obligations to solve real-world problems. The “thoughts and prayers” rejoinder enables escape from the difficult, painstaking work of employing our creative power to a complex problem. It is religious procrastination.

Empty theological platitudes such as these do nothing for the real, material conditions under which our communities suffer. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was as harsh in his critique of the plight of African Americans as he was toward the gradualist, slow, “do-nothingism” of white moderates and black clergy. He was frustrated by some of the same impotencies we are seeing now regarding how best to address and mitigate the damage done by gun violence. And make no mistake about it: Our political machine’s response to gun violence is impotent. It is, for all intents and purposes, stalemated and unmoving — due to both self-seeking political interests and the kind of empty rhetoric central to many religious discourses. To religious leaders of all stripes, I ask: At what point do we cease the mealy-mouthed thoughts-and-prayers-alone-will-save-us platitudes and actually make a concerted effort to do something fruitful? How do we reverse the tides of this tragic “new normal” in a way that is substantive and comprehensive?

Rhetoric has all the time in the world. I would respectfully submit, however, that human life does not. Every time another life is senselessly taken by gun violence, whether in schools or elsewhere, we confront the visceral reminder our mortality. We cannot afford to rely on words alone in our grappling with gun violence in American culture but must couple the rhetoric with intentional and intelligent problem solving. What this response should be, I do not pretend to know. What I can say confidently is that none of us are better served by failed theological utterances that offer no wherewithal or incentive to confront the varied existential crises that plague our lives and, in this case, the well-being and success of our students in particular.

Philosopher William R. Jones once critiqued black theological responses to the problem of evil and human suffering. Some of his severest criticism was reserved for what he referred to as “pie-in-the-sky” theological concerns — religious responses that downplayed trauma and tragedy on the basis that an interventionist God is responsible for human flourishing and will thus pull humanity into a better world to come.

Like Jones, I too am critical of religious or theological frameworks that absolve human communities from a role in making our world better. Making “thoughts and prayers” the sole substantive response to gun violence is both infantile and lazy. It is infantile because it proffers no real sense of responsibility or moral obligation; in childlike manner, it runs from reality and toward the veneer of the comfortable. It is lazy because it prefers easy answers to difficult conversations.Religious leaders have a unique opportunity to refocus the terms of the conversation on gun violence, and they have a powerful social and political platform to do so. What they must search their souls on, however, are the ways in which their theologies have consequences for behavior and action. Thoughts and prayers are not bad. But thoughts and prayers alone aren’t going to solve our problems. Pretending that they will is an exercise in escapism and really only serves the purpose of absolving us, each of us, of any culpability and responsibility in confronting the existential threats of our time.

Darrius D. Hills (darrius.hills@morgan.edu) is an assistant professor of religious studies at Morgan State University.

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