After every national tragedy, like the one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a familiar rhythm of grief emerges. Politicians, religious leaders, and other public figures emerge to offer “thoughts and prayers” to those afflicted. President Donald Trump offered “prayers and condolences,” and First Lady Melania Trump tweeted that the Florida victims were in her “thoughts and prayers.”
Offering “thoughts and prayers” after such tragedies is so common that it has become a model for performative sympathy and inaction. It’s the title of a satirical video game in which players are challenged to use “thoughts and prayers” to stop school shootings (spoiler alert: it doesn’t work). It’s the title, too, of a particularly cynical BoJack Horseman episode about mass shootings, in which beleaguered film producers find themselves rolling their eyes while they trot out the phrase, again and again, in response to real events as they try to get back to the “actually pressing business of making sure the movie gets made.”
But for faith leaders from a variety of traditions, prayer — particularly prayer after a mass tragedy — is more than a byword for inaction. For some, it’s an opportunity to engage with a higher power, or to express sorrow, sympathy, or solidarity. For some others, it’s the first step toward taking meaningful real-world action. And for others still, it’s an excuse to do too little.
SOMETHING stopped homicides in Baltimore for 11 days, and it sure as hell wasn’t gun laws.