Back-to-back murderous acts of gun violence left at least 29 dead and 53 injured in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, Aug. 3-4. Many Americans want to help but feel helpless to do so.
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 in the aftermath of a mass shooting.
Because we are at a loss for what to say — let alone do — after these tragedies, it is tempting to offer trite platitudes.
But this does more to help ourselves deal with fear and discomfort than to help those who affected.
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 an empty cliché, as oftentimes no further action is taken, especially among prominent Christian public figures and influencers who tend to invoke it.
It is understandable that the phrase often triggers a negative reaction. I find myself quick to judge “thoughts and prayers” as a shallow statement following a mass shooting.
However, it is important to remember that for many Christians, prayer is more than an afterthought. 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.
Prayer is a pathway to God. Throughout Scripture, 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.
What part can I play?
As a praying Christian and disaster psychologist who has studied mass shootings and has provided trauma care in the aftermath of the Aurora, Ill., shooting, I would argue that prayer is not the problem. How we have prayed is the 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 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 address gun violence. 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 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.
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.