In a recent post I looked at the theodicy expressed or implied by people as they sought to explain some “larger meaning” in hurricanes and other natural disasters. Theodicy is literally “the justice of God,” or figuratively the broader question of “Why do bad things (or good things) happen in this world?” That latter interpretation has come to include both theistic and non-theistic expressions, encompassing both religious believers and non-believers. All of us hit this “big question” at some point or another in our lives.
The first thing we seem to hear after every mass shooting is an expression of “thoughts and prayers” in sympathy with the victims, especially in the tweets of politicians. This post is an exploration of why these words are so common and yet express our collective helplessness at doing anything about this problem. According to the excellent Gun Violence Archive, the U.S. experiences an average of one incident of mass gun violence per day in the United States, defined by this group as four or more people killed or injured in a single incident. One per day! Thoughts and prayers are apparently not working.
Many of my posts on this topic in the past have focused on how this one-per day rate has more of a significant statistical similarity to a cruel lottery than it does to the most popular “causes” expounded in the media. The “mentally-ill shooter” claim is an especially common but egregious and unsupportable example here, and a conflicted one to boot, based on recent Barr Department of Justice push to expedite the capital punishment of mass shooters who are, in the next breath, asserted to be “mentally ill.” Since when do we execute mentally ill people in this country? (Well, probably a lot more than we admit, but we are not supposed to).
A cynical interpretation of “thoughts and prayers”
I noted in that earlier post that it is often helpful to interpret ordinary people’s expressions of “God language” like this as them expressing a heartfelt “I really hope…” or “I really fear…” For instance, “I really hope that there is a reason for this tragedy, and that somebody is listening to my prayers.”
In the conservative, fundamentalist Christian circles in which a large number of American gun enthusiasts and their defenders reside, I personally “hear” this expression as both their articulated hope and also their fear of “God’s will” that rules their universe. While victims and their families, in my observation, are rarely comforted by being told their loved one’s death is “God’s will,” I have to conclude that a lot of religious bystanders do believe this.
This expression, whether the speakers understand it or not, is a particular theodicy. They have a need to mentally reconcile this violent act with their belief in the justice of a conventional Judeo-Christian God, and so they have to hope that their thoughts and prayers make some kind of difference, even when the very next week brings a new “active shooter” incident. This “cognitive dissonance” requires resolution of some kind in most of us. It just “does not compute.”
Unfortunately, in these circles, this seems to be the extent of the response. If this is “God’s will,” then who am I to try to change things? Social paralysis seems to be the most common reaction. And yet, some of these “socially paralyzed” people actually do have the power to change things, holding legislative and executive power at various levels of government. Are these (almost all) men themselves paralyzed by “God’s will” or are they instead beholden to powerful lobbyists who fund their campaigns? I fear, unfortunately, that the latter is the case. The former is simple ignorance; the latter is a crime against humanity. As I have noted before, “money is choice,” and society should hold us responsible for our choices.
When nice folks offer “thoughts and prayers”
Well, then, what else are you supposed to say when the next tragedy strikes. I try hard to listen to what “nice folks” (i.e., not U. S. senators) are really trying to say when they offer “thoughts and prayers.” Let me suggest that we say these words because we don’t have anything better in our collective vocabulary, and individually we are indeed quite helpless against both these shooters and their corporate/governmental enablers.
Historically, religious people have mined their scriptural traditions for words to say in difficult times. At countless funerals, for instance, we quote a very old poem attributed to King David: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…” (Psalm 23), even though deep down we have fears a-plenty. Reciting the words, especially publicly, can act as a collective “mantra” to calm some of our deepest anxieties, at least for the moment.
But curiously, the Bible is perhaps as likely to have expressions that rejoice in killing rather than giving us words to mourn it, and it is hard to find much comforting theodicy there beyond “Have faith.” For instance, the Old Testament book of Job is all about a good man who asked God for an explanation of his physical suffering and the death of his children, although the suffering itself seems to arise from some kind of side bet between God and Satan. Novelist/theologian Frederick Buechner suggests in his book Wishful Thinking that this man Job does not get the answer he is looking for because it wouldn’t do any good:
“Understanding in terms of the divine economy why his children had to die, Job would still have to face their empty chairs at breakfast every morning. Carrying in his pocket straight from the horse’s mouth a complete theological explanation of his boils, he would still have to scratch and burn.” 
When I read that passage, I think of the unending pain of the Sandy Hook parents, and far too many more facing “empty chairs” every morning. The classic Christian triad of an “all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God” becomes, for these people, and unresolvable contradiction. Perhaps because it is.
The non-theist alternatives
I haven’t heard any openly-atheist people make lame apologies or explanations for gun violence. The ones I know are solidly in the “pissed-off as Hell” contingent and vocally press their elected representatives for effective change. I suspect there are non-theistic libertarians who stand firm on “gun rights” and have expressed some sympathies here, but the “God and Guns” cultural tie remains so strong that any “Atheists for the Second Amendment” organization, if it exists, is keeping a low profile. And as Barack Obama found while running for President in 2008, “God and Guns” is a cultural tie of which it is forbidden to speak.
Well-read non-theists often have a broader body of literature and tradition to draw from in looking for expressions of condolence here, but they are still mostly lacking when put to the test. I think there may be a market for a book of “better-sounding things to say than thought and prayers” but I have yet to find it. I reviewed over one hundred non-theist platitudes on this topic, ranging from the dukkha of the Buddha, to the words of notable people like Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl, but I have to say that I personally find none of them assuages the anger I feel at tragic events that just don’t have to be.
As for my own mortality, I have become much more accepting of it in the all-too-foreseeable future. I just don’t want it to end prematurely because of some “goober with a gun.” I frankly don’t give a damn any more about your supposed “gun rights.” My “thoughts and prayers” and my vote are for any elected official who will take statistically effective, scientifically meaningful, and politically aggressive action against gun violence.
- Buechner, Frederick. Wishful Thinking: a Seeker’s ABC. HarperSanFrancisco, 1993, p. 57 (published in a 1973 edition as “A Theological ABC”).