“Thoughts and prayers” has become a phrase so ubiquitous — and so alternately maligned and defended — that it’s ceased to convey its original meaning. But in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting in mid-February, “thoughts and prayers” moved from a mixed reputation to a thoroughly negative one symbolizing inaction, passivity, and callousness.
It’s also one of a handful of uniquely “Christian” responses to tragedies. These responses may not accurately reflect orthodox Christian theology but they have some vaguely religious or Christian bent, and are popular with conservative media outlets and their audiences.
Another popular “Christian” response, especially in the wake of school shootings, is to claim that “taking God out of public schools” (i.e., court decisions that banned school-sponsored prayer or Bible classes) is the cause of such tragedies. This sentiment (understandably) receives a range of responses but one is very similar to the response to “thoughts and prayers”: it’s an insincere distraction. Instead of dealing with the present problem, Christians are quick to spiritualize the issue in an effort to abstract the material reality away.
Furthermore, both of these responses play into a uniquely evangelical narrative: the world is becoming progressively more evil and there’s nothing we can do about it.Instead of dealing with the present problem, Christians are quick to spiritualize the issue in an effort to abstract the material reality away.
I was recently watching a (very old) lecture for an online seminary class. The professor made an offhand comment about how America had taken a “moral nose-dive” since the ‘60s. In an edit that I’m certain was unintentional, the video moved to a shot of a black woman in the class just as the professor made that statement. Her pause, deep breath, and subtle eye roll communicated the tension between his statement and her lived reality more than any words of mine could.
Many evangelicals who bemoan the state of “the culture” pinpoint the Sexual Revolution of the ‘60s as a fundamental turning point for the nation’s moral consensus. While there’s certainly much about the cultural, political, and social developments of the ‘60s and ‘70s to criticize (as there is in any decade), this analysis ignores both the discriminatory conditions faced by people of color and women during those years and the powerful advances that were made toward addressing those evils.
In May of 1961, the first “Freedom Ride” was organized, which protested the segregation of public transportation, and yet later that same year, the Supreme Court unanimously sustained one Florida law that prevented women from serving on juries. Nineteen sixty-four marked the 10-year anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka but only 1 percent of southern black children attended formerly white public schools. Harvard didn’t admit female students until 1977.
The narrative that the world is getting progressively worse was partially born out of the formation of the “Moral Majority” and other political mobilizations of evangelicals in the ‘80s. It fit into the nostalgic energy behind these movements. Reagan’s “Morning in America” ads evoked a sense of loss over a small-town America populated with families of Cleavers — an America that never really existed.
It’s no wonder, then, that this narrative continues to cause us to romanticize the past and forget that the days when “God was in public schools” (as if we could ever legislate Him out) were also the days when people of color and women had significantly fewer civil rights than they do today.
Ironically, the same mindset that was born out of a desire to politically engage evangelicals has become a justification for responding to legislative and social action with excessive skepticism. After all, if everything is inevitably getting worse, why bother doing anything about it? As Soong-Chan Rah describes in Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times, the eschatology of many evangelicals has become so defined by the belief that the world is “only befitting judgement and destruction” that we are “simply waiting for the destruction of this world and the institution of the next.”
At a recent women’s conference, a popular speaker repeated one phrase over and over again: “The world is cray-cray; focus on Jesus!” The phrase punctuated various vague references to different cultural and political events, and was often paired with a question: “Why are we surprised?” The message was clear: the world is sinful, it’s getting worse, why are we so concerned with it? The woman giving the message had devoted her life to various efforts at fighting the material conditions of evil in the world; she had every reason to defend Christians engaging with social and political issues. But the narrative is strong and seeps into our thinking without us even noticing.
It’s also an appealing narrative, particularly in this political and cultural moment. In a time of political tension, when “evangelicals” (whatever that means) are deeply divided over political and social issues, it’s tempting to avoid controversy altogether by declaring all of those issues comparatively unimportant. It can even feel like a holier response that calls us to deeper reflection about the evil in the world and reminds us of the need for evangelism and discipleship.
But this response is rarely our universal one. We cherry pick the issues that deserve our political or social attention while declaring others to be only spiritual issues of sin and repentance. The same speaker who shouted about how irredeemably “cray-cray” the world is also bemoaned gay marriage and legal abortion. We’re either dishonest about our standards for political engagement or we don’t really have any.
In the days and weeks following the Parkland shooting, I couldn’t get 2 Corinthians 7:11 out of my head: “See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done” (NIV).
The Corinthians were responding to Paul’s criticisms with godly sorrow. That is, real repentance that both mourns the wrong that was done and acts differently in response. We might not think that we have any level of responsibility for tragic events like Parkland. And we don’t have the same level of culpability that many of the Corinthians did in the issues that Paul was addressing (e.g., division, incest, abuse of spiritual gifts). But it’s safe to say that he was addressing a collective, a church whose problems were widespread and structural. Not every single individual in the church was committing the specific sins he addressed, but they all bore the weight of responsibility for their community.
Similarly, we bear some responsibility for our own communities. We bear responsibility for our communities that prioritize security and safety above all else; that are ruled by fear; and that idolize gun ownership to the point of refusing any discussion of policy solutions to material realities.
We’ve lost a sense of what “godly sorrow” really looks like. In the internet age, there’s certainly a need to remember the time-consuming value of lament. But evangelicals have worked ourselves into a posture toward tragic events like mass shootings that only permits us to offer either “thoughts and prayers” or simple political platitudes — and in the process, we undermine the grave reality of the issues at hand.
If, instead, we responded with “godly sorrow” — the sorrow that comes with “earnestness” and “indignation” — we’d see our own responsibility in our culture of violence and fear, and respond with a “readiness to see justice done.” Even though we wouldn’t necessarily agree on the exact solutions, we’d still recognize the sin among us and desire justice in its place. The conversations we need to have about these different solutions will be difficult, but they can’t begin until we confess our own culpability and agree on this at least: we have work to do.