Last week another horrific school shooting took place, this time in Parkland, Fla. Following the tragedy, political leaders have offered their thoughts and prayers to victims—as reflexively as saying “God bless you” when someone sneezes.
This same pattern has occurred after every mass shooting in recent history. But this time around, the survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are having none of it.
Student Emma Gonzalez, in her speech decrying politicians’ response to the shooting that went viral, said, “If all our government and president can do is send thoughts and prayers, then it’s time for victims to be the change we need to be.” Other students have expressed similar frustrations on social media.
These teens are not rejecting prayers per se. They are rejecting hypocritical prayers from lawmakers who offer them after each mass shooting but then refuse to make laws that could prevent future ones.
The Parkland students were not alone in their rejection of empty thoughts and prayers. On Tuesday I searched for #ThoughtsAndPrayers on Twitter, and four trending hashtags appeared. The first was #ThoughtsAndPrayers itself; the remaining three were #ThoughtsAndPrayersDoNothing, #ThoughtsAndPrayersDon’tWork, and the colorful #ThoughtsAndPrayersMyAss.
We can’t know for sure whether these politicians are offering their prayers sincerely; that’s ultimately for God to decide. But I do believe that we can and must gauge their authenticity as best we can. And that means judging whether they are backing up their prayers with deeds.
As a former Jesuit seminarian and priest who still prays regularly, I do believe that prayer works. But prayer works only if the person praying works too.
We can look to Scripture to support this. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says of false prophets, “So by their fruits you will know them.” And in the First Letter of John we read, “Let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions.”
The Letter of James goes so far as to declare that faith that does not bear fruit in good works is meaningless: “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
This guidance echoes through other religious traditions as well.
Rabbi Shaul Praver was the leader of a congregation in Newtown, Conn. after the Sandy Hook school shooting. He said that “prayers are appropriate” after such a tragedy, but added, “First, we see who died, then you offer your condolences and your prayers. And after that, you take action.”
“Change only takes place through action,” said the Dalai Lama in 1999. “Frankly speaking, not through prayer or meditation, but through action.”
All of this doesn’t mean that political leaders should not offer prayers after mass shootings. It is natural for people of faith to turn to God in prayer at such times.
But prayer requires the humble recognition that God might not share our opinions about what should happen. The model for this is Jesus just before his Passion unfolded. He saw what was coming, wanted to avoid it, and prayed, “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” But then he added, “Yet not what I want, but what you want.”
If our leaders want us to believe their prayers, they can prove it by abandoning their old opinions on gun regulation and finding practical solutions to make schools and other public places safe. They need to do so not only for God’s sake, but for our children’s.
Joseph Holt is a business ethics professor at the University of Notre Dame and a former Jesuit priest.