Are Calls for Policy Change the New #ThoughtsAndPrayers?

John Sianghio

May 30, 2019

“Lockdown.” To a parent, perhaps no word induces more panic. Last Wednesday (May 22), I received a text alert that my son’s elementary school was going on lockdown. A second alert from the University of Chicago Office of Safety and Security advised all University personnel to avoid the area just a stone’s throw away from where I drop him off every morning for class. The lockdown was initiated because Myles Frazier, a young man of our neighborhood suffering from a mental health episode, had barricaded himself inside his apartment and threatened to harm himself with a gun. As officers negotiated with him, Frazier allegedly fired shots, prompting the police to shoot and kill him. 

The overwhelming sense of panic I felt when I thought my son’s safety had been compromised made it all the more devastating to hear that it was Frazier’s father who, concerned for his son’s safety, had made the call to police that would eventually end in his son’s death.

Myles Frazier’s death was, among other complicating factors, a tragedy of gun violence, a genre with which America has become all too familiar in recent years. While tragedies of gun violence can, like Frazier’s, take the form of state-sanctioned killing, they also manifest in suicide, self-harm, accident, and sometimes purposeful massacre. 

Whatever form they may take, the responses in the wake of gun violence incidents in America are as familiar and formulaic as a Greek play. First comes the strophe of “thoughts and prayers.” Heads both bow and shake in the face of “senseless” violence. The inevitability of individual sin and the impossibility of its elimination are touted as both explanation and excuse. 

The antistrophe of calls for policy action comes next. In the wake of gun violence, the response of “thoughts and prayers” is decried as banal and meaningless. Thoughts turn to tweets, prayers give way to calls to senators, and protest marches replace pilgrimage as a means to petition the powers that be to put an end to such tragedy. Depending on who has died and who has killed them, the citizen Chorus begs the governing powers to fund mental health and education, or defund police, or take away the bitter cup of gun ownership. Rather than a religious chorus raising our voices to God, the tragedy of gun violence demands that the voice of the people become the voice of God through the power of the democratic process.

Though these two responses to gun violence may seem disparate, especially in their treatment of religion, they have much in common. At the very least they share the fundamental belief that human life is something worth protecting. Though perhaps less obvious, they also share the religious instinct to place their hope in powers beyond the individual whose efficacy to solve the tragedy of gun violence remains unseen. This is to say that the response of “thoughts and prayers” in the wake of gun violence is hardly alone in having a dimension of faith to it. 

On the surface, immediate calls for policy action seem to condemn the impulse toward the religious in the “thoughts and prayers” response. The most cynical critics of “thoughts and prayers” view the sentiment as an effective and purposeful deflection by the gun industry away from the material issues of gun proliferation and regulatory failure. “Thoughts and prayers,” and its implied invocation of the divine, turn the anguish and the rage of communities stricken by gun violence toward the idea of inescapable individual sinfulness. The only solution to such a problem lies not in the laws of human beings, but the hands of the divine. Wielded by these so-called “gun-men,” “thoughts and prayers” are the devil disguised as an angel of light. 

The most charitable critics of “thoughts and prayers,” while granting they may be heartfelt, take aim not at the prayers themselves but at the otherworldly powers to which these otherwise sincere supplications are directed. The forces they are meant to move have either little will or little ability to effect real change in the world. As such, “thoughts and prayers” are signs of misplaced faith, food sacrificed to idols that fall short of an adequate response to the real devastation that gun violence engenders in the world.

While there have been some interesting studies over the course of the last decade on the effects of intercessory prayer on health outcomes—yielding inconclusive results at best—no study is needed to determine the impact, or lack thereof, of “thoughts and prayers” on the epidemic of gun violence in the U.S. It’s only getting worse. But if “thoughts and prayers” are empty rituals because the powers they purport to move are ineffectual, what are we to make of the ostensibly more tangible and direct acts of resistance and reform, which, let’s be honest, seem to have had as much, or as little, effect? 

Prima facie, the policy action response—vis-à-vis that of “thoughts and prayers”—suggests a round rejection of religious belief for solving the gun violence epidemic in the U.S. However, upon closer inspection, and with the help of the study of religion, we find it’s a bit more complicated and a bit more faith-full than it might appear upon first glance. 

While their motivations are admirable (not unlike “thoughts and prayers”), those who call for policy action in the immediate wake of gun violence rely on a “faith” that petitions, protests, and mobilizing to elect the right politicians or appoint the right judges will solve the tragedy that faces us despite evidence to the contrary. They serve to deify the democratic process that cannot get done what needs to be done. At least, it has not thus far.

While it may seem strange to think of political institutions as a replacement divinity and political practices as stand-ins for religious ritual, the concept is hardly novel. Ludwig Feuerbach noted in the middle of the nineteenth century that ancient cultures imbued those natural forces over which they had limited control, and whose ebbs and flows sustained and conditioned their ways of life, with religious or divine significance in order to feel as if they could bend these forces to particularly desired ends, even if only by way of submission, supplication, or sacrifice to these forces. 

For Feuerbach, the advent of modernity and humanity’s greater control over nature through science could not kill the religious drive. Rather, religion was being transferred into the laws and political institutions that similarly sustained and conditioned contemporary life. If Feuerbach is right, and I have every reason to believe he is, we are now driven to control social and historical forces, rather than natural forces, recognizing them as those powers upon which we are utterly dependent and over which we have limited influence. 

Gun violence in America is but one plague wrought by these powers. And it is one which, as the theologian James Gustafson points out, demonstrates that the anthropocentric assumption that those powers beyond our control that condition our ways of life may not necessarily have the best interests of human beings at heart. Gustafson’s movement away from an anthropocentric view of the divine does not mean that God (or the gods) is capricious, but simply that we can no longer trust that all things work out for the good of those who love God or that, in terms of civil religion, our political institutions are the march of God in the world. Rather, much like nature, they are forces with which we can interact and even influence but by no means fully control. 

We can no longer trust that our natural, spiritual, or political gods bend the arc of the universe toward justice. In addition to offering “thoughts and prayers” and calling for policy changes, we must critically interrogate and creatively reimagine the sites (holy and otherwise) of our investment in stemming the tide of gun violence. Art perhaps? Pop culture? What would happen, for instance, if the heroes of our blockbusters used their magic hammers to beat their star-spangled shields into plowshares? Would our values and social conditioning toward weapons be different if the sometimes necessary taking of life to save life were treated as the last resort it should be rather than a glory to be sought? The answer is unclear. But the perpetual imminence of gun violence in America demands that we continue to search for innovative ways to respond and make social sacrifices in places that we perhaps have not yet been willing to make them. 

Pain, suffering, and tragedy can no longer simply be viewed as a test of faith in our gods or our institutions; they must become the test for our faith, opening us to new possibilities when the tried and trite rituals of response ring hollow in the face of the plagues that beset us. 

Image: Shells from a December 2017 shooting in Chicago. (Photo Credit: E. Jason Wambsgans | Chicago Tribune)  

4aa2df6a-f568-4907-b949-be0bb8ce132c.jpeAuthor, John Sianghio (MDiv’15), is a PhD student in religious ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Formerly, he was Assistant Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at Trinity Christian College. As a political scientist, he served as an embedded asset advising U.S. Army units in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. He lives on the Southside of Chicago with his wife and son.

Sightings is edited by Joel Brown, a PhD student in Religions in America at the Divinity School. Sign up here to receive Sightings via email. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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