Maybe it has always been the case, but after the mass shooting in a Texas church earlier this month, I noticed a backlash to politicians trotting out the phrase “thoughts and prayers..” – especially politicians who in the next breath went on to affirm, as always, that an epidemic of mass shootings has nothing to do with a need for better gun regulation in the US.
Time Magazine took an interesting look at language, cliche’s and grief which noted that
Politicians (and journalists) have long turned to cliches because of the nature of their work. It’s grueling and repetitive, often requiring them to communicate a message to a whole districtful of people, if not an entire country. They generally want to do this in language that won’t be misconstrued, that doesn’t leave them vulnerable to attacks, that feels familiar. Cliches aren’t just overused because they’re clever; they are also safe. You can assume people will know what you mean when you use rhetoric that so many have used before you, even if it is stale as old toast.
However, it also pointed out that the backlash may have something to do with the fact that:
Repeating the same language can even feed into the feeling that mass shootings are becoming normal and unworthy of deep, sustained attention, much less legislative action.
I’ve noticed some religious people offended at the backlash, taking it as more evidence of an increasingly sceptical world when it comes to spiritual matters. But I think there’s more to it than that. Grief takes you beyond yourself. Everyone responds differently. Some will find comfort in other people’s prayers, others will not – and that goes for those who are spiritual or religious as well as those who are not.
But I do think that those of us who are part of faith or belief communities who trot out cliches and then decline to take any action in the face of gun violence – especially Christians, who tend to be the most high-profile offenders, need to sit in the backlash and feel the burn.
We should burn if we offer people cliches instead of transformative action. Prayer is not meant to be a passive act. If you are really praying about the issue of gun violence, if you are truly in a dialogue about it with God, then I don’t know how you can not be changed by it, especially if you are a policymaker who can take meaningful action.
Prayer is not meant to be a wish sent up to heaven, it’s a dialogue – and one that should charge you to do something. We are here, fragile flesh and bone, with hands and feet to transform the world we live in, supposedly for the better. I don’t understand how politicians can claim to be praying one moment, and cling blindly to the ideology of guns the next, as if somehow this is a sacred issue that was enshrined once in law and can never be reopened again. And do so in the face of such overwhelming suffering of their fellow citizens.
The backlash against the cliche of thought and prayers is richly deserved. Maybe shame will do what prayer and compassion apparently cannot.