By Susan K. Smith,
In the aftermath of the shooting in Las Vegas, we are hearing, again, the words “our thoughts and prayers are with you.”
The words sound empty. What do they mean? What are the “thoughts and prayers?” If those who say those words were to come face to face with a grieving family member or loved one, what would the “thoughts and prayers” be? That we’re sorry a person with a gun killed your loved one? That it wasn’t the gun who killed your loved one, but a “bad” person? What would the “thoughts and prayers” be? What are the prayers? That God make people understand that America needs the Second Amendment? That the person grieving understand that it’s unfortunate that they’re hurting, but make them understand how important and right it is for Americans to have the right to bear arms?
The words sound empty because the attitude in this nation is not likely to change when it comes to guns. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in an essay, “Thy Kingdom Come,” that “we have fallen into secularism…not the godlessness of atheism or cultural bolshevism but the Christian renunciation of God as the Lord of the earth.” He says that this “pious secularism makes it possible to preach and say nice things.”
We’re good at saying nice things.
But empty words can cut a person to the core. If we say “I love you” without meaning it, the recipient of those words feels the lack of investment and truth in the words, and suffers emotional turmoil. If we say, “I’m sorry,” but keep doing the same thing, over and over, we breed a spirit of anger and cynicism in the one to whom we are apologizing. If we say, “I promise you I will be there,” but have never been there for this person or group before, the words only serve to agitate spirits that are already bristling from hearing someone lie so audaciously. If someone says, “I was in fear for my life” when the person was actually running away from him or her, the words only make their hearers more angry and insulted at being lied to, yet again.
People resort to “pious secularism” in times of great national tragedy because they feel like it’s the appropriate thing to do; it is, as Dr. Valerie Bridgeman says, like using the words, “for my ways are not your ways,” found in the book of Isaiah, when you don’t know how to explain a particularly difficult situation. But to hear the words over and over, when there is no intention of ever changing the causative behavior, makes the words empty.
Sometimes, it’s just better to stay quiet. Perhaps the leaders of America should just say what appears to be their truth: that people being killed in mass killings is just an unfortunate byproduct of being an American. Perhaps they should say something like, “Be strong. Being an American with constitutional rights causes us to have the strength to accept the side-effects.” Those words are harsh, but they reflect what seems to be the inner spirits of those for whom the right to gun ownership trumps any tragedy that owning the wrong kinds of guns might cause.
Empty words do far more harm than good. To hear someone spit them out is more a slap in the face than a source of comfort. Very little in what the American federal government does indicates that the powers that be believe in “freedom and justice for all.” Very little of what governments on any level do indicate that they have the welfare of “the least of these” in the forefront of their minds, their Christian affiliations notwithstanding.
To those who are suffering today because of the shooting that happened in Las Vegas, the empty words offered by so many people, their offering of their “thoughts and prayers” must sound hollow. Insincere “thoughts and prayers” are not enough. In a time of great pain, people need genuine empathy and care. When any relationship is troubled, it needs honesty and truth so that there can be reconciliation and resolution of its issues.
Empty words make us feel our pain even more. When we are suffering, we look for comfort. The psalmist wrote, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so does my soul long for you, O God.” In that yearning for God, empty words just do not suffice. Perhaps governments should write a new script, new words, to offer to people who suffer because of policies which cause great pain. Better that than empty words, which do little to ease a suffering heart and spirit.
Amen and amen.
Rev. Dr. Susan K. Smith –Writer, author, musician, pastor, preacher and social justice advocate. She is a graduate of Yale Divinity School and author of “Crazy Faith: Ordinary People; Extraordinary Lives,” which won the 2009 National Best Books Award. Follow Rev. Dr. Susan K. Smith on Twitter:www.twitter.com/cassad