The Deeper Issue With “Thoughts and Prayers”

In reaction to yesterday’s shooting in San Bernadino, advocates of common sense gun control are saying that the “thoughts and prayers” of their opponents are not enough. Conservatives are suggesting that is just another way that liberals are attacking religious freedom. Of course they’re missing the point. But it reminds me of some things that Marco Rubio said this week that suggest an even deeper problem.

At a campaign event in Iowa, Rubio launched into a six minute response to a question that sounded as much like a sermon as it did a political statement.

“We are biblically ordered not to be afraid,” Rubio said. “You know why? Because God is telling us that no matter what happens, ‘It is part of my plan. I will give you the strength to endure it whether you like it or not.’”

Rubio noted that he had previously been asked why God would allow terrorist attacks to happen.

“Where was God on 9/11? Where was God in Paris?” he recalled being asked.

“I said, ‘where God always is — on the throne in Heaven,’” he explained. “The question was how could God allow these bad things to happen? It always challenges us to understand that God’s ways are not our ways. What we may interpret as bad, and most certainly is in the case of Paris or 9/11, even that is part of a broader plan for the universe and for our lives that we are just not going to know the answer to. God’s ways are not our ways.”

Last week when I wrote my introductory post, I mentioned that I was raised in a conservative Christian fundamentalist family and community. This was pretty standard fare that I heard growing up. But eventually it is the kind of thing that didn’t make sense to me. From a theological perspective, it became impossible for me to watch what was going on in the world and accept the idea that God was both all-powerful and that he loved us unconditionally.

Without getting too side-tracked into the religious implications of all that, Elie Weisel offered some answers in his book about the Holocaust titled Night. To paraphrase, he basically said that God was not the one causing the suffering, but the one experiencing it. Kimberly Knight describes a similar response from Archbishop Tutu.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu offers that with this vision of God, a God who does not mysteriously eliminate suffering but “bears it with us and strengthens us to bear it” exists a God who shares in our suffering. And just as God shares in our suffering so too do we share in the suffering of one another and are called to care for one another as the agents of transformation that God uses to transfigure God’s world.

I don’t offer that as a way to convert you to my own religious beliefs, but to demonstrate that those two views of God impact how their proponents understand the world and their own obligations – be they charitable or political.

Rubio’s understanding doesn’t mean that he is disengaged from solving problems. He is the one, after all, who is being most vocal about our need to intervene militarily in Iraq and Syria to stop ISIS. But what he can disengage from is empathy for those who are suffering. That makes these challenges something to be viewed objectively rather than experienced subjectively. More than anything else, that’s why his solutions will almost always fail. But then the fall back is always…it was God’s plan.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.