In 1999, when 15 students were gunned down at Columbine High School, a group of students from a nearby school hung a banner that read, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.”
Twenty years later, mass shootings have become a grim fixture in American culture, and the phrase, which was once meant to be a warm gesture, has become a common refrain among lawmakers and public figures. Many of those affected by mass shootings say thoughts and prayers are not enough.
“We’ve had enough of thoughts and prayers,” Delaney Tarr, a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, said after a student shot and killed 17 kids at the school in 2018. “We are coming after every single one of you and demanding that you take action, demanding that you make a change.”
During an interview with Boston Public Radio Monday, Reverend Irene Monroe said that while the phrase may be well-intentioned, it's become almost satirical in an era dominated by mass shootings and little congressional movement on gun control. Monroe is a syndicated religion columnist, the Boston voice for Detour’s African American Heritage Trail, and a visiting researcher in the Religion and Conflict Transformation Program at Boston University School of Theology.
“It really bothers me. We just move on like, ‘Okay, here’s the next shooting.’ It almost becomes a pat kind of saying,” Monroe said. “It becomes a soundbyte, and becoming a soundbyte desensitizes the urgency in which [someone] says [thoughts and prayers].”
Joining Monroe was Emmett G. Price, professor of worship, church & culture and founding executive director of the Institute for the Study of the Black Christian Experience at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, who said the repetition of the phrase, and the expectation that it will be uttered by political figures almost instantaneously after a tragedy like a school shooting has made the idiom more or less meaningless.
“I think inherently all of us send our thoughts and prayers — whether you meditate or whether you have warm thoughts or feelings — but you can’t say that anymore,” Price said. “The question is, when are we going to do something beyond that? This may be the one thing that we all agree on: That thoughts and prayers are not enough.”