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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Thoughts and Prayers

People waiting for news on the condition of friends and loved ones hug at the scene of a mass shooting In Sacramento, Calif. April 3, 2022.

People waiting for news on the condition of friends and loved ones hug at the scene of a mass shooting In Sacramento, Calif. April 3, 2022.

William O'Neill, S.J.

Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

William O'Neill, S.J., Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics at the Jesuit School of Theology and a faculty scholar with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are his own.


“Thoughts and prayers”—the refrain to all our litanies of mass killings and terror is so familiar as to become banal. But what do we mean by it? Thoughts are cheap; but prayer, as the martyred Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, is costly. What does it mean, then, to pray for victims? In the first place, to pray for victims is to acknowledge that they are victims, innocents who suffer the violence of a sinful world.

The violence that has become as banal as our litanies is not an inevitable natural occurrence. It is rather a fact of our sinful nature, and that is precisely why we pray, “Deliver us from evil.” And to pray implicates us in that deliverance. To pray for victims of violence is to pledge myself to do all in my power to prevent victimization. Have I truly searched my heart (and not merely the bible of the NRA) to explore every means, including fitting legislation that would forestall such tragedies?

We may, of course, differ in details, but surely the preponderance of evidence—and experience of nations like our own—bears ample testimony to the wisdom of legislation limiting who can possess guns and the kind of guns possessed. We cannot, of course, legislate against every evil; but the very purpose of criminal law is to mitigate it. Believers cannot afford the luxury of despair.

Second, we pray in the words of our Scriptures. And those who profess to be Christian do have a Bible! Whether the Second Amendment of our Constitution guarantees a citizen’s right to bear any gun, however destructive, is legally moot. Constitutional experts differ and no doubt will continue to do so. But nowhere in the Christian Scriptures do we find a sacred right to bear arms. The Second Amendment is not a codicil to Matthew’s Beatitudes. Nor in the name of American exceptionalism are we exempt from their counsels of peace-making. (Mt. 5:9).

Ambrose Bierce, that curmudgeonly agnostic, once defined a Christian as someone who chooses to follow the teachings of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin. Yet Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary is hardly a call to prayer. To be sure, the way of discipleship is arduous and Christians will not always agree. Whether, and how disciples can defend themselves or innocent others, this too is moot throughout the ages (neither Ambrose nor Augustine allowed for violent self-defence). But to speak of “God and Guns” is blasphemous.

Finally, praying is just that: We offer our prayers to God. As Luke reminds us in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector (Lk. 18: 9-14), praying is not performance art, an exercise in pious self-vindication. In praying to God, we do not do both parts like the Pharisee! No, we pray to a God who hears us and who holds us accountable to all, but especially to the most vulnerable—our children.

Finally, it is a fearful thing to pray. Much will be demanded of us as we heed the Lord’s command to live the Beatitudes. So in a world where violence becomes ever more banal, let us “be ready to give an account of our hope with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15-16). Let us dare to pray.


Jun 14, 2022