I often send a note offering “thoughts and prayers” to people in the wake of personal loss or tragedies. And I mean it. It was natural and sincere for many to offer their “thoughts and prayers” to the high school students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas after they lost 17 friends, teachers, and coaches in a tragic mass shooting with an AR-15. And I was immediately struck by the response by many of those students, even those of deep faith, who said thoughts and prayers were no longer enough.
I believe in the power of prayer, but as the apostle James tells us, “Faith without works is dead.” Therefore, it is time to think about the connections between thoughts, prayers, and actions in relationship to gun violence.
The students who survived the now-dubbed “Valentine’s Day Massacre” were all born after the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, which marked the beginning of the modern era of mass shootings in schools. A recent Washington Post analysis estimates that since then more than 150,000 students attending at least 170 primary or secondary schools in the United States have experienced a school shooting on campus. Therefore, these horrific, heartbreaking, and family-destroying moments have become normal for this generation of young people. Some of their first memories at 4 and 5 years old were participating in active shooter drills, akin to the nuclear drills of my generation. As they got older, at 9, 10, and 11, it was not unusual for many of these students to fearfully ask their parents if they might get shot in school.
But now they are teenagers, watching and listening to the world around them, often online, as many of us started reading newspapers and watching the evening news at the same age.
And they are asking some hard questions of the rest of society: “Why is this normal? Why is the older generation, including our parents, not protecting us? And why have our elected leaders allowed this to happen and accepted it?”
The students have already moved from questioning to acting, saying: “This can and must be changed, and we are going to do that.”
Pay attention: Social change always comes when the next generation decides to no longer accept what the last generation accepted.
High school students are refusing to accept the distractions, excuses, and inaction that has prevailed for so long. This is a generation that knows how to communicate and connect with each other more than any generation before. They are all getting old enough to vote — some already are — and they are registering.
The big question is what can we do, as older generations? What should the high school students’ parents do? What can our elected officials be forced to do? And yes, what can our churches and those of us who call themselves people of faith do now, to protect our young people?
It’s time for all of us to support the emerging agenda of the high school students who are leading now. It’s time for the rest of us to support them by doing what they are calling us all to do. The student survivors are turning their grief into action. They are dealing with their trauma by deciding that the status quo on guns in this country is no longer acceptable.
When I listen to the Parkland students who have formed #NeverAgain and #MarchForOurLives movements, here’s what I hear them saying in terms of action
- Pass truly universal background checks — no exceptions or loopholes for anybody buying a gun any place or any time.
- Ban assault weapons. One of the most consistent demands of the students is to take weapons of war out of civilian hands. It follows that we should also put common sense limits on rifle magazine size and banning “bump stocks,” which allowed the Las Vegas shooter to fire his semi-automatic rifles as if they were fully automatic
- Directly take on the NRA in real ways that will break its hold on the gun debate. The students are clearly saying that politicians who accept NRA contributions should not be re-elected. Period. I agree.
As I listen to the students asks, I think of our faith communities. Like every state in the country, Florida is home to many faith traditions. Parkland is no exception, with a variety of churches, a strong Jewish community, and people of many other faiths. In the aftermath of the shooting, places of worship did what we expect them to do: They hosted vigils and funerals for those who were killed and those who are grieving. But churches nationwide can, and need to, do so much more in the days ahead. In addition to offering our thoughts and lifting our prayers, we can follow the Marjory Stoneman Douglas survivors in taking action.
So what do we mean when we say we are offering up our prayers — and how can those prayers move us to action?
Here is what I believe to be the best way forward — and I hope that pastors and congregants across the country will join me.
I call on pastors and places of worship to commit to praying for all of their young people. On March 18, schedule a special prayer during the service, inviting your students and teachers to the altar as the congregation prays for their safety and welfare. Many of these students and teachers may have been part of the March 14 walkout, or they may be planning to attend a March for Our Lives in Washington and around the country on March 24. Some of them may not be participating, but they are seeing the movement in their schools and they have questions and desire discipleship. Pray over them and offer your students and teachers the space they need to pray, process, plan, and act.
You can also commit to some of the following:
- Continue to be safe spaces for grief, gathering, and discussion — but also for planning actions and perhaps even host forums in the community on the dangerous and complicated issues of gun violence—and trying to bring a faith perspective.
- Youth pastors could talk specifically to their youth about gun violence and mass shootings, and plan actions like trips to state capitols and Washington, D.C., to advocate for change. Sojourners is releasing toolkits that will help facilitate these conversations.
- As faith leaders and parents of faith, we could dedicate ourselves to our children’s safety with a serious commitment to preaching, praying, and acting against the scourge of gun violence that root ourselves in the biblical message of peace, justice, and healing.
And we know that our faith and our prayers move us to action. So we are calling on churches, other houses of worship, and people of faith to join a Church Boycott of the NRA. What might that look like? Here are some ways churches could help break the NRA’s stranglehold on the gun debate.
- Make NRA membership an issue in the church. Ask what making churches gun-free zones might look like, given security concerns.
- Most importantly, make gun violence a faith issue in our churches.
- Consider breaking off relationships with financial institutions that extend lines of credit to assault weapons manufacturers, and banking instead with institutions that don’t.
- Consider taking steps to divest from mutual funds and other investment assets that include gun manufacturers in our church portfolios.
- Find out which companies have partnerships with the NRA. Boycott them, and instead, spend your money with companies that have broken off their connections with the NRA like some rental car agencies, airlines, and banks that have already acted. Shop at stores like Dick’s Sporting Goods and others that have taken strong stands. Pressure other stores in the industry to make changes in their policies on selling assault weapons and conducting comprehensive background checks.
- Guide your church members in how to find out if their Congress members get donations from the NRA via this handy link. Call your members at (202) 224-3121. Thank them for not taking NRA money, if they don’t — if they do, ask them to pledge to refuse it in the future. When you call, ask them to support universal background checks and assault weapons bans — and tell them that getting your votes depends on their votes, as our children are now telling them.
Our children are leading us, and our youth groups can help point the way forward. It’s time to listen and follow their lead.