by Jonathan Pye.
On 1st October 2017, 59 people were killed and 500 wounded when a gunman opened fire on a crowd attending a music festival in Las Vegas, Nevada. Although reported as the largest mass shooting by a lone gunman in US history, it was also simply the latest in a long litany of fatal shootings in that country that over just the last 20 years has included places like Columbine High School, Virginia Tech., Sandy Hook, Fort Hood and Orlando. The assailant was neither young, nor black, poor nor radicalised. He was a 64 year old accountant, living in a retirement complex. It remains unknown why this seemingly unremarkable man amassed an armoury or used it to such deadly effect. In the days that followed we heard, time and again, from elected officials the usual familiar clichés in the face of such tragic and large-scale killings.
Two days after the shooting Kirsten Powers wrote in an article in the Washington Post – “Why ‘thoughts and prayers’ is starting to sound so profane”. Although herself, ‘a person who prays and who has been prayed for and knows its power’ she wrote:
It’s become a sort of twisted American ritual: A lone white male shooter opens fire on a crowd of people. Americans cry out for someone to do something and are met with shoulder shrugs, mumblings about ‘the price of freedom’ and assurances that the people elected to protect them are sending their “thoughts and prayers.” Politicians have managed to make a once benign, if not comforting, phrase sound almost profane.[i]
What she objects to particularly is the way in which civic and national leaders ‘spiritualise’ the problem by praying for victims rather than offering any practical response or effective action.
Her colleague, Colby Itkowitz, writing after the 2016 nightclub shooting in Orlando described this as ‘a too easy, even insincere, display of empathy in absence of real action…’[ii] While both would agree that prayer can be efficacious both as an expression of empathy for the victims and a way of finding meaning in the face of brutality, nonetheless both would contend that ‘thoughts and prayers’ alone can simply be an evasion of the responsibility to act in the face of wrongdoing. Without action, prayer becomes merely a self-directed act – it makes the pray-er feel better, rather than being something that seeks to help those who are prayed for or to change the way things are. Such observations are charged with both psychological and theological insight.
In his book, Zero Degrees of Empathy[iii] Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of developmental psychopathology in the University of Cambridge, seeks to understand why some people act in ways that demonstrate great cruelty while others are completely self-sacrificing (the kind of contrasting behaviour that we observe in the difference between the shooter and those who covered the bodies of friends or relatives with their own bodies to prevent them from being injured). Baron-Cohen asks whether rather than thinking in terms of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ we ought rather to consider everyone as lying somewhere along an ‘empathy spectrum’.
Without minimising the effects of either ‘nature’ or ‘nurture’, I would resist Baron-Cohen’s too deterministic thesis that our position on that spectrum is largely determined by both our genes and our environment because it leaves little place for moral responsibility. This is why President Trump’s description of the gunman, Stephen Paddock, as ‘pure evil’ leaves me so uncomfortable. By describing someone as personifying ‘evil’ we render that person ‘other’, unlike ‘us’, and so places a distance between us. As a theologian, I agree with Baron-Cohen’s psychological insight that we are all capable of acts of great cruelty and great compassion and so I would argue that we share a moral obligation to go beyond ‘thoughts and prayers’ and to act in ways that promote the common good. While we may never fully prevent the killer’s actions, we may nonetheless, act positively to change a culture in which violence is endemic and the means to enact it are so readily available[iv] Theologically, this reflects a proper understanding of Augustine’s theory of ‘original sin’, not that we inherit the sinfulness of our parents but that by participation in a common humanity we all bear some measure of responsibility for what happens around us. This why Augustine could say, ‘Hope has two beautiful daughters, Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are’ because in Miroslav Volf’s words, ‘Theology is not only about understanding the world; it is about mending the world.’[v]
[iii] Baron-Cohen, S. (2011) Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty and Kindness. London: Penguin.
[iv] Extending this argument to include consideration of the increasing use of motor vehicles etc., deliberately to effect mass casualties or deaths lies beyond the immediate cope of this short article.
[v] Volf, M. (2011) A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good. Brazos Press.