A God Who is Present in Our Pain
A Feature Review of
When Thoughts and Prayers Aren’t Enough: A Shooting Survivor’s Journey into the Realities of Gun Violence
Hardback: InterVarsity Press, 2021
Buy Now: [IndieBound] [Amazon] [Kindle] [Audible]
Reviewed by Justin Cober-Lake
We have the numbers. We have enough statistics on gun violence in the United States to make even a baseball analyst dizzy. We don’t, however, seem to be any closer to solving our gun crisis. Of course, clichés tell us that the numbers can be twisted and lie, and very few people are as good at analyzing data as they think anyway. It could be that what we need is a different sort of approach to the conversation. The numbers need faces, biographies, stories. But the stories need context– to be part of a larger picture. With her first book When Thoughts and Prayers Aren’t Enough: A Shooting Survivor’s Journey into the Realities of Gun Violence, Taylor Schumann takes that approach, hopefully to broaden not only the content of the conversation, but also the participants.
Taylor, as the book’s title says, survived being shot. She was at work in April 2013 when a stranger came in and shot her. To those whom have experienced such an incident, the fallout feels dizzying. Unlike in media representations, recovery isn’t simply a matter of a trip to the hospital and a hug with a loved one. Schumann lays out the lengthy physical recovery process (which doesn’t get her back to full strength), the emotional and psychological toll, and the ramifications from the attack that spread throughout her life. “This pain deserves to be seen,” she writes. “Someone has to look and really see. Someone has to remember…. This pain has to be used to propel us to a better future” (3-4).
Stories of gun violence need to be known for these reasons: to maintain witness and empathy, and to enact change. Schumann comes from a position particularly well-suited to opening conversation. She has a background in American evangelicalism, local gun culture, and Republicanism. When she writes on gun reform, she’s not just writing to people with whom she disagrees, but she offers a grounded, broad understanding of the situation. As a survivor herself, she knows what she speaks of experientially, and she has the research and writing skills to put together potent arguments.
Schumann divides the book into two main sections, one for her story and one for her arguments. That first half makes for an emotionally demanding, yet insightful read. Hearing from someone who has lived with trauma allows many more aspects of violence to come through, particularly the long-term struggles. Schumann really shines when she takes a pastoral approach to her own life. One especially valuable chapter asks where God is in this suffering. It’s a question as old as theism, and readers likely know the standard theological responses, but Schumann brings the question through her actual life, so when she begins to reach conclusions, the process as well as the answers resonate. She writes, “The answer to our prayers does not always mean God heals us of the suffering. Sometimes, it means we are sustained through it.” (34) The idea that God is present in the pain might not be new, but going through the experience with Schumann gives it extra power.
She also struggles to understand what God has planned for her now. If he kept her alive and is sustaining her, she reasons (and well-meaning people imply), it must be for something special. Her discovery should apply to all Christians: “I realized something terrible: I was going to have to believe I was enough, because of Christ” (94). The gospel takes on a deeper reality for her as she processes how God loves her outside of her achievements. She then takes the bigger step of recognizing that if she judges herself based on what she does, she must apply the idea to others, so she works to adjust her thinking to her new, richer gospel understanding.
Before transitioning to the politics of the book’s second half, Schumann talks about her growing heart for social justice. At age 26, she finds herself recognizing that “I had only ever filtered what I thought about things like poverty and immigration, and even guns, through the lens of my identity as a Republican, and not my identity as a follower of Jesus” (99-100). It’s a thought that should concern every Christian of any political party. We should be asking ourselves if we formulate our opinions based on our faith or on something else. For Schumann, the realization began to turn from more than just opinions and into advocacy. As people ask her if she’s changed what she believes in, she comes up with a wonderful answer, writing, “I didn’t change everything I believe in. I think I just decided what I believe in should look a different way” (108). It’s a leap of faith not into greater political work, but into deeper discipleship.
From that point, Schumann examines various topics related to the gun violence crisis. She has plenty of data throughout, but her best work comes as she finds the angles we might not easily notice. She’s not necessarily looking to throw guns into the ocean, but to consider what responsible laws would look like. How do we close loopholes? Or best protect kids at school? The questions are especially complicated in the US because we tend to fight over ideas of individual rights and freedoms regardless of the safety risks to others, but she tackles that topic with aplomb. Without dismissing concerns out of hand, she reaches a conclusion: “[D]o we care more about lives, or a distorted interpretation of the right to bear arms? I know which side I want to be on” (151).
The book begins and ends with concerns specifically for the church. In her introduction, Schumann talks about the pain of expecting to see other Christians fighting for a “more loving vision for our nation,” but instead watched the church “remain silent.” “To those who should have seen me most deeply, I felt invisible,” an added pain in the midst of trauma (3). The final chapter, then, challenges the church, pointing out that we’ve “created an ideology where guns, country, and God are all intertwined and somehow of equal importance”—a phrase that sounds hyperbolic but isn’t. This section feels a little rushed, perhaps because covering Christian nonviolence at the end of a book with this sort of scope doesn’t quite fit. The book has a resource section at the back, and even though it does suggest books on guns and Christianity, it would benefit from a selection of books on nonviolence (maybe work by Greg Boyd, Preston Sprinkle, Brian Zahnd, or J. Denny Weaver, though they might not align with her thinking).
The question of nonviolence, though, is only part of Schumann’s concern. The first half of her book excels at humanizing the problem, to the point that it might be wise to build some coffee breaks into your reading. The second half covers the logical and policy side of things while still bringing in surprising ramifications of violence (including the cost to taxpayers and a nuanced reading of the dangers posed to law enforcement officers). The book would be of value to non-Christians, but as Schumann reads her experience through her faith with humility while still posing a challenge to the broader church community, she points out a number of topics that we need to address as both individuals and as a body. With her insight into both the topic and ways to talk about it (even in the face of vitriol), Schumann has provided plenty of material for one of the key conversations of our time.
Justin Cober-Lake a pastor in central Virginia. He holds an M.A. in American Studies from the University of Virginia and has worked in academic publishing for the past 15 years. His editing and freelance writing have focused mostly on cultural criticism, particularly pop music.