Tuesday, June 15, 1999

Littleton and the Cost of Discipleship

“Do you believe in Jesus?” the nihilistic young man asked at the point of a gun. “Yes,” she answered frightened but sure. “Why?” he asked, and fired before she could reply.

This is the memorial of the 17-year-old Cassie Bernall, who died for her faith at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. I look at her picture and weep with her parents. What a beautiful young woman she would have become! As a Christian, I also weep with them for joy, knowing that she is with the Bridegroom in the Paradise of God, radiant in splendor. (Personally, my heart goes out to my former student, the Rev. Dale Lang, whose son Jason died in a copycat killing one week after Littleton. Dale’s bold and loving witness at his son’s funeral made headlines in Canada, and has led several people to Christ.)

The news media took up the killers’ question: “Why?” They paused for a moment, awed, at the religious outpouring of the people of Littleton before passing on to their own answers: gun control, smaller schools, internet censorship and the like, all of which may be necessary but do not address the real question: How then shall we live, and how shall we die?

The reality that emerged after the shootings was this: underneath the upscale culture of Columbine High School there existed death-dealing and life-giving subcultures.

There was the culture of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Without in any way minimizing their personal responsibility, I think we can recognize the marks of our secular culture on them. We all know the sea of ugliness, violence, amorality, and cynicism in which, as Peggy Noonan puts it, our children swim as little fish every day. Cassie Bernall herself had moved in that culture, once appearing hopelessly swamped in it – until she found Christ.

What proved more surprising to the media pundits, in their first moments of honesty, was the appearance of another culture, the culture of life where young boys and girls were reading their Bibles, praying together, and yes, even giving praise to God when one of their own was horribly murdered.

For the Christian culture that produced Cassie Bernall was not just a “life-affirming” culture in the cheap sense. It was a culture founded on the Cross, on the death of the Son of God for our sins, and on our baptism into the death of Jesus through costly faith.

Cassie’s Yes to god was an expression of prior thought and commitment, “counting the cost” as Jesus said (Luke 14:28). The integrity of her life and death shines through her juvenile free-verse meditation, written days before her death:

Now I have given up on everything else
I have found it to be the only way
To really know Christ and to experience
The mighty power that brought
Him back to life again, and to find
Out what it means to suffer and to
Die with him. So, whatever it takes
I will be one who lives in the fresh
Newness of life of those who are
Alive from the dead.

And Cassie Bernall was not the only one to “make the good confession” (1 Timothy 6:12-13). Classmate Valeen Schnurr reportedly faced the same Satanic question after Cassie had been killed. “I do believe in God,” she said, “and my Mom and Dad have taught me about God.” Less than a week later she came home from the hospital, bearing in her body numerous metal “marks” of her faith (Galatians 6:17).

Cassie Bernall, Valeen Schnurr, and others come right out of the New Testament or the early Church. And that, it seems to me, is an important message for us if we want to reach today’s youth. The Episcopal Church cannot afford to be a culture that just entertains them, puts them on committees, and takes them to Eucharist one hour a week. We must be a culture that, by hook or crook, introduces them to the One Who says: “Whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35).

This article appeared in the June 1999 issue of Encompass, the newsletter of the American Anglican Council. Used with permission. The Columbine shootings occurred on April 20, 1999. Since the first reports, it has been disputed whether the question, "Do you believe in God?" was addressed to Cassie Bernall or Valeen Schnurr.

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