Twenty years after Columbine: Remembering Bonhoeffer and Bernall’s Legacy of Faith

The threat of school violence is all too real for me. As a school administrator’s wife, at two different public school systems, I’ve lived through a bomb threat and lock down with my husband, Larry, inside the endangered buildings. Yet as a journalist, there is no violent episode more personally memorable than the one that occurred in Littleton, Colorado, on April 20, 1999. Twenty years ago, employed as a west central Ohio television reporter at WTLW TV 44, I was horrified by the live footage of bloodied bodies being transported on gurneys from Columbine High School. That historic afternoon, we witnessed a massive display of school violence. Sadly, I fear many folks have become hardened to horrific scenes of mayhem at learning institutions, because they are all too commonplace.

For some of us, our analytical minds have tried to go to the dark place where we question why a loving God would allow such evil? Yet it’s not God’s fault that  people choose destruction. Rather it is up to us as believers to be the light, fragrance, and hope in the midst of human cruelty.

The Bible tells us that Christians should have “lives [that] are a letter that anyone can read by just looking at [us.]” In other words, there really should be something unique about believers, because “Christ himself wrote not with ink, but with God’s living Spirit: not chiseled into stone, but carved into human lives—and we publish it” by the way that we live each day. (II Cor. 3:2-3 The Message)

The April anniversary of the Columbine tragedy is a reminder of  two 20th century martyrs who lived with such Christ passion that their legacies continue to preach us lessons. This month we not only commemorate the tragic murder of Columbine victim Cassie Bernall, but also the selfless sacrifice of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. They both gave their lives in defense of the faith they embraced.

Bonhoeffer was a brilliant young professor, writer, and ordained Lutheran pastor who could have easily ignored the tragic plight of the Jewish race as many of his countrymen did. Instead he passionately fought Hitler’s Nazism within his native Germany. Bonhoeffer himself once wrote, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.” Ultimately, his militant opposition resulted in his being imprisoned by the Gestapo in April of 1943. Two years later, 39-year-old Bonhoeffer was hanged on April 9, 1945 at the Flossenburg concentration camp. It would be naïve to think that Hitler’s reign of terror ended at the close of World War II. There has even been speculation that it was Hitler’s April 20th birthday that might have motivated the Columbine tragedy on the same date 110 years later. Yet we will never know for sure.

Two decades later, one thing we do know is many of us will forever remember the horror of April 20th, 1999 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. As television commentators shared the biographies of the 13 victims, a beautiful blue-eyed blonde teenager named Cassie Bernall was among them. As 17-year-old Cassie was studying Shakespeare in the school library, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris conducted their bloody rampage leaving 15 dead including the two gunmen. Nationwide, it was reported that one of the killers pointed a gun at Cassie and asked her if she believed in God. Supposedly, she answered, “Yes,” knowing it would probably cost her life. In that instant the young man fired and sent Cassie into eternity.cassie-bernall-book

Perhaps, the reason I identify with Cassie is because she was like many of us, she had not always believed. Just a few years earlier she dabbled in witchcraft and was obsessed with suicide. Then she had a radical conversion and became a spokesperson for the God she once shunned. According to a statement issued by Cassie’s parents at her funeral, she made her decision despite the consequence. “Her life was rightly centered around our Lord Jesus. It was for her strong faith in God and His promise of eternal life that she made her stand,” said the Bernalls. In a generation where there seem to be no absolutes or firmness of conviction, it continues to inspire me that a teenager was courageous enough to give her life for what she believed.

Cassie Bernall and Dietrich Bonhoeffer have both become legends. For example, shortly after the Columbine tragedy, Cassie was memorialized in t-shirts, books, and songs. “Yes, I believe,” was a slogan that seemed to crop up everywhere. Similarly, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s legacy lives on within the pages of the books which he authored, and those written about him. Probably, his best known work is The Cost of Discipleship. Others include: Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Letters and Papers from Prison, and Ethics.

As believers, we all need to be reminded of courageous stories like these, which are God’s living letters of faith. After all, being part of a society that has grown increasingly intolerant of people of faith often makes it socially and politically advantageous for us to hide our convictions. However, this April remembering the sacrifices of these 20th century martyrs, there seems little eternal advantage to political popularity. Following both Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s and Cassie Bernall’s example may God grant every believer the courage to say, “Yes, I believe, too.”

Christina Ryan Claypool is a freelance journalist and Inspirational speaker who has been featured on CBN’s 700 Club and Joyce Meyer Ministries Enjoying Everyday Life TV show. Her most recent book, “Secrets of the Pastor’s Wife: A Novel” is available on all major online outlets. Her website is www.christinaryanclaypool.com

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Mitch Albom’s books & My Message about Suicide

Mitch Albom, best-selling author with Christina Ryan Claypool, blogger

Interesting how books written by an inspiring author can make you contemplate aspects of your own faith, but that’s exactly what  Mitch Albom’s books can do. Albom’s genre was originally sports-related, but he skyrocketed to literary celebrity in the late 1990s with his bestselling, Tuesdays with Morrie, followed by The Five People You Meet in Heaven, and For One More Day. My personal favorite was always his 2009 non-fiction, Have a Little Faith, about a dying rabbi and an inner city pastor. Yet, his 2018 release, The Next Person You Meet in Heaven, might be my new personal favorite. Let’s just say I was sobbing into my tissues at the end of the book, but it was one of those cathartic ugly cries women live for. 

Although Tuesdays with Morrie is probably Albom’s best known work. It has become a modern classic and continues to sustain popularity with over half a million followers on Facebook alone. Probably because the book addresses human mortality, one of the most challenging and perplexing issues that we all must face.

Confronting death head-on in, Tuesdays with Morrie, Albom interviewed an elderly Morrie Schwartz, who was dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. In one chapter, the Detroit Free Press columnist quotes Morrie as saying people don’t talk about death, because “no one really believes they are going to die.” But none of us is getting out of here alive unless theology-permitting, the Rapture happens first, because the Bible tells us that our human bodies are wearing out on a daily basis.

For some reason, even though death is all around us, it still comes as quite a shock when it happens in our circle. To explain, when we learn of someone close who loses their child or mate, it’s easy to experience guilt for the gratitude we feel that the tragedy happened to them, instead of to us. We hug our own spouses and kids a little tighter, hoping to stave off this inevitable grim reaper.

Over two decades ago, the question of mortality began to haunt me again. It had not been so intense since my days as a troubled teen, when I buried several other despairing acquaintances who took their lives. Even though I found myself in an Intensive Care Unit a couple times due to intentional overdoses, my young life was miraculously spared. To honor the memory of my  late friends, I appeared in Ginger Stache’s regional Emmy-nominated documentary, “Before You Say Good-Bye.”

I was just one of the folks interviewed by Ms. Stache for the 1997 suicide prevention piece that aired nationwide and in Europe. I shared my testimony of surviving several near fatal suicide attempts as a young woman. Later, I would tell this story over and over in schools, prisons, and churches. It was not the “wanting to die” part, but rather the “grateful that I’m still here” message that I shared. My goal was to offer a glimmer of hope that with God’s help there is always a reason to live. 

Still it was Jewish Holocaust survivor, Elizabeth Bing Sondheimer who exposed the truth about my passion to spare others from suicide. She spotted my surivivor’s guilt almost immediately after first meeting me. This wise mentor gently guided me in relinquishing the guilt of surviving when others had not. She, too, lived with this same dilemma losing most of her extended family to Hitler’s diabolical genocide. Liesl taught me renewed awe and gratitude for the gift of life, while finally accepting my purpose birthed through the pain of loss.

After all, suicide is a lot like cancer, without intervention one’s irrational thoughts can result in a tragic decision. When our mental health is jeopardized, the darkness and hopelessness close in, creating despair. This is a time when a hurting person needs help, because it’s never our choice to decide whether life is worth living.

The Bible tells us, “You realize, don’t you, that you are the temple of God, and God himself is present in you?” (I Cor.3:16) Then there’s also, “Or didn’t you realize that your body is a sacred place, the place of the Holy Spirit? Don’t you see that you can’t live however you please, squandering what God paid such a high price for…” (I Cor 6:19) The high price that God paid for each one of us was himself dying a painful and humiliating death on a cross. Jesus died for us to give us what Scripture says should be an “abundant” life.

When life gets rocky, we have to remember that God is still in control. Yet that’s difficult to do when you’re elderly and alone, middle-aged and unemployed, or a troubled teenager like I once was. Sadly, suicide is the third leading cause of death for teens. Nationwide elderly males are at great risk, too. The use of drugs or alcohol also increases the propensity towards suicide. 

As believers, we can offer assistance to others struggling by being, “Christ with some skin on.” We can pray, listen, and destigmatize mental health issues by encouraging those battling illnesses like depression and addiction to seek professional help.

Suicide is never a solution. Life is always worth living. If you or someone you love needs help, please talk to a concerned pastor, counselor, or call the  National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or click on the logo to visit their Website.

Christina Ryan Claypool is an Amy Award winning freelance journalist and Christian speaker. Her book, Seeds of Hope for Survivors is available through her Website at www.christinaryanclaypool.com.  

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