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

April’s Columbine Challenge 20 Years Later

The threat of school violence is all too real for me. As a school administrator’s wife, at two different public systems, I’ve lived through a bomb threat and lock down with my husband 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, I was horrified by the live footage of bloodied bodies being transported on gurneys from Columbine High School that afternoon. What we were witnessing was one of the firsts in school violence. Sadly, I fear the public is now almost hardened to horrific scenes of mayhem at learning institutions. 

Unfortunately, April has a history of violence. For example, John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865. On the same date, 47 years later more than 1500 crewmen and passengers perished with the Titanic. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in Memphis on April 4, 1968, and the Oklahoma City Bombing claimed 168 victims on April 19, 1995. On April 16, 2007, tragedy struck on the campus of Virginia Tech, when a student killed 32 individuals, while wounding 17 others, before taking his own life.  On April 15, 2013 two brothers exploded bombs at the Boston Marathon resulting in 3 deaths and about 260 individuals being injured.

April 20, 1889, is also the birth date of German Dictator Adolph Hitler who led a murderous regime of cruelty resulting in the deaths of more than six million Jewish people, and millions of other individuals. There has been some speculation that it was Hitler’s birthday that might have motivated the Columbine tragedy on the same date 110 years later. But we will never know for sure.

One thing I do recall is that as television commentators shared the biographies of the victims back then, I was drawn to the photo of a blue-eyed, blonde teenager named Cassie Bernall. While 17-year-old Cassie was studying in the school library, gunmen Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris conducted their bloody rampage leaving 13 dead and 23 wounded, before turning their guns on themselves. Nationwide, there were reports that one of the killers pointed a gun at Cassie and asked her if she believed in God. When she answered, “Yes,” he fired, sending her into eternity.cassie-bernall-book

Did this conversation really happen? We can’t be certain, but what we do know is that Cassie did not always ‘believe.’ Before a radical faith conversion, she dabbled in witchcraft, and was obsessed with suicide. According to a statement issued by her parents at her funeral, “….It was for her strong faith in God and His promise of eternal life that she made her stand.” In a generation where there seem to be no absolutes or steadfast conviction, it inspires me that a teenager sacrificed her life for what she believed. Following the Columbine tragedy, Cassie Bernall became a modern day martyr memorialized in t-shirts, books, and song lyrics, spreading the message, “Yes, I believe.”

Beside Cassie’s courageous story, there is the tale of 17-year-old Rachel Joy Scott, who was the first student to lose her life that day at Columbine. “Rachel left a legacy of reaching out to those who were different, who were picked on by others, or who were new at her school,” this according to the Website Rachel’s Challenge, which is the national organization founded in the slain teen’s honor dedicated to preventing bullying in schools. There was great good that came from the tragedy at Columbine as Rachel’s Challenge based on her prolific writings has reached millions of students across the country. Rachel really did leave us with quite a challenge. In her own words, “I have this theory that if one person can go out of their way to show compassion, then it will start a chain reaction of the same. People will never know how far a little kindness can go.”

With education, conscious effort, and a little faith, we have the opportunity to transform April’s legacy from one of senseless violence to that of random kindness and courageous conviction. 

Christina Ryan Claypool is a freelance journalist and inspirational speaker. She has been featured on CBN’s 700 Club and on Joyce Meyer’s Enjoying Everyday Life. Her latest book, “Secrets of the Pastor’s Wife: A Novel” is available at all major online outlets and through her website at www.christinaryanclaypool.com.