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.
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.