Columbine High School, Mass Murder
Good Shepherd Sunday
This has been a
difficult sermon for me to prepare this past week.
The tragedy of the mass murder in Columbine High School in
Littleton, Colorado, has been an enormous shock to all of us.
We are all stunned. We grieve for the families whose children
have been killed or wounded. The
sense of tragedy overwhelms us all.
As I prepared for
today’s sermon, I wasn’t quite sure what to do.
That is, should I use the traditional Good Shepherd texts and
try to squeeze out some sermon about this horrific tragedy?
Do I just preach about the tragedy itself?
Do I ignore it? Do
I use some illustrations from it? I telephoned several pastor
friends of mine and asked them if they were going to preach on this enormous tragedy, what Bible
texts would they chose and what would they say? One good friend said, “I’m going to preach on the Good
Shepherd story.” I
replied to my friend for whom I have enormous respect:
“If I did that, I would be a chicken.”
He said, “Edward,
you are insulting me.” I
said, “No, I am not. For
me, not to preach about
this tragedy head on would
be gutless.” So that
is what I am going to do today....I am going to try to address this
mass murder directly, openly and as Biblically as I am able.
I have selected
three passages from the Bible as the basis for my sermon for today.
These particular Bible passages seem to be appropriate for
this insane violence which descended upon Columbine High School.
The first is the story of Cain and Abel from the book of
Genesis, where Cain became jealous of his brother and killed him. This past week at Barnes and Noble’s book store, when
reading lists of books about violence, I was amazed at the number of
books entitled, “Children of Cain.”
Children of Cain solve their perceived injustices by use of
violence. Children of Cain feel that when they have been treated
unjustly and unfairly, they get even by killing the more blessed
brother or sister. Violence to solve perceived injustice is as old
as the human race
the next passage in the Bible, we hear about the story of Lamech
where the cycle of violent revenge accelerates, where Lamech gets
his revenge, not once but seven times seventy.
Lamech is part of a culture of rampant violence where
apparent injustices are solved by exaggerated and excessive
been humiliated: kill them all.
Let’s kill them all at the school.”
In the New
Testament, Jesus reverses the mathematics of Lamech and instead of
seven times seventy for revenge, Jesus demands/invites seventy times
seven of reconciliation. When
a Christian experiences perceptions of injustice, rather than
revenge, the Christian is to have exaggerated and excessive energy
towards reconciliation. Christians are called to be children of
Jesus, not the children of Cain and Lamech.
But Lamech and the
United States of America are both cultures of violence, and it is
difficult to be a person of reconciliation in a culture of violence.
That is what I will be talking about today.
A second passage is
from the Epistle lesson for today from I Peter 2, “To this you
were called because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example
that you should follow in his steps. ... When they hurled
their insults at him, he did not retaliate.”
not retaliate. This
passage will also be a focus in our sermon for today as we examine
the humiliating actions and the harassing actions that have gone on
in schools from time immemorial.
A third passage is
the Gospel lesson for today from John 10:
“Anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate is a
thief and a robber. The thief only comes to steal and kill and
destroy; I have come that
they may have life and have it more abundantly.”
In Biblical times,
a sheep pen was considered to be a safe place, the way schools are
considered to be safe places. When
the sheep are in the pen, they are thought to be safe for the night,
and when kids are in a school, they are thought to be safe for the
day. But the Bible says
a thief slips in only to
steal and kill and destroy. That
sounds exactly what happened at Columbine High School. Someone possessed by evil slipped in only to steal and kill and destroy. They had no other purpose.
But Jesus is just the opposite:
Jesus comes to bring not only life, but abundant life.
Jesus wanted these students not only to experience life but
the fullness of life that God intended for each and every one of
are always those who work for the abundance of life and do
everything possible to inhibit those who would slip into our schools
and society to steal, kill and destroy.
This passage is also at the heart of today’s sermon.
After much thought,
I would like to share three perceptions with you today.
The first is this, that we in America are experiencing a
national epidemic of violence.
A disease can reach epidemic proportions in a nation and
violence has already reached epidemic proportions here in the USA.
The tragedy at Columbine High School is one more horrible
example of the sick violence which is gripping our nation.
Let me illustrate.
A few years ago, Dr. Everett Koop was the Surgeon General of
the United States of America. You
remember Dr. Koop, the one with the long, full gray beard.
In 1984, he said that violence is a public health issue like
smallpox and tuberculosis were for Surgeon Generals in previous
centuries. Just as smallpox and tuberculosis were epidemics that needed
to contained and eliminated, Dr. Koop said that violence had reached
such epidemic proportions in the United States, it too needed to
The book here in my
hand this morning is by Dr. James Gilligan,
MD, director of the Center for the Study of Violence at
Harvard Medical School. The title of this book is VIOLENCE. It’s subtitle is: REFLECTIONS
ON A NATIONAL EPIDEMIC. In
this book, Dr. Gilligan, after a lifetime of study and work, has
concluded that violence has reach epidemic proportions here in the
United States. Like a disease can reach epidemic proportions, so
violence has reached epidemic proportions here in America.
He says that compared to the industrialized democracies of
Western Europe, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, etc, the USA’s rates
of violence are two to twenty times as great as other modern
democracies. I remember reading another book some years ago which showed
the rate of increase of violence crimes:
these violent crimes rose at a steady pace in the 1910s, 20s,
30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and then in the 1970s, our rate of violent
crimes started to go straight up, like the chart on a bull market.
For example, this
past week, we are remembering the fifth anniversary of the massive
killing in Waco, Texas. This past week, we are commemorating the fourth anniversary
of the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma. This past week, we have experienced the seventh mass murder in a public school in the past decade.
Does it feel like an epidemic of violence?
I believe so.
This past week I
read a story about a “meter
maid” from downtown Seattle.
She has been giving parking tickets for the past twenty five
years in the downtown district. She told of how she is verbally accosted three to four times every
day by highly irate citizens for putting a ticket on their
windshield. She said,
“It never used to be this way.”
Today, when you
drive down the freeway and someone cuts in on you, you do nothing.
You make no gestures in your car to anyone else on the
freeway.... because you know you may be shot by them.
You keep your eyes straight ahead. It
did not used to be this way in America.
Dr. Gilligan says
we are experiencing an epidemic of violence in America, and I think
that you may agree with him based on your own personal experiences.
In preparing for
this sermon, I read some old sermons of mine, to see if any them
applied. One sermon
seemed to fit, from 1980, when I was doing a series of sermons on
the Book of Revelation. The
title of the sermon was: “Rome,
the Armpit of the World.” The
sermon was based on chapters 17 and 18 in the book of Revelation in
which Rome is compared to a harlot, a whore, a prostitute.
The previous sermon had focused on what happens when the
power of evil controls the
king; this particular sermon focused on what happens when the
power of evil controls the culture. I then talked
about the culture of violence in the Roman Empire, quoting from Will
Durant’s HISTORY OF CIVILIZATION and his recollections of Seneca,
who was born in the year 4BC, the same year as Jesus.
Seneca was famous for his words, “all gutters lead to
Rome.” The comparison
was made between the public games of Greece and Rome.
The public games of the Greeks who filled the
amphitheaters were the races, the javelin throws, the discus, the
jumps, the public display of beautiful bodies and athleticism.
The public games of the Romans weren’t like this at
all. The Roman public
games were the gladiators, men locked in violent combat until one of
them was killed and then the crowds roared with delight. It was told
how Nero in 65 AD filled the public stadium with 400 wild elephants
and wild bulls and then wild tigers and let them fight and kill each
other until they were all dead, the blood flowing deep on the floor
of the coliseum, with the crowds cheering.
Here was a culture addicted to violence and gore...much like
our culture is addicted to violence and gore.
Cultures seem to
have varying characteristics, and the cultures of Rome and the
current United States seem to have cultures saturated with violence,
much more so than our fellow industrial democracies.
This past week,
there was a TV clip of a wounded young man, trying to climb through
the broken panes of glass on the second floor of the school.
My wife, having seen that TV clip, put her hands over my
eyes, “Don’t look,” she said. “It is so awful.”
Don’t look??? I
saw that clip 300 times in the next few days.
It was the best film clip the TV stations had to show to a
culture and media which are addicted to violence.
I would like to
suggest to you this morning that our culture is addicted to violence
in a way a person can become addicted to cocaine.
The person denies it and refuses to come to grips with it,
even when the social consequences are high and all the signs of
addiction are present. I
believe that we are in denial about our cultural addiction to
violence, and we want a quick fix, a quick analysis, a quick blame,
a quick solution. When
a person or culture are addicted, there are no quick fixes and no
quick solutions and no easy answers.
It takes a miracle to overcome an addiction.
Ask any Alcoholics Anonymous person.
And it will take a working miracle for our nation to become
free of our deep cultural addiction to violence.
In other words, I
believe we are not only living out the story of Cain and Abel in
which Cain kills Abel but we are also living out the sequence to
that story. Ours is the
violent mathematics of Lamech, where violence is seventy times
seven, where our culture itself has become contaminated with an
inner violence, much like Rome during the time of Nero. Our culture
of death is the culture of the story of Noah where excessive
violence had become an accepted way of life.
Dr. Gilligan in his
book VIOLENCE says that all murder is a distorted attempt at
justice, the murderer getting even for the injustice he has
Anderson, a professional pastoral counselor from our congregation,
said: “There is this
dark side to all of us. It
amazes me how much we human beings can hate one another.
When we are honest, we recognize the hidden possibility of
violence within us all.”
So this is the
first point in today’s sermon:
We are experiencing a national epidemic of violence, an
addiction to violence, and we are in denial about ourselves as an
addicted nation and therefore we refuse to ask the hard questions
about what is happening in America, of which the mass murder at
Columbine High is the seventh example in the past decade.
And like all addictions, they are not easy to face or
eradicate. It takes a
miracle to break out of an addiction.
The second point of
my sermon for today is a thesis from Dr. Gilligan’s book on
VIOLENCE that murder is overwhelmingly men killing other men, young
men killing other young men. The
author concludes that in every
culture in every decade
in every nation, homicide
is overwhelmingly men killing other men.
He then offered a very interesting thesis: the increase in
homicide rates parallels the increase in testosterone rates of
males; that prior to puberty, men don’t murder; that the murder
rates go right up with the testosterone rates, peaking at age
nineteen and then beginning a slow decline through age forty.
In other words, the
murder charts parallel the testosterone charts.
I found this chart most interesting.
And the point by
Dr. Gilligan is: Increasing levels of testosterone do not cause violence. Men
in all cultures have the
same or similar rates of increases of testosterone.
The question is: What
are the triggers in our culture which are setting off the
violence in such disproportionately large numbers of young men?
What are the precipitating events in the lives of young men
which set them off into violent behaviors.
The cause is not
the increasing levels of testosterone.
The causes are the triggers within our culture.
That is what we need to be examining.
I thought that the
column by Eric Lacitus in the Seattle
Times this past week was particularly insightful.
He described the “talking heads” on television, all the
psychiatric doctors and nurses and wise old men whom he suggested
have had very little first hand and personal exposure to the youth
culture. He suggested
that most adults haven’t visited the bomb making sites on the Web,
haven’t watch scenes from violent movies
(e.g Natural Born
Killers) at least forty times. Natural Born Killers is a
movie in which young actor Decaprio blasts away and kills his
classmates with his shotgun, dressed in his long black trench coat
(Did you see that scene this past week on your TV?
Was it frightening to you?), most adults haven’t played
violent video games by the thousands of hours.
We adults are so out of tune with the media world of kids
nowadays, and we don’t know for sure how our sons have become
addicted to violence. Just
as we, parents, are forever searching for clues to see if our
children are hooked on drugs; so also, we need to be forever
sensitive to see if our kids are hooked on the drug of violence
which is so epidemically available to all.
I liked the
comments by guru Steve Covey (of SEVEN HABITS fame) who said that
the same people who say that media violence has no behavioral impact
on the lives of viewers will be the same people who sell television
advertising for thousands of dollars per second in order to affect
behaviors of consumers. As
if what is shown on the TV programming doesn’t affect behavior but
the expensive advertising does?
How ridiculous. There is a major inconsistency here.
Somebody is fooling somebody. Advertising on TV is expensive
because it does affect
behavior; and so does programming on TV. The very essence of
advertising is to affect behavior based on the
power of repeated suggestion, and TV programming also illustrates
the power of repeated suggestion....of millions of violent
suggestions...deeply implanted into the human psyche...which then
And sometimes it
takes an outsider to tell the truth about your family or culture.
I liked the comments of a British columnist.
You know, Great Britain where the police do not wear guns but
British columnist said that Americans are so fanatical about our
freedoms and so fanatical about our gun laws that we will never get
out of the mess we are in. Our
laws which guarantee freedom of speech and the freedom to bear arms
get twisted and abused so much that pornographic violence becomes
free speech and young men easily buying machine guns of war becomes
the right to bear arms. Yes,
the Brit was right. We
are so fanatical about our freedoms and so fanatical about our guns
laws that I am not sure we will ever escape our addiction to
violence in America. We
simply write it off saying: “Well,
it’s the price of freedom!”
Meanwhile, we fail to recognize and investigate the
comparative lack of violence in our neighboring democracies which
are also politically free.
In a recent poll,
high school students were given options of what they think
contributes to violence in their schools.
They were free to chose from a long list of possibilities of
factors that contribute to the violence of their teenage culture.
The answers of the teenagers themselves?
#1, availability of guns, 86%;
#2, the Internet, 84%; #3
parents (75%). Imagine
what happens when you add together three dangerous cultural
ingredients: easy accessibility of guns and
unrelenting violence in the media and Internet
and parents too
busy living their own lives to be close to their children.
When you add these three together in one mix, you begin to
have a chemical combustion of violence,
an explosion of violence, a
culture of violence which grows excessively
and exponentially out
of control and nobody knows what to do except say, “Well, that’s
the price of living in America.”
There is an inevitable explosion when you bring these three
cultural chemicals together in a dangerous American
accessibility to guns, repeated images of violence, parents who are
too busy to parent. And certain young men, with high levels of testosterone and
rejection, seem to react in dangerous ways to this cultural
combination. This special American mixture seems to set off violence
in the hearts and trigger-happy hands of far too many young men.
Something is causing our young men to be so violent compared to the
rest of the world. Something
is setting them off. Knowing
that there are no simple answers, what do you think are the causes
of excessive violence in our young men?
We, as a nation and as a community of faith, must come to
grips with these issues.
The third point of
my sermon is about dissing. I
telephoned by best friend from the past this week, Dr. Roland
Martinson, Professor of Pastoral Care at Luther Seminary in St.
Paul. I found Rollie at
a Bible Camp outside of Philadelphia where he had just addressed
five hundred high school youth.
I asked him if he had spoken about Columbine High School, and
he said, “of course”, like why would I ask such a foolish
question. I asked him what he said, and one of the insights he gave
me was about “dissing.” Dissing
is taunting, picking on, shaming, bullying other kids at school or
wherever. It is as old
as the human race, as old as Cain and Abel.
He told the story of when he had been dissed.
He was a young boy at Bible Camp, sleeping in a dorm, and
Rollie had the problem of being a bed wetter which he naturally
tried to hide from his friends.
That night at Bible Camp, he wet his bed and he was trying to
quietly escape into the bathroom to cover up his mistake when the
lights went on, all the boys realized what had happened and Mart was
humiliated by the boys. It
was a terrible experience for him, one that he remembers with great
clarity because of the pain and the shame.
He then told the young people near Philadelphia another story
about when he dissed a girl, when he and his friends dished it out
to this girl at school until she finally broke down in tears,
humiliated and ashamed. The
girl’s mother came to school to pick her up, and as Mart walked by
the car, he could read the lips of the girl, through the window of
the car, saying to her mother:
“He is one of them.”
Rollie said, at that moment, the Lutheran high school kids to
whom he was speaking in Philadelphia, were silent.
“You could hear a pin drop,” he said.
Yes, you could hear a pin drop because all of these kids had
done it and had it done to them, and they knew how deeply painful
and shameful it could be. Mart
had touched a nerve that night.
And I notice how quiet it is in this sanctuary right now as
we acknowledge how often we have given and received shame and
In this book by
Gilligan, VIOLENCE, A NATIONAL EPIDEMIC, the author concludes that
all violence is rooted in shame.
And Jesus adds:
not retaliate.” When
you are humiliated, do not retaliate with your personal needs for
revenge. Sometimes, that is very difficult to do when you want
revenge. The most
natural thing is the world is to get revenge on someone who has
humiliated you, shamed you, put you down. And while acknowledging
the reality of those feelings, Jesus teaches us to handle them in
does not exegete one story from the Bible, nor do I offer any simple
solutions to our complex addiction.
But I do believe that our culture is similar to the excessive
violence found in the stories about Cain and his descendant, Lamech.
I believe that we have a cultural addiction to violence which
has reached epidemic proportions
which then triggers violence in young males, much more than
in other democratic nations. I
believe that the mass murder at
Columbine High School is one more tragic example of our
addiction to violence at work.
I believe that we are in denial and are unwilling to look
deeply at our addictions. I
believe that there is a cultural explosion going on as three
cultural chemicals intermix: availability
of guns, powerful media repetition of violence, and parents too busy
to parent. And I
believe it will take a miracle of God to become free from the
violence which is destroying us.
I believe in miracles...which is another sermon for another
Sunday sermons are given without notes and then I type up the oral
manuscript during the following week.
That has been the process of this sermon as well.
Also, during the week following April 25th, I added some
further insights to this sermon which I didn’t have available for
the Sunday morning delivery.)