Again. A Reasoned Look at Combating Youth Violence

Denver Post Again I read the paper through tears, and it struck me. We are getting better at handling school shootings. Oh my.

Again. Arapahoe High School is our school. My daughters all graduated from here. I remember the Arapahoe Indian Chief in full regalia speaking at graduation.   Drama programs and student art fill our home’s “SAVE FOREVER” file.  “An Arapahoe Warrior Cheerleader Lives Here” sign decorates my garage. In my house, we are Arapahoe. I can picture the decorations and trailing banners in the halls, over the stage, around the cafeteria, in the music room, at football games. Now another student–sad, or sick, or angry–has made his way into the hallways of my school, and into the headlines, seeking different banners. One youth intent on killing someone else.

Again. It seems as if God has planted me in the middle of youth violence. Wearing my Chaplain’s badge, I was at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. On that afternoon, we were all in shock. I hugged and listened and prayed with parents and students. In the days that followed, my church, less than 6 miles from the school,  cried and sought heaven with renewed vigor for the families we knew who had lost so much. I participated in several memorials, and walked the row of 15 crosses on a hill with my head bowed many, many times. We were all stunned at the evil which could flow in a teenage mind. “Never again, Lord, please.” I implored. “Teach us, and change us.”

Columbine High's spontaneous memorial of 15 wooden crosses
Columbine High’s spontaneous memorial of 15 wooden crosses

Then came the Aurora Theater shooting in 2012. I had moved as Senior Pastor to a new church, less than 10 miles from the theater. I spent the following nights in the hospital ER and waiting room with victims’ family members, trying to make sense of the violence this time.  By God’s grace, we watched a miracle unfold in that hospital (see “Miracle” post).  But , like most of the world, the question of , “Why?” has pestered me.

AGAIN. Now at Arapahoe. “Whew. Only the shooter died today,” we think. “The lock-down system worked.” Honestly, I am so thankful for the school staff and police officers involved in the tragedy.  But our exhale, too, is tragic. That we feel any kind of relief that it only lasted less than two minutes? That only one student was critically wounded, and later died? (Lord, watch over Claire now.) That only one body bag was wheeled from the school? What new norm are we agreeing to?

Something needs to change. Media soapboxes are raised faster than Columbine’s crosses. Parenting. The divorce issue. No prayer in school. Mental illness. Bullying. Too many guns. Too few guns. All have some merit, perhaps. Still, the “Why?” and the “What now?” become political footballs, each team with their own locker-room and post-game sound bites.

Why? My thoughts may be wrong, but I have been here before. Although I have a Master’s degree in Counseling, I am not trying to be the expert on youth mental health or American culture. But I have been immersed in the shootings. I have talked to many parents and students. I have listened to the experts. I have sat in too many police briefings. As a parent, a therapist, an ethics teacher, and a spiritual shepherd, may I offer one idea as to “Why does this continue to happen?”

We, as individuals and communities,  have lost our moral compass.

arapahoe warrior
Arapahoe High School Warrior

One of the great questions of philosophy is, “Do humans innately have a morality, or do they need to learn right from wrong?” The news and my faith teach me that we must all be taught to make good choices. Almost every sociologist agrees. Children are naturally precious, but not naturally good. Question this? Try feeding an unwilling two-year-old. When I speak of a moral compass, I am talking of the general and specific guidance a culture teaches to its members, especially its children. A societal belief that some things are wrong, and should be constrained and, yes, even punished. As well, some things are valuable and precious, and worth sacrificing for. A moral compass is the learned skill of ethics, which includes deliberately weighing choices and then doing the right thing.

For example, I read recently a moral compass from a Native American perspective. It included:

  • Seek the Great Spirit. Pray alone. Pray often. The Great Spirit will listen, if you only speak.
  • Be tolerant of those who are lost on their path. Ignorance, conceit, anger, jealousy – and greed stem from a lost soul. Pray that they will find guidance.
  • Treat everyone you meet with respect and honor.
  • Do not steal. Never take what is not yours whether from a person, a community, the wilderness or from a culture.
  • Respect all things that are placed upon this earth – whether it be people, animal, or plant.
  • Honor other people’s thoughts, wishes and words. Never interrupt another or mock or rudely mimic them. Allow each person the right to personal expression.
  • All persons make mistakes. And all mistakes can be forgiven.
  • Practice optimism.
  • Children are the seeds of our future. Plant love in their hearts and water them with wisdom and life’s lessons. When they are grown, give them space to grow.
  • Avoid hurting others, and the hearts of others. The poison of your pain will return to you.
  • Do not ever lie. Honesty is the test of one’s will within this universe.
  • Respect others’ religious beliefs. Do not force your belief on others.
  • Share your good fortune with others.                  (pearltrees.com)

The preeminent moral compass in Western thought is the Ten Commandments from the Bible. I offer this not as an American religious mandate, nor on the way to establishing any national religion.  God desires no forced converts. Still, I see him setting a clear ethical standard for humanity. As an inspired pattern for appropriate boundaries on our behavior, this moral list of ethics has been highly influential. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Winston Churchill memorized them. Washington, at age 14, wrote for himself a moral code of 110 rules of behavior, based in part on the Ten Commandments. It ended with, “110. Labour to keep alive in your breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire called Conscience.”

Jesus had a heart for children. We should, too. This means helping them develop a conscience. Our kids should be reminded often:

There is a Ten_Commandments_Scroll_11x17Heaven above, with a moral God. He has set the best way for us to live together, including a set of important rules. Like the rule that you should never, ever lie. You should not steal. You should not have sex outside of marriage. You should never commit murder, or kill someone. You should treat mom and dad, and other adults, with respect. When people break these rules, they are seriously punished.

OK, this is moralistic. Yes, it makes character–not success–a driver in a child’s life. Yes, it is based on some long-ago established didactic from a Creator. Yes, this moral compass must be used with a full measure of grace and forgiveness. But the alternative seems to be that each house in a community comes up with their own rules of right and wrong for every subject, even life and death ones.  Good, healthy homes may establish a good moral compass for their kids, but struggling parents–wrapped in their own problems, emotional baggage, and history–may set a very poor moral compass.

Too often, in our pragmatic, individualistic way, the parental vernacular–often learned by an observing child’s little eyes– becomes,

  • “Don’t lie, unless it’s absolutely necessary to get you out of trouble. Or for a day off from work.”

  • “Don’t steal unless it’s from the government on your taxes, or from a rich oil company. Someday, I’ll take that shovel back to Joe.”

  • “Be careful in your sexuality, but find the pleasure and affirmation where you can. Do what makes you happy. And I’m sorry about your mother and I. The divorce has been messy on you kids, I know.”

Life becomes, simply, “What I want.” We do what is right in our own eyes. Isolated from real relationships by our smart phones and FB accounts, we gaze inwardly more and more. And this is the key: only one family has to fail in raising their child well for there to be a school shooting. Again.

We need a moral compass. For ourselves and for our leaders. What happens at the top flows downward. I was taught this in business school. It used to be that we had statesmen, but now Washington D.C. models little I would want my children to replicate. It used to be that morality was a part of what we taught in school. But now schools have to work so that each child is “equally happy” without any sort of moral judgment–freedom for every child to pick the bathroom you feel best in.  It used to be that morality instruction was part of why families went to church. But less and less Americans go to church each year. According to a 2011 survey, Denver is one of the least religious cities in America. Here, lots of people say they are religious, but few live like it. We need a revolution of the heart, a new spiritual awakening.

So we are left with the home as the training ground. Without a moral compass, is it any wonder that kids think KILLING is one more gray area?  Sadly, we are investing a ton of time and energy to train our children well. They play KILLING on video games, and watch KILLING in their favorite movies and shows. We immerse our children in a culture of bad character in sports and politics and marriage. Respect, self-sacrifice, gentleness, and nobility seem out of fashion. And, without a society or community willing to say that some things are wrong and involve themselves in helping them get back on track, some child is going to get mixed up. Then sad, or angry, or mentally ill, they will come up with a plan. To make a statement. To pay them back. To get on TV. To end the pain. What they want–what seems best in their young compass-less mind– becomes all that matters. Again.

I may not see it perfectly clearly, I know. Youth violence is a very complex issue. But perhaps the swing of the moral compass is not an individual choice all the time. Perhaps communities need to began again by raising a moral awareness. By rewarding character, and setting a higher standard for everyone’s kids. But reinforcing lists like the Ten Commandments. By requiring respect. By modeling mutual honor and character from our politicians and leaders. By telling the truth every time ourselves, and watching over our own zippers. Children are great learners, people.

A new and old prayer: “Never again, Lord, please.  Teach us. Again. Amen.”

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10 comments

  1. Thank you for writing this, Pastor Brad. Columbine was a spiritual reawakening for me. I had stopped going to church for several years and felt the need to grieve with other believers. I pray for Claire Davis and her family and for the family of the shooter. I also pray that our country will have a spiritual awakening. We so need it. If children killing children doesn’t move people to have a change of heart, what will?

  2. Thank you, Pastor Brad, for sharing this. WOW! Moral compass, so critical to bringing America back to our heritage and general consensus of moral credibility and Christian beliefs.

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