Violence in the Schoolyard: Why?

America is becoming an increasingly dangerous place to live. Random violence. Drive-by shootings. Colombine. A twelve-year old boy kills his schoolmate with a pistol he has brought to school. Why? “Well, he ticked me off!” was the reply.

No remorse. . . No conscience.

Do you know what a “feral” hog is? We have some here in Texas — domesticated pigs which have escaped into the brushy Hill Country and live there as wild as their smaller, wild cousins, the Javelinas.

There have been feral children, too. Perhaps the most famous was a teenage boy spotted one day naked and loping up a hill on all fours in Aveyron, France. He was captured on July 25, 1799 and extensive attempts were made to “rehabilitate” and “domesticate” him. These ended largely in failure, including Herculean efforts to teach him to speak (he was mute when first found).

Anyone who has ever observed children suddenly transplanted into another culture are amazed at the way they take to the local language like “ducks to water!” Why? Because children from age one to seven or eight have an enormous capacity to learn — to absorb sights and sounds and smells and everything!

Children have a conscience, too. It is not yet fully formed by way of specifics, but like the capacity to learn language, they possess the ideas of right and wrong. As they grow, through experience, parental guidance and discipline, school, church, etc., they come to embrace moral concepts as easily and automatically as they do linguistic ones.

Today we tend to be “politically correct” and to not push our personal, moral, and religious agendas off on others. We are hesitant to speak of right and wrong in public for fear of offending.

You see, it is assumed that we already know what is right and what is wrong. It is assumed that you know that. And that the children know. . .

But they don’t know. Their conscience must be educated, and this is the problem. Children are growing up in America as crippled morally as that wild boy in Averyon was, linguistically and socially. We have raised an entire generation of “morally feral” children!

I have a good friend of thirty-five years who sold his business and began to use his time in ministering to students at the large, state university in his city. He began to meet with students daily in the student center on campus. Jay was seminary trained and is one of the most effective personal workers I have ever known.

He told me recently that he asks the same question of almost every student: “If you knew God does exist, and it were possible for you to have a personal interview or conversation with Him, what would you ask Him?”

Jay said that SIXTY PERCENT of those have replied with something like, “Gee. . . Gosh! I’ve never thought about that. . . I don’t know what I’d ask Him. . . I guess nothing!”

What they have lots to say about, however, is that no one should be excluded, and everyone’s opinion is true because it is “true to them.” This is practicing “tolerance.” And anyone who doesn’t hold this view is a bigot. They think it a crime of the highest order to exclude anyone on the basis of personal belief or lifestyle.

Actually, tolerance is a Christian virtue and should be practiced. But what does it really mean? It doesn’t mean that all lifestyles must be accepted. That is not tolerance, but rather, surrender — tacit acceptance of all behavior with no regard to standards of any kind.

What kind of “tolerance” did Jesus practice? We are told that He was full of grace and truth. And these two were always in perfect balance. We, however, tend toward the extremes of these — so full of grace that we compromise the Gospel, or so full of truth that no one can stand us!

Over and over again, we see Jesus “nudging” people toward truth: Nicodemus. The rich young ruler. The parables. The woman at the well. Pilate. Will Rogers is probably known best for his famous quote: “I never met a man I didn’t like.” It could be said of Jesus that He never met a person He didn’t love. He loved and accepted every person He met, including those whose behavior He could not condone. That’s tolerance. To the woman caught in the act of adultery He said, “Neither do I condemn you (grace); go and sin no more (truth)!”

Jesus pressed. He wanted people to understand truth so much that He was not afraid to offend them if it would help to accomplish that purpose.

And so must we upon occasion. Remember: Even God is not universally admired!

© 2003 Probe Ministries

Nietzsche: Master of Suspicion

Christianity: Religion of Hate?

In the last decade, it has become increasingly common to hear the accusation that Christians are hateful. In the United States, this type of comment has become the mantra of homosexual rights groups who are outraged that Christians would claim that homosexuality is a sin. With the murder of homosexual Matthew Shepherd in 1999, Christians were blamed for creating a hostile environment and provoking violence against homosexuals by claiming that homosexuality is immoral. Homosexuals often scoff at Christians who say, “Hate the sin, love the sinner,” insinuating that the two cannot be separated. Consequently it has become increasingly difficult to dialogue with these individuals due to their suspicion that Christians, in spite of their expressions of love, actually hate homosexuals.

Of course, accusations of hatred against Christians are nothing new. This charge was leveled at the first century church as a preamble to the state sanctioned persecution that occurred off and on throughout the Roman Empire until the fourth century. But today many of those who accuse Christians of hate take their marching orders from their understanding of Friedrich Nietzsche, who called Christian priests “the truly great haters in world history . . . likewise the most ingenious haters.”{1} Nietzsche was absolutely contemptuous of Christians and pulled no punches when it came to his polemic against them. He is infamous for his announcement of the death of God in his writings and was known to be Hitler’s favorite philosopher. Consequently, Christians typically distance themselves from Nietzsche due to his hostility to the Christian worldview.

But while Nietzsche’s writings are often blasphemous, this does not mean that Christians should ignore his insights. Rather than dismissing his critique, we should ask ourselves if he may have something to say to the church. Perhaps we need to be reminded that Jesus’ harshest words were directed toward those who put on an impressive outward show of religiosity, but whose hearts were not right with God. We need only read Jesus’ letters to the seven churches in Revelation chapters two and three to see that some of His most severe rebuke is found there, directed towards His own. Unfortunately, one major school of interpretation has determined that the seven churches represent different ages of church history, of which the first five have already transpired. This interpretation tends to distance us from the Lord’s rebuke, as if evangelicals are the praised church of Philadelphia, and the lukewarm Loadiceans are the apostate church of the end-times. It is no wonder that we reject the blistering critique of someone like Nietzsche when we comfort ourselves by assuming that the “gentle” Jesus would never speak harshly to us!

Just as Jesus spoke out against those who hid behind the façade of religion, Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity is based on the assertion that Christianity is not motivated by love, but rather by a hateful envy, driven by the need for power over others. And since Nietzsche is the inspiration for many today who call Christianity hateful, it would seem that listening to Nietzsche’s critique is especially important. By understanding Nietzsche, we can be better equipped to respond to the accusations of hatred against Christians that have become common today. Furthermore, we may find that Nietzsche, rather than being just a cranky despiser of religion, actually has a prophetic message for contemporary Christians.

The Good, the Bad, and the Evil

Governor Jesse Ventura of Minnesota made headlines by claiming that religion is for weak-minded people who are incapable of getting through life without some sort of crutch. The governor quickly apologized for any offense he may have caused, but his claim that religion is just a crutch for the weak is certainly not new. Karl Marx said essentially the same thing by calling religion the opiate of the masses. However, no one has been more creative than Nietzsche when it comes to a critique of Christianity. His contention is not just that Christians are weak, but that Christianity itself was the vehicle by which the weakest members of society were able to overcome the dominance of those more powerful than them. Thus the very basis of Christianity is said to be hatred for, and envy of, the rich and the powerful.

It is important to recognize that Nietzsche was a trained linguist with a deep interest in the history of words. In his book On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche claims that the concept of good originally was a synonym for nobility and therefore referenced the noble aristocrats of ancient times. At the same time, those who belonged to the lower strata of society, those who were originally referred to as plain and simple, were designated as bad.{2} Nietzsche’s point in all this is that when we look at the original sense of the words good and bad they were descriptive of one’s social status, rather than being a moral evaluation.

However, it is Nietzsche’s contention that this all changed when priestly religions such as Judaism and Christianity were able to attain power in society. He suggests that not only did they transform the conceptions of good and bad to include a moral dimension, but that they went even further by creating the concept of evil as well. Out of their hatred and envy for the ruling elite, and their desire for power, the priests transformed the word good to refer to the poor and lowly members of society and had the audacity to refer to the rich and the powerful as evil! When we read the beatitudes in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke we see how Nietzsche indicts Christianity for this reversal. It is not the rich and the powerful who are blessed, but the weak and the poor! Nietzsche believed that Christ’s praise of the powerless was an act of subversion, an attempt by the weak to exact revenge against the elites of society for their natural superiority. As far as Nietzsche was concerned, there was no other way to account for how Christianity had become a major world religion than to suggest that Christianity created concepts such as sin and guilt to cut the rich and powerful down to size.

It was Nietzsche’s suspicion that all human relationships are driven by the desire for power over others. He found Christianity to be especially insidious because, rather than admitting that it desires power over the minds of all humanity, it proclaims itself to be a religion of love. But in fact, Scripture tells us that Christ willingly became powerless so that human beings might know the power of God. Christ set aside the prerogatives of deity to become a servant; He became poor that we might become rich. Perhaps Nietzsche is correct in arguing that human relationships are often governed by the desire for power. However, it is clear that in the encounter between God and man, it is the infinite God who submits Himself to the limitations of humanity.

Sin and Guilt as Human Conventions

One of most disturbing aspects of contemporary culture is the nihilistic worldview of many of our youth. The horrible assault on Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado in 1999 revealed how deeply alienated many young people are from society. It is apparent that Harris and Kleybold felt entirely justified in killing their classmates out of a sense of outrage at how they had been treated by the more popular students at school. Incredibly, they were convinced that their heinous act would be glorified in Hollywood and entertained themselves by asking who would portray them in the blockbuster movies that would follow their killing spree. What is especially disturbing is the question of how such sociopathic tendencies arise in a prosperous Colorado suburb.

According to Scripture, human beings are sinners in need of redemption. All of us stand guilty before a holy God and only the shed blood of the sinless Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, can cleanse us from the power and penalty of our sin. Therefore, a guilty conscience can be a positive thing in that it enables us to respond to the gospel message. But in contemporary culture, as Senator Daniel Moynahan has stated, there has been a tendency to “define deviancy down.” Acts that were considered immoral or even criminal in the recent past have been accepted as normal, so that our threshold of what is morally acceptable continues to lower. Additionally, in our therapeutic society anything that makes a person feel better about herself is exalted, while feelings of guilt and shame are discouraged. In a certain sense, this thinking is part of the heritage of Nietzsche.

According to Nietzsche, human beings developed a sense of guilt out of the ]financial relationship between a creditor and a debtor.{3} Nietzsche maintained that the similarity between the German words for guilt and debt were indications that financial obligations were the original source of a sense of obligation toward others. Of course, a debtor is obligated to his creditor, and in ancient times the debtor would pledge some form of collateral in case he were unable to repay the debt. This of course gave the creditor power over the debtor, even to the extent that he could inflict cruelty upon the debtor to extract his “pound of flesh.” According to Nietzsche, this gave rise to the idea that suffering could balance out our debts and is the basis for the biblical account of Christ’s work of the cross.{4} The problem arose when human beings somehow internalized the original sense of financial obligation, so that what had previously been simply a matter of external punishment evolved into the guilty conscience.

Nietzsche’s contention was that a feeling of guilt is destructive and prevents us from acting in accordance with our noble instincts. But the question is, How can human beings be noble without acknowledging their own limitations? The denial of a sense of guilt, the denial of conscience, inevitably leads to pride and the arrogant assumption that we are accountable to no one. While it would be unjust to suggest that Nietzsche encouraged acts such as the Columbine shootings, it is also clear that Nietzsche recognized that a sense of guilt leads us to conclude that we are accountable to someone else for our actions. Wanting to insure that human beings did not conclude that they were accountable to God for their actions, his only option was to conclude that the guilty conscience is a figment of our imaginations. Unfortunately, incidents such as Columbine are not.

God is Dead! Now We Can Really Live!

Who can forget the famous cover of Time magazine, which asked the question “Is God Dead?” Many people may have dismissed such an absurd question, as if it makes sense to say that the eternal God could pass away. But that is precisely the point. In Nietzsche, the announcement of God’s death is simply to force people to acknowledge that they no longer care about God. He has been removed from His throne by the advancements of science and technology and has little to say to modern man. According to Nietzsche, God choked to death on pity.{5}

On the other hand, Nietzsche claims that we have killed God. It is not that these statements are contradictory, but that Nietzsche viewed “God” as a concept, not as a person. Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra begins with Zarathustra setting out to deliver the startling news that God is dead, but his first words are directed to the sun. While to the casual reader this may seem absurd, this is actually a vivid reference to the philosophy of Plato. And according to Nietzsche, Christianity is nothing more than Plato’s philosophy dressed up as a religion. The whole point of Nietzsche’s philosophy is to deliver us from the teachings of Christianity, which he called the “Platonism of the people.” Nietzsche believed that both Plato and Christianity overemphasized the distinction between human existence and the realm of eternity; in order to effectively demolish Christianity, he felt it necessary to destroy the foundations of Plato’s philosophy as well.

Plato lived in an era that was concerned about the implications of change. Because Plato denied that we can truly know anything that is changeable, he conceived of an ideal world populated by what he called “forms.” The forms were eternal and unchanging models for the objects that we experience every day, and Plato’s concern was with how we can come to know these forms. Part of his answer to that question was his conception of the ultimate form, the form of the Good. The form of the Good is what illumines the soul’s understanding, so Plato utilized the sun as the most fitting symbol for this form. Later, some Christian theologians baptized Plato’s philosophy by claiming that the forms were ideas in the mind of God, but what critics like Nietzsche find so disturbing is that both Plato and Christianity seem to place more emphasis on an afterlife than on day-to-day existence. It was his desire that we recognize the value and pleasures of this life, but to do so he completely rejected a transcendent world. The question is whether he is justified in claiming that Christianity denies the validity of this life by focusing solely on a heavenly afterlife.

While it is true that a variety of movements within Christianity, such as the monastics, have devalued earthly existence as a mere prelude to the afterlife, this is a far cry from claiming that Christianity itself is the religious equivalent of Plato’s other-worldly philosophy. St. Augustine, who was a devoted student of Plato, claimed that Plato was a valuable tool that helped lead him to Christianity. But the one thing that he found lacking in the Platonists was the teaching of Scripture that in Jesus Christ the Word of God became flesh. God himself has come to live amongst us! The incarnation of God in Christ means that human existence is vitally important. God himself lived as a man. Rather than devaluing life, Christ came that we might have life, and have it more abundantly.

Nietzsche the Prophet?

As we close our examination of Friedrich Nietzsche’s thinking and its consequences for Christian faith we should note his conviction that terms such as sin, morality, and God are simply human conventions with no reality supporting them. He hoped to overcome these concepts by taking us back in history to discover how we came to these “erroneous” beliefs. According to Nietzsche, the concept of a God who rewards believers with eternal life has devalued human existence. Consequently, he attempted to devalue any belief associated with a transcendent being or an afterlife and emphasized overcoming Christian standards for morality. His ideal was the overman, unique individuals who were not restrained by what society conceived as right or wrong. The problem is that, when taken to its extreme, his philosophy has been utilized to justify a wide variety of crimes. In 1924, two students at the University of Chicago justified their murder of a twelve-year-old boy by quoting from Nietzsche. And of course, Hitler assumed that Nietzsche’s philosophy called for world domination by Germany and the ruthless elimination of all its enemies. Many therefore assume that Nietzsche was some type of proto-Nazi.

Nietzsche would have had little sympathy for Hitler and was not an anti-Semite as some have claimed. These accusations are common, but cannot be the result of actually reading his works. What we can say is that Nietzsche attempted to replace the good news of Jesus Christ with a pseudo-gospel based on the assertion that Christianity was a fabrication that has hindered mankind for centuries. The Bible tells us that Christ has set us free through His atoning work on the cross; Nietzsche insists that such a story is what has placed us in bondage. Like many utopians, Nietzsche denied the inherent sinfulness of the human heart and insisted that the idea of God was what had prevented mankind from reaching its highest potential. Obviously, evangelical Christianity and Nietzsche are in severe disagreement on most subjects.

Still, Nietzsche does have a message for the Christian community. Considering Nietzsche’s contempt for Christianity, that would seem to rule him out as a mouthpiece for God. However, we also note that pagan kings such as Cyrus of Persia (Ezra 1:1-4) and Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4:34-35) were spokesman for God in particular instances. So to paraphrase John 1:46, “Can anything good come out of Nietzsche?”

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of reading Nietzsche is his emphasis on our motives. Just as Jesus accused the Pharisees for disguising their hardened hearts with outward acts of service and sacrifice, Nietzsche demonstrates keen awareness of the subtle ways we can deceive even ourselves. One of Nietzsche’s favorite accusations is that Christians can speak about loving their enemies, but they have also been known to comfort themselves with thoughts of those same enemies roasting in eternal hell-fire. Perhaps then one of the reasons Christians avoid reading Nietzsche is that he can make us feel so uncomfortable. Do we give to the Church out of love for God or perhaps simply for the tax deduction? What about our service in the church? Are we motivated by the applause of man, or by our love for God? The Christian cannot read Nietzsche without feeling challenged on these questions. Rather than simply dismissing his radical critique of Christianity, the church would be well-served to understand how Nietzsche has influenced modern culture, and in turn to reflect on how we can demonstrate the love of God to a dying world.


1. Friedrich Nietzsche, Genealogy of Moralstrans. Walter Kaufmann (Vintage Books: New York, 1967), 33.
2. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage Books, 1967), 27-28.
3. Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 62.
4. Ibid., 65.
5. Friedrich Nietzsche, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Penguin Books, 1954).

©2000 Probe Ministries.

The Littleton Shootings: Looking for the “Why”

Amidst the discussion of the gruesome details of the Columbine High School shootings, the question of “why?” inevitably comes up. People have talked about the killers’ identification with the Trench Coat Mafia, with Nazi values, with an obsession with violence in music and entertainment. They point to the boys’ experience with violent video games, the easy access to guns, and parents who were distant enough to not notice teenage boys building bombs in their garage.

But all of these things, contributing to the total picture that produced the worst school shooting in American history, are all components of the “how.”

People who have studied shame{1} think they understand a big part of the “why.”

Shame isn’t talked about very much, because, well, it’s shameful. We don’t discuss it, but we all experience it. Shame is the feeling that I am defective, unacceptable, unworthy. Guilt, someone has said, is the awareness that I did something bad; shame is the horrible feeling that I am bad. We fear that at our core, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong, and that wrong is me. And we fear being exposed, that others will find out our dirty little secret–that I am a deficient, damaged human being.

Everyone carries around shame baggage, starting with Adam immediately after the Fall. And since we are all burdened by this invisible coating of “shame slime,” we are vulnerable to the further shaming messages that others send us or which we perceive. Shame slime is sticky, and shame messages stick.

When asked how others related to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, students at Columbine High School report that most kids didn’t pay any attention to them, and some kids made fun of them. Both of these are perceived as shaming messages: “You’re so worthless you’re invisible,” and “You’re so worthless and weird that you deserve to be ridiculed.”

What makes high school seniors go on a killing rampage? There is a strong link between unbearable shame and rage. Those who fly into violent rages do so because they fear they can’t take any additional shame. Something happens one otherwise normal day when the painfully tolerable becomes the unbearable, and the person carrying such awful shame crosses a line. A switch is tripped. Some people act on their rage immediately, pulling out guns or knives or fists, or screaming hurtful words. Other people, apparently Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold among them, channel their rage into a plan for later revenge.

This is where another dimension comes into play, I suggest: spiritual warfare. It took Eric and Dylan a good amount of time to prepare for April 20. As a result of their decision to do something so horrendously evil, they were especially vulnerable to the lies of the Enemy. Those lies fueled them: “They’re not going to get away with this.” “They deserve to die.” “I’m justified in meting out revenge for the way they treated me.” “This is a good thing to do.” “Suicide is the only way to finish this off.” “This will solve everything.” Two kids planned, and demons cackled.

But when rage is expressed, it changes things. People who fly into rages end up with greater rejection and more shame, the very thing they couldn’t bear in the first place. So it makes sense that these two bright young men would decide that they couldn’t–and wouldn’t–handle the consequences of their hurtful, unrecoverable decision to hurl pain and violence at the school, and they planned to take their own lives during the rampage. CNN reported that one of them left a note saying, “This is the way we planned to go out.”

There is a significant difference between the Jonesboro junior-high killers, and these high school seniors in Littleton. Children are still mainly shaped by their family. 17- and 18-year-olds, on the other hand, have spent several years traveling through the stage of adolescence where their family no longer has as much impact on them as their peers. What other students think about a person is more important, and more powerful, than what his family thinks. This is a normal part of growing up and getting ready to be an adult, but it makes young people exceptionally vulnerable to those who often don’t understand the power they wield. And sometimes, unfortunately, the popular and accepted kids very much do understand their power, and they use it as a weapon against those who don’t fit the mold by ridiculing and ostracizing them.

Perhaps this is what happened in Colorado.

Students who appeared on ABC’s Nightline the night of the shooting reported that the two boys strode into the school, shouting “Now you’re gonna pay for what you did to us!” They were especially interested in targeting jocks, who were evidently the source of at least some of the ridicule and put-downs. Earlier this year, the two boys are reported to have made a video for a school project, which featured the two of them in trench coats with guns, mowing down jocks in the halls.

The diary of one of the killers was found, giving insight into the reasons behind their desire for revenge.

We want to be different, we want to be strange and we don’t want jocks or other people putting (us) down….We’re going to punish you.{2}

Shame is everywhere in this awful tragedy. Why would students make fun of other students in the first place? Their own shame. Putting down others is a time-honored and unfortunately effective way of battling one’s own sense of inadequacy and incompetence: “I’ll step on you to make myself higher.” People who accept themselves, who are content with who they are, usually don’t feel any need to bash others. Unfortunately, the teenage need to feel the approval of one’s peers can inspire people who ordinarily wouldn’t insult or degrade others to do so simply to look good in their friends’ eyes.

There is no question that the ultimate responsibility for this tragedy lies squarely at the feet of the two students who chose to inflict pain and suffering on others. They made a conscious decision to choose an evil and hurtful path. Still, that choice was not made in a vacuum and without provocation. In order to understand the bigger picture, we need to look beyond the two boys whose own shame cost them their own lives and the lives of at least 13 others, not to mention the wounds of other students and the damage to the building. What students do and say to each other is immensely important. Our personal power to hurt and to build must never be underestimated. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” is one of the most grievous lies ever told. Bones heal; insults maim the soul for a long, long time.

It’s helpful to ask ourselves, What if we could rewrite history? What could we have done to change things, so it never got to this point? What can we learn from this tragedy that can prevent it from happening somewhere else?

The antidote for shame is love and grace. Those who feel loved and accepted, validated for their differences instead of ostracized for not fitting in, don’t have to be crippled or controlled by shame. It is the privilege of those who know God to be able to communicate the truth about how He has created people in His image, as beautiful, worthy, and acceptable because of what Christ did for us on the Cross. That’s the grace part. We need to tell each other the truth, in love, just as the Bible commands us. We need to reach out and touch people to communicate “You’re valuable. You matter. I’m glad God made you.”

Regrettably, those were messages that Eric and Dylan apparently didn’t get.


1. Donald L. Nathanson, Shame and Pride (New York: W.W. Norton &Co.), 1992.

© 1999 Probe Ministries International

Kids Killing Kids

Not so long ago the biggest problem kids faced was getting a flat tire on their bikes or having a mean teacher assign homework over the weekend. How times have changed. Who would have guessed that one of the perennial stories would be kids killing kids?

In this essay we’re going to talk about the issue of school shootings and the broader issue of kids killing kids. Why is this happening? What can be done to stem the tide of violence on campus and society? We’ll look at such topics as video games, teenage rebellion, and tolerance. And we’ll also look at the spiritual aspects as well.

Each time we hear about gunshots on a high school campus we are once again reminded that we are living in a different world. The body count of students and teachers causes us to shake our heads and wonder what is going on. In some cases the shooters are teenagers with elaborate plans and evil desires. But sometimes the hail of bullets comes from impulsive kids as young as eleven years old.

In the past, when we did talk about kids killing kids, it was in an urban setting. Gangland battles between the Bloods and the Crips reminded us that life in the inner city was hard and ruthless. But the latest battlegrounds have not been Watts, the Bronx, or Cabrini-Green. These violent confrontations have taken place in rural, idyllic towns with names like Pearl, Mississippi and Paducah, Kentucky and Jonesboro, Arkansas and Littleton, Colorado.

We are shocked and surprised. We open our newspapers to see the faces of kids caught up in the occult and we wonder how they were attracted to such evil. We open those newspapers again and we see the faces of Opie and Beaver look-alikes charged with five counts of murder and we wonder if they even understood what they were doing.

The answers from pundits have been many. Young people are desensitized to violence, and they learn to kill by using point- and-shoot video games. Teenagers are rebellious, and they are looking for a way to defy authority. In the past, that was easier to accomplish by merely violating the dress code. Today, in a society that values tolerance, trying to come up with a behavior that is shocking is getting harder and harder to do. And the social and spiritual climate that our kids live in is hardly conducive to moral living.

Kids killing kids, I believe, is the best evidence yet of a culture in chaos that has turned its back on God’s moral law. Do we really believe that children can see thousands of TV murders or play violent computer games and not be tempted to act out that violence in real life? Do we think we can lower societal standards and not have kids act out in very bizarre ways? Do we think we can pull God from the schools and prayer from the classroom and see no difference in the behavior of children? We shouldn’t be surprised. Kids killing kids is evidence of a nation in moral free fall.

The Media and Video Games

I would like to begin with a look at the influence of the media and video games. In the past, we have talked about the impact of violent media on our society. We shouldn’t be surprised that it is having an effect on our kids.

One of the people who knows this only so well is Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. He is a retired West Point psychology professor, Army Ranger, and an expert in the study of violence in war and killing. He is also an instructor at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, and was one of the first on the scene of the Jonesboro, Arkansas shootings. He has a lot to say.

He saw the devastation wrought by the shootings–not just the five dead and ten wounded. He saw what happens when violence intrudes into everyday life. And, where he’s been, he sees where the violence comes from. He says, “Anywhere television appears, fifteen years later, the murder rate doubles.”{1}

He says, “In the video games, in the movies, on the television, the one behavior that is consistently depicted in glamorous terms and consistently rewarded is killing.” He believes that media violence was a significant factor in the killings in Pearl, Mississippi, in West Paducah, Kentucky, in Jonesboro, Arkansas, in Springfield, Oregon, and in Littleton, Colorado.

He also says that the combination of a sense of inferiority and the exposure to violence can provoke violence in young boys who are “wannabes.” Sometimes they see violence as a route to fame, and one has to wonder whether all the media exposure of these school shootings will spawn even more.

Consider the 1995 movie, The Basketball Diaries. In the film, Leonardo DiCaprio (also of Titanic fame) goes into a schoolroom and shoots numerous children and teachers. In doing so, he became a role model for young boys who are “wannabes.”

The parents of three students killed in Paducah, Kentucky have brought a lawsuit against the company that distributed the film The Basketball Diaries. The parents’ lawyer points out that Michael Carneal, who opened fire on a group of students in Kentucky, viewed the film and honed his shooting skills by playing computer games such as Doom and Redneck Rampage.

Dave Grossman goes into some detail in showing how violence in films, videos, and television can affect us. The parallels in his book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society{2} and what is happening in the media today are chilling. Two factors are desensitization and operant conditioning. Show soldiers (or children) enough visual images of violence and they will become desensitized to it. Practice shooting targets of people and conditioning will eventually take over. In some ways it doesn’t matter whether it’s soldiers doing target practice at a range or kids using point-and-shoot video games. The chilling result is the same: the creation of a killing machine.

But you don’t need to read Grossman’s book to see the parallels. Young people today are exposed to violent images that desensitize them and make it possible for some to act out these violent images in real life. And video games help them hone their shooting skills and overcome their hesitation to kill. Dave Grossman has seen it in war, and now he is seeing it in everyday life.

Violence and Teenage Rebellion

So many words have been spoken in the last few months about school shootings that it’s often difficult to hear sound commentary in the midst of the cacophony. But one voice that deserves a hearing is Jonathan Cohen who wrote a commentary in the New York Post entitled “Defining Rebellion Up.”{3}

Years ago Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a seminal piece in an academic journal entitled “Defining Deviancy Down.”{4} It was his contention that in the midst of cultural chaos we tend to redefine what is normal. When the crime rate goes through the roof, we say that crime is inevitable in a free society. When the illegitimate birth rate quadruples, we say that maybe two parents in a home aren’t really necessary after all. In essence, what society has done is follow the pattern in Isaiah 5:20 of calling evil good and good evil.

Jonathan Cohen picks up on that theme and extends it to our current crisis. He says that when America became willing to define deviancy down, it simultaneously defined rebellion up. He says, “Anti-social teens are nothing new, but as deviancy has been made normal, we have made it increasingly difficult for teenagers to rebel.”

Adults are no longer offended or outraged by behavior that would have sent our parents through the roof. Unfortunately, we have learned the lessons of tolerance well. We tolerate just about everything from tattoos to black nail polish to metal pierced eyebrows.

Jonathan Cohen says, “We have raised the threshold of rebellion so high that it is practically beyond reach. To be recognized, to get attention, to stir anyone in authority to lift a finger, whether it is a parent, a teacher, a principal, or a sheriff, a rebel has to go to very great lengths these days. One must send letter bombs, blow up office buildings or gun down children.”

If a young person is trying to defy authority, it does take quite a bit to be recognized. Just a few decades ago, when dress codes were still in effect a student could be somewhat rebellious without getting into too much trouble or hurting other people. Today, it apparently takes quite a bit to run afoul of those in authority.

Jonathan Cohen asks, “And what of the teachers at Columbine High? It seemed they were not disturbed at all by the boys’ odd conduct. In fact, one instructor actually helped them make a video dramatizing their death-and-destruction fantasy. For all we know, he may well have commended himself for being so nonjudgmental.”

This surfaces an important issue. The highest value in our society today has become tolerance. We are not to judge others. When you put this trend of rising rebellion with increased tolerance together, you end up with a lethal mixture.

Jonathan Cohen concludes by wondering if all of this might have been different. He says, “If teachers had forbidden their students from coming to class wearing black trenchcoats, fingernail polish and makeup, Littleton likely would not be a name on everyone’s lips. If the principal had had the common sense to ban a group of boys from coming to school sporting Nazi regalia, marching though the corridors in military fashion and calling themselves the Trench Coat Mafia, Columbine High School might not be behind a police line.”


Tolerance has become the highest value in our society today, and I believe that it may explain why we miss the signals that something is wrong with our kids.

After the school shooting in Colorado, an editorial appeared in the New York Post.{5} The editorial writers said, “The Littleton massacre could prove a turning point in American society–one of those moments when the entire culture changes course.” Who knows if that will be the case. Only time will tell. The editorial writers believe that one of the things that must change is our contemporary view of tolerance.

The editorial was entitled “Too Much Tolerance?” While other pundits focused on guns, video games, and other cultural phenomena, these editorial writers said the real cause was “inattention.”

After all, the killers in Colorado were sending out signals of an impending calamity. It’s just that no one was paying attention. For example, one Littleton parent went to the police twice about threats made on his son’s life by Eric Harris. His pleas were to no avail. The cops didn’t pay attention.

These kids in the Trench Coat Mafia gave each other Hitler salutes at a local bowling alley. But the community didn’t pay attention.

These same kids marched down the hallways and got into fights with jocks and other kids after school. But the school didn’t pay attention.

One kid’s mother works with disabled kids, but seemed unaware that her own son had a fascination with Adolf Hitler and spent a year planning the destruction of the high school. Again parents didn’t pay attention.

Throughout the article the editorial writers recount all the things these kids did. They conclude that while they “were doing everything they could to offend the community they lived in, the community chose to pay them no heed.”

Why? I believe that this tragic lack of attention is the sorry harvest of tolerance and diversity preached in the nation’s classrooms every day. We are not to judge others. The only sin in society is the sin of judgmentalism. We cannot judge hairstyles or lifestyles, manners or morals. We may think another person’s dress, actions, or lifestyles are a bit different, but we are told not to judge. Everything must be tolerated. And so we decide to ignore in the name of tolerance. In essence, inattention is the fruit of a message of tolerance and diversity.

In decades past, boundaries existed, school dress codes were enforced, and certain behavior was not allowed. As the boundaries were dropped and the lines blurred, teachers and parents learned to cope by paying less attention.

The editorial writers therefore conclude (and please excuse the bluntness of their statement) that, “The only way Americans can live like this is to tune out, to ignore, to refuse to pay attention. In the name of broad-mindedness, Littleton allowed Harris and Klebold to fall through the cracks straight to Hell.”

So why do we have kids killing kids? There are lots of reasons: the moral breakdown of society, video games, rebellion. But another reason is tolerance. We have been taught for decades not to judge, and this has given adults a license to be inattentive.

Spiritual Issues

I would like to conclude this essay by looking at some spiritual issues associated with so many of these school shootings.

Perhaps the best way to begin is to quote former Education Secretary Bill Bennett. He was on one of the talking-head shows discussing the tragedy in Littleton, Colorado. All of a sudden he turned directly to the television camera and said, “Hello?”

That was the attention-getter. But what he said afterward should also get our attention. He pointed out that these kids were walking the halls in trench coats, and apparently that didn’t really get the attention of the teachers and administrators. But, he said, if a kid walked the halls with a Bible, that would probably get their attention. Something is very wrong with a society and a school system that would admonish a school kid for carrying a Bible and spreading the good news while ignoring a group of kids wearing trench coats and spreading hate.

In her Wall Street Journal column{6}, former presidential speech writer Peggy Noonan talked about “The Culture of Death” our children live in. She quoted headlines from news stories and frankly I can’t even repeat what she quoted. Our kids are up to their necks in really awful stuff, and it comes to them day after day on television, in the movies, and in the newspapers.

She then asked, Who counters this culture of death? Well, parents do and churches do. But they aren’t really given much of a place in our society today. In fact, Peggy Noonan told a story to illustrate her point.

She said, “A man called into Christian radio this morning and said a true thing. He said, and I am paraphrasing: Those kids were sick and sad, and if a teacher had talked to one of them and said, ‘Listen, there’s a way out, there really is love out there that will never stop loving you, there’s a real God and I want to be able to talk to you about him’–if that teacher had intervened that way, he would have been hauled into court.”

You know that man who called that radio station is right. A few years ago, a very famous case made its way through the Colorado courts. A high school teacher in Colorado was taken to court merely because he had a Bible on his desk. If you haven’t heard the story, I guess the conclusion wouldn’t surprise you. The teacher lost the case and lost it again on appeal.

As we’ve talked about the disturbing phenomenon of kids killing kids, we have discussed the breakdown of society, video games, rebellion, and tolerance. But we shouldn’t forget the spiritual dimension. We are reaping the harvest of a secular society.

Kids kill other kids and so we wonder why. We throw God out of the classroom, we throw the Bible out of the classroom, we throw prayer out of the classroom, and we even throw the Ten Commandments out of the classroom.

Maybe we shouldn’t wonder why any longer. Maybe we should be surprised the society isn’t more barbaric given the fact that so many positive, spiritual influences have been thrown out. The ultimate solution to the problem of kids killing kids is for the nation to return to God.


1. Andrea Billups and Jerry Seper, “Experts Hit Permissiveness in Schools, Violence on TV,” The Washington Times, 22 April, 1999.

2. Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (New York: Little,Brown, 1996).

3. Jonathan Cohen, “Defining Rebellion Up,” New York Post, 27 April 1999.

4. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Defining Deviancy Down,” The American Spectator, Winter 1993.

5.”Too Much Tolerance?” New York Post, 27 April 1999.

6. Peggy Noonan, “The Culture of Death,” Wall Street Journal, 22 April 1999.

© 1999 Probe Ministries International