Trigger warning: discussion of suicidal ideation
As always, a picture of Gilda Catner in case you wish not to proceed.
In Acts chapter 7 we learn about the first Christian martyr, Saint Stephen. In chapter 6 Stephen is seized for doing “signs and wonders” (miracles). Stephen is brought before the Sanhedrin (rabbinical court) and gives a brief history of the nation of Israel, that really makes the book of Numbers seem wasteful. When he’s finished he calls them “stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears” always resisting the Holy Spirit, just like yo daddy and granddaddy (basically). And I tell ya what, the Sanhedrin was not having that. So ya know what they did? Grabbed the biggest rocks from the pile and threw them at Stephen until he died. All the while Stephen is praying and asking for God’s forgiveness of those stoning him. Or so the story goes.
In 1999 a book was published by the band DC Talk titled after their popular song “Jesus Freak.” Jesus Freaks: Stories of Those Who Stood for Jesus was a collection of stories, printed on tattered pages like it was discovered in a cave that printed ancient covers in modern ink. The stories were of individuals who gave their lives in the name of Christ, but like the good ones? Not the ones who died in Crusades, but the persecuted. The ones we should emulate.
On April 20, 1999, you likely recall was the Columbine High School massacre, the school shooting in modern America that kick-started the rebirth of a trend that has only since progressed. In September of that same year a book came out called She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall. The story of this student went that either Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold (I don’t remember which, and I don’t think it matters) came into the Columbine library and asked of the students cowering under the tables “who in here is a Christian?” (I’m paraphrasing). And a timid but firm blonde girl said “I am.” Or to go with the title they posed the question to her directly, and she, ya know, said yes.
After the Cassie Bernall story came out, the Jesus Freaks book gained popularity, and a second one was later published. In my evangelical life these books and the story of Cassie Bernall were everywhere. We were taught regularly about martyrs. It was begged again and again, what would you do in a situation like Cassie’s? If our school gets shot up…becomes when our school gets shot up…what are you going to do? Are you going to say yes?
This line of questioning burrowed into my mind. Would I say yes? How would I stand up for Jesus? How would I put my life on the line for Jesus? How would I die for Jesus? How could I die? When can I die?
The glorification and idolization of martyrs became pervasive. This became a real topic of conversation in youth group for months on months. Or maybe it was one week (though I don’t believe it was), but in my brain it lasted for over a decade. This creeping sense that one day a man with a gun was going to walk into the classroom and ask me point blank “are you a Christian?” and I had to say “yes” or I was going to hell for eternity. I’d be in my bed at night thinking of someone coming through my bedroom window, knife to my throat, same question, same options. I’d be sitting in church wondering why I would be the only one asked. A pastor on stage and I’d be shot.
This constant thinking, and it was constant, grew. It grew from how will die for Christ into a constant thought of how I would die, more horrific each time. More grisly, until finally it turned from “how will I die for Christ?” to “how can I die and have people tell the story it was for Christ so I don’t go to hell forever?” to “how can I die?” This worship of martyrs became a pretty serious suicidal ideation. Something I now have in check, but for over a decade was overwhelming and constant.
Can I tell you something? Something pretty important. That story about Cassie Bernall at Columbine? It’s not true. Yes, she was killed in the shooting, but no one asked her anything. There was no sense in what Harris and Klebold did. They weren’t seeking out Christians. They walked into a library and opened fire. Those that were nearby Cassie when she died, have come forward saying “no one was asked anything” and “no one was asked that.” They just shot. This is a story fabricated by her mother (as a way to process her grief, to add meaning to her child’s senseless death) and her pastor. I find the latter far more disgusting than the former. If that’s the story her mother needed to tell herself to get through it, fine. But her pastor having a book published of a lie, infuriates me.
To this day, that story creeps into my mind as truth and the lies start to form in my head again. I’ve been learning a lot about spiritual trauma lately, and this is a very big part of my own. The lies the church taught us to get the result they wanted.