As I watched coverage of Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, California this past week, I was struck by one news reporter’s final words: “But in this age of school shootings, many have been bracing for a tragedy like this one.” While his intent was to highlight the preparedness of the school and teachers for this all-too-common occurrence, his words hit me like a punch to the gut.
To consider that my students’ response to a shooting at their school, or in our community, would ever be “we’ve been waiting for it” is devastating. It means there are students who walk into school every day wondering if today could be the day. It means we have gone from school shootings being an unthinkable tragedy to just another day in the life of education.
A recent article by CNN only serves to prove this new reality. The article, written last week by Elizabeth Wolfe, states that in the 46 weeks of 2019 thus far there have been 44 different school shootings, which averages one shooting a week.
No wonder students are literally “bracing for a tragedy” in their schools.
What concerns me more than the commonality of these events (although that deeply concerns me) is how this commonality distorts our theology of lament and death. Death, by its very existence, is a curse. It is an ever-present reminder to humanity that sin has broken God’s intended design and it serves as a signpost of what is to be restored. We are told in the Scriptures that death is not merely a fact of life, but an enemy to it (1 Cor. 15:26).
This is why we cannot let our students, or ourselves, ever get to the point of accepting school shootings as normal or commonplace. The enemy’s desire is for us to embrace this curse by seeing it as inevitable, but death should always cause us to mourn the curse of sin and plead for its promised destruction (1 Cor. 15:26).
In this “age of school shootings” it is pressing for those of us who have a voice in the lives of students to proclaim the truest narrative of death and life to them – a narrative that does not assume the defeat of life, but assures the defeat of death!
The Narrative of Death
The most important thread to remember in the narrative of death is that is has not always been and it will not always be. Death has a beginning and, in turn, an end.
While God’s original creation was not subject to the sting of death, it was adorned with a tree whose fruit bore the consequence of death (Genesis 2:17). God’s command to Adam and Eve in the garden was actually intended to offer them life. Yet, through their disobedience to that command, the curse of death was inaugurated in Genesis 3.
The story of death has never been without the brilliant thread of grace. Death has never been offered the final word, not even in the garden. Instead, God promised a way for the curse to be defeated. Then, through His good grace, God sent Adam and Eve out of the garden. Even this was an extension of grace, to spare them from eternal life under the curse – insuring its end (Genesis 3:22-24).
From there the Scriptures unfold a story which follows the effects of this curse on creation and humanity. The story of death has always been one of mourning and lamenting. Kings, prophets, and judges are looked at to defeat the enemies of God’s people. And while some enemies are defeated at their hands, all of these leaders ultimately come to death’s door, unable to defeat the hold of the ultimate enemy.
That is, until the true and better Adam comes. Jesus not only takes on the enemy of death, but He wins the battle only He could win.
Revelation 1:17-18 provides a punch on the narrative of death unlike any other in all of Scripture, all because of one punctuation mark:
“… ‘Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.’”
I died … COMMA. For anyone else, that is a period. Yet for the Son of God, the story of death once again did not have the final word. He died, yes. In fact, He had to die to take on the enemy firsthand, placing the penalty of the curse upon Himself. He faced death; He died. But – comma – He is alive FOREVERMORE! Not only that, but He now possesses the keys to death and hades.
It is deeply significant to the narrative that Jesus didn’t just defeat death, He now reigns over it. This is why we can sing songs at youth group that proclaim the end of death’s sting in Christ’s victory (1 Cor. 15:54).
However, those songs seem to get lost when we are standing graveside of a loved one. The sting of death does not feel gone when our students suffer the reality of school shootings day in and day out. Death’s defeat can feel like a fairytale instead of the truest story there is.
This is where we must remember that the curse of death in the garden was a long-suffering one. Yes, Jesus has indeed defeated death, but its final destruction is still coming (1 Cor. 15:26). Jesus is presently holding the keys to death, but has not yet brought its final end. This is why it is good and right for us to mourn the reality of death. It is an enemy. And for as long as the Lord tarries, we will face the reality of death; but we don’t stay there. In Christ the script is flipped. Believers are no longer “bracing for death,” but “bracing for life.”
Narrative of Life
I understand how our students can come to a point where they would expect tragedies such as school shootings. Honestly, I often find myself there too. This is why a proper theology of death and life matters so much in this age of school shootings. Right lament is both sorrow and worship. It is the practice of bearing the awful weight of death, while holding high the hope of life.
This is why the resurrection is not merely a bow to tie on the end of the gospel, but it is the crux of Christ’s finished work, present ministry, and coming consummation. It is in Christ’s resurrection that the narrative of life finds its roots. Christ’s resurrection is the first fruits of the restoration of life to come for all who belong to Christ (1 Cor. 15:20). While Christ is currently the only one who can place a comma after His death, at His second coming, the same will be true for all who are found in Him (1 Cor. 15:23)! As death found its beginning with Adam, it will find its end with Christ (1 Cor. 15:22).
For those who are in Christ, the grave will not be our final resting place. We will one day taste the fruit of Christ’s resurrection, our own resurrection. On that day the narrative of death will come to its end and death – the final enemy – will be destroyed. On that same day, the narrative of life will only be starting its latest chapter. Life will be restored to its most beautiful design, a design that includes no death, no weeping, and no pain.
As we long for that day, events will continue occur that make us feel as if death is winning. In fact, since first penning these words a few days ago, a 45th school shooting has taken place in New Jersey. And with seven weeks left in 2019, it is hard to imagine that number will not grow.
So, of course, we want our students physically prepared to face a tragedy like a shooting. It should be celebrated that a teacher in California was able to care for a student because she was resourced with, and trained in using, a gunshot wound kit in her classroom. Preparation is good. I am not suggesting that we push our students to live as if shootings will never happen to them; actually, just the opposite.
In this age of school shootings, it is all the more important that we, as youth leaders, address this reality with our students. We can no longer treat it as other. Instead, we should be the first to mourn with our students because as we do, we help them to see past the lies of death and to place their hope in the better narrative of life.
My prayer in this ‘age of school shootings’ is that it would also be this resurrected reality – a narrative of life through Christ that our students are bracing for.
Questions to Get Teens Talking About the Life/Death Narrative in An Age of School Shootings
- Do you ever fear the potential of a shooting happening at your school? What do you do when that fear comes?
- How do you feel when you hear about a school shooting or the death of a student your age?
- Why is it important for us to mourn the reality of death?
- Why would God allow His children to experience the sting of death on this earth?
- Knowing that Jesus has defeated death in His resurrection, and guaranteed its destruction, how does this give us hope over the fear of death now?
Please also see: This is America: Student Ministry in a Time of Childish Gambino and School Shootings and What We Talk About When We Talk About Pittsburgh.