Columbine book says much about loving mom
Robert A. Sirico
The Detroit News
December 22, 1999
When I was asked to review a small book by the mother of one of the high school students killed in Littleton, Colorado, I was reluctant. Would this be a morbid account of a woman working out her grief? It's true that grief is best consoled by sharing it, but there have been far too many public and manipulative displays of grief in recent days, which instead of consoling the grieving, merely put grief on public display.
She Said Yes is not in any way that sort of book. In fact, given that it came out so quickly after the Littleton tragedy, I am astonished at the depth of psychological and spiritual insight that the book reflects. This is the story of Cassie Bernall, the young girl who was said to have been asked if she believed in God, and when she replied “yes,” was killed by one of her Columbine high school classmates.
A new twist on the whole matter has arisen in light of the contention that another young girl, Valeen Schnurr, is said to have responded “yes” to the question of whether she believed in God. So what we have here is either a confusion about just who was asked if she believed in God (understandable enough, owing to the mass confusion of the events which constitute the Littleton tragedy) or two girls who were asked the question.
In any event, Mrs. Bernall's book is a credible reflection of the life of her daughter, whether or not Cassie was the one asked. The core of this book is really not the last moments of the young lady's life, but the events that took place years before.
This is the story of a young girl, like so many young people in our nation, who was deeply troubled at one point in her life. Her parents responded in a very firm yet loving way by pulling her out of the school she was in and placing her for a while in a religious school.
Over time, Cassie's entire disposition and demeanor changed. Her clothes changed, her taste in music changed, her attitude toward life changed. She had a definite and credible religious experience.
Yet Mrs. Bernall is reluctant to describe it in overly emotional terms. She is as wise and honest as she is loving, deepening one's appreciation for the authenticity of Cassie's conversion to the faith.
Mrs. Bernall writes, “To someone who sees being born again' as all there is to the Christian faith, it might be tempting to see Cassie's conversion as the sole point of her story. As her mother, I am not sure that is really the case.... I think she would agree that what came after her weekend (of her conversion) was just as important as the experience itself.”
Mrs. Bernall expresses all of the grief one would expect from a mother whose daughter was ripped from her in so tragic and public a manner. Yet she never loses her sense of balance and honesty. She does not make her daughter into a plaster saint, observing that “to make Cassie into a saint would be all too easy, especially now that she isn't there to make any more mistakes.... But it is important to add that the daughter I knew is equally capable of being selfish and stubborn, and that sometimes she behaved like a spoiled two-year old.”
She discusses the role of her daughter as an unlikely martyr and admits her resistance to classifying her as such. But that's exactly the point. Saints are real people, and we blunt their effectiveness as role models for us by thinking of them as superhuman, rather than people who are admittedly extraordinary in their sanctity, but nonetheless live ideals which we can and should attain.
Because “odium fidei” has a long history, martyrdom has played a special role in the history of Christianity. The teaching is that martyrs - men and women who have suffered death rather then deny who they are and what they believe - are deserving of special veneration. The names of those who endure it are remembered in the prayers of the faithful for generations and centuries. It is likely that Cassie Bemall will be so remembered.
Columbine is not the only tragedy Christians experienced this year. At the Wedgewood Baptist Church in Forth Worth, Texas, for example, the gunman specifically denounced what the people believed. Long used, to suffering ridicule from the culture at large, Christians have largely begun to fear they are no longer safe - not, in their schools, and not even in their houses of worship. Secular elites may dismiss such fears, but the pattern has believers all over the country very concerned.
It may be that the Columbine killers were striking out randomly and not targeting religious students in particular. And yet, if we look deep enough we may find that these acts of violence ultimately stem from the marginalization of traditional faith from the core of our culture.
The march of secularism in the media and civic institutions goes beyond mere anti-sectarianism. Quite often it slips into outright hostility towards religion. It's not one movie or one event, but rather the cumulative effect of a widespread cultural pattern that is telling. The cultural drumbeat is constantly pounding into us that religion is the problem and the oppressor.
In a society where most intimate subjects are no longer taboo - and indeed they bombard us - words affirming faith are anathema. It's true that believers have sometimes allowed themselves to be portrayed as theocrats wanting to impose their faith, rather than propose it. Even so, major segments of elite opinion are not interested in tolerating even the proposal; instead, they want believers to be practical atheists- not necessarily to renounce God, but simply to live as though He did not exist.
The memory of modern martyrs like Cassie can inspire believers and nonbelievers alike to work for a society that affirms the sanctity of all human life, a society in which no groups are persecuted or physically threatened because of what they believe. Our goal should be to retrieve the real meaning of tolerance, which must include a recognition that people of faith have made an immense contribution to our culture and society. It is time that this contribution was treated respectfully and not disdainfully
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