As I write it’s exactly one week after the horrific killing spree inside the Century 16 theater in Aurora—I live 20 minutes away from the site of one of the worst acts of violence in U.S. history, where (once again) most victims were young people. A week ago, I wrote this on our Web site (youthministry.com): “I woke up this morning to the familiar sounds of hell. It’s the sound of local news reporters talking about a mass killing by a psychopathic terrorist, victimizing helpless people who are forced to cower under their seats. In the Denver community, where I live, we’ve been through this before, of course—it’s been 13 years since the Columbine shootings. But the open wound from that gash will never close, for most people I know…”
When terrible or “senseless” things happen, we’re hard-wired to resolve our dissonance—the out-of-control feelings we have—by cobbling together reasonable explanations for unreasonable behavior. “Senseless” is an attempt to express our shock and outrage. We believe that if we can pin the blame properly—gun control, violence in films, untreated mental illness, or even Satan—it will help us turn “senseless” into “understandable.” We hate living in dissonance. And we hate, even more, when control is taken from us. And so we say and do things we hope will neutralize our dissonance and return some measure of control to us.
A few days after the massacre, President Barack Obama was speaking to a conference of the National Urban League in New Orleans. He’d already flown to Denver earlier in the week to meet with victims, police officers, and medical personnel. He was angry, and eager to address the nation’s collective dissonance. He closed with this charge to the thousands gathered at the Moral Convention Center:“We should… recognize that we have no greater mission as a country than keeping our young people safe.”
Now, what I’m about to say has nothing—nothing at all—to do with politics. Political debates connected to this tragedy repulse me. But every American president has an unrivaled “bully pulpit,” and President Obama used his platform to urge an anxious, grieving, and dissonant nation to re-commit to our “greatest mission”—and that is “keeping our young people safe.”
I think this is an understandable and broadly embraced imperative.
It’s also dead wrong.
The truth is, we’ve been charged by God with a much greater mission than “keeping our young people safe.” In fact, this lofty-sounding truism is one of the worst things we can say to our teenagers, because it undermines the clear mandate of a gospel message that urges us to “set captives free,” whatever the cost. It’s ironic that those who have the most invested in them (their parents) have wholeheartedly embraced safety as their most crucial of considerations. Because of this misguided emphasis, it’s not a stretch to say that we are a society, like others in world history, that seems stuck in a rut.
The late Dr. Edwin Friedman, author of the riveting and paradigm-shattering book A Failure of Nerve, pinpoints the underlying reason why our culture seems stuck in a swirl of ineffective leadership: We have valued safety over adventure. “American civilization,” writes Friedman, “influences our thoughts and our leaders toward safetyand certainty vs. boldness and adventure.”According to Friedman, the brave adventurers who have changed the course of history promote maturity over more data; stamina over new techniques; and personal responsibility over empathy.
We are not giving our kids what they need to move into their own history with redemptive impact when we repeatedly tell them their personal safety is more important than any other thing in life. Instead, they need to know there are things worth dying for—this is the essential mission of our calling. It’s no accident that all of Jesus’ disciples lived-to-die. Paul spells it out in his manifesto to the church in Rome: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).
When we encourage our students to take risks at the prompting of the Spirit—to live dangerously good—we are pastors to our core. For so long youth workers have labored under the unfair and pejorative label of “glorified babysitter.” And if safety is our highest concern, that’s really all we are. But we are called to something higher—to introduce kids to the Jesus who makes “losing your life to find it” perfectly plausible. ◊