Westside Middle School in Jonesboro appeared to be a typical public school in a smallish city in Northeastern Arkansas. What happened on Tuesday, March 24, 1998, was anything but typical. USA Today's headline told the story:
Five Killed at Arkansas School: 4 Students, Teacher Die In Ambush; 2 Classmates Held
The premeditated ambush on classmates by two boys, eleven and thirteen years old, sent shockwaves across the nation. The very day this happened, my nine-year-old son, Josh, had accompanied me to Atlanta. While the two of us visited Zoo Atlanta, ate hot dogs at the Varsity, and shopped at the Underground, these young cousins pulled the school fire alarm at Westside, hid behind trees with rifles and, in camouflage gear, began shooting as people filed out of the building. Boys the age of my son's neighborhood buddies killed five and wounded fourteen others.
All because one of the boys was upset with his former girlfriend.
Unfortunately, such madness is no longer unusual:
October 1, 1997: A sixteen-year-old boy is arrested for allegedly killing his mother, then shooting nine students at his high school, killing two. Some evidence points to a conspiracy with a group who dabbled in Satanism.
December 1, 1997: A fourteen-year-old is arrested and charged with opening fire on a student prayer circle in West Paducah, Kentucky, killing three and wounding five.
December 15, 1997: A boy, age fourteen, is charged with wounding two students with sniper fire in Stamps, Arkansas.
All this in a span of six months.
What are we to make of this? Popular culture certainly is a factor in the escalation of violence. A professor of pediatrics, Vic Strasburger, says, "Clearly the biggest message from movies and TV [might we add video games?] is that violence is an acceptable solution to complex problems." Mike Huckabee, governor of Arkansas and a former Southern Baptist pastor, decried the fact that we live in a culture that breeds such behavior. Why should we be surprised? A few years ago, the nation was shocked when Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested for grotesque murders and even cannibalism. Yet, that same year the Academy Award went to the movie, The Silence of the Lambs, featuring a criminal named Hannibal the Cannibal!
Perhaps the lambs have been silent, in a substantive way. In the church, we are quite adept at shaking our fist at our societal shadows. We give names to the cultural darkness of our day. We throw rocks into the darkness of our contemporary ungodliness.
But the way to remove darkness is to turn on the Light. None of us as individuals can change society as a whole, but we can change our world. We can't touch the life of every troubled youth, but we can influence the life of some young person.
Perhaps this wave of youth violence can serve as a wake-up call for our Southern Baptist churches. This is not a day in which we can build youth ministry on entertainment, yet that seems to be the rage. We have an opportunity to affect a significant part of the youth culture through our churches. Many young people do have a desire for truth, for Christ-honoring, relevant Bible teaching. And now, perhaps more than ever, we must give a greater emphasis on taking the zeal of youth and channeling it into such adventurous and challenging opportunities as evangelism. Instead of trying to out-world the world, why not challenge youth to experience the adventure of a radically-changed life through Christ?
Young people will rise to the level to which they are challenged. If unchallenged, they will discover their own challenges, many of which are destructive. Why not show them a better way?
I recently spoke to a church with a fabulous youth group. The teens there seemed to have an unusual love for God. On the last night, I challenged the church to take copies of the Eternal Life gospel tract and share with someone the next week. The response was terrific. Some of the youth got my email address. They shared, as did their pastor, exciting stories of the days following. The bottom line is, in less than a week, three schoolmates, and one young person in the group, accepted Christ. In Jonesboro, Arkansas, four teens and a teacher died as a result of a horrible tragedy. Just two weeks earlier, four teens in Charleston, South Carolina, met Christ. We can change the world, one heart at a time.
Then, youth would be served.