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A Public Education: Adolescent Murderers and Christian Witness

Childhood is a gift, but it is not a given experience for everyone. Unlike the inherent qualities of youth and vulnerability, childhood, understood as a period of relatively consequence-free and responsibility-free play, is not guaranteed. Childhood is something closer to the way Baron Wormser describes the apparent miracle of the boiled egg in his poem, “A Quiet Life.” By conjuring the diverse chemical, technological, and social elements that make the boiled egg possible, Wormser brings to life the simple pleasure of the boiled egg. The final image the poem raises is that of creation, creation ex nihilo, thereby correcting any pretension that the miracle of the boiled egg was anything but a divine gift. Childhood is like this: conditional upon the satisfaction of an immense number of often unreflected-upon social, familial, and individual demands.

Against this background of cooperative demand, school shootings have become a norm in America. If the legal malaise and public numbness before this fact mean anything, they seem to suggest that children have become the acceptable sacrifice to protect Second Amendment rights. That we might need to defend the innocent, like children, is a common argument for the defense of such rights. And, for now, the Church’s witness amid violence, too, remains enclosed in political and theodical complaint.

“Rights” like the right to bear arms are beliefs. Such beliefs must be defended in light of the Church’s authoritative confessions about God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Children are implicated in the beliefs and disbeliefs that drives much of America’s response to and discourse on violence, including that of many American Christians. That natural debates have largely sharped Christian responses to violence and construed our witness from our central claims about who we are in Christ is one reason why Christians have had such little to say after each new massacre. It is for this reason that we need to question our constructive use of the child as children continue to feature in our arguments related to violence. Lost in much of this is the realization that this demand to bear arms to protect children also assumes the need to bear arms to kill children, since so often school shooters are themselves children.

Adolescent violence is not easily separable from the beliefs and practices of a society’s elders. This means that the violence of school shooters is not easily separable from the violence of adults, though school shootings are often talked about as if they were simply random events without cause or explanation. In his Anti-Pelagian writings, Augustine based his understanding of childhood innocence on the child’s weak frame. Though capable of wicked desire, he reasoned, children lacked the physical capacity to act on that desire.[1] That the adolescent murderer is now a stock feature of U.S. public schools upends our modern distaste for Augustine’s understanding about the nature of children: they are not by nature different from the rest of us. The practical implication of this for us now, which did not seem to apply in Augustine’s time, is that questions about the right to self-defense now apply not only to adults with lethal intent but also to children and adolescents sharing that intent. The availability of guns to adolescents unmasks our idealization of childhood innocence as a given, instead of the fruit of a community’s work and witness.

American gun violence is certainly related to the spiritualization of gun ownership as a right. Yet, adolescent violence is not explained away by appeals to mental illness or the number of guns in America. Both factors have been with America for a long time. Only school shootings have become a recent American phenomenon, but that phenomenon is not an ex nihilo mystery like the gift of childhood. School shootings demonstrate that there is no neat way to disentangle children from America’s culture of death, which again is reflected in its apparent belief in violence as a right.

The question now is if the Church can bear witness in the face of violence if it continues to collude, as it often has done, with the worldly justifications of violent self-defense. In other words, does the Cross of Christ have force in our arguments about violence anymore as they are renewed, horribly, by the fact that our enemies are possibly children? If the Cross cannot provoke in us anything other than the typical justifications of violence, we have nothing but consigned ourselves to the status quo, to the godless politics of pure loss. The anxieties we have about preventing tragedies and what they make us want to do is a serious matter of faith. Therefore, we must ask on what basis the Church might recover its witness before a violent world.

Throughout history, Christians have sought to understand the moral calamities that befall children differently, which has influenced the Church’s response to them. For example, in the early Church, the “Massacre of the Innocents” at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel provided the frame by which Christians found solace amid the tragic deaths of their children. The promise of resurrection they knew laid over even those who were without a developed will or informed intellect to consciously choose a self-sacrificial death.[2] (Who among us adults have those in full, anyhow?) The deaths of children taught the Church something. In this case, they taught that no one was spared from the possibility of persecution, which means that even a young life could bear witness to the free gift of grace in unwanted death. Of course, Christians will not likely find this martyrial interpretation helpful or even morally acceptable today. Additionally, those who die in school shootings are not martyrs but victims, so this wisdom may seem straightforwardly inapplicable anyway. So then, with what are we left?

That history is tragic is lost on us, though it was not for earlier Christians. The knowledge that grace and tragedy might come strangely intermixed in our time is something that’s been technologically and medically suppressed. Still, for most Western Christians, this ignorance regarding the tragic nature of the world is desirable because it justifies our use of those means that promises us only the death we choose. But the inability to deal with the tragic is politically and spiritually disintegrating. This liberalism that presumes our fates are ultimately in our hands and not in God’s lies in stark contrast to how the Lord of all chose to consummate his power and judgment: by specifically denying his rights to the point of the cross.

So, who does Christ reveal when he invites the children to himself for the disciples to see? We naturally resonate with the idea that children are expressive of both an indefinable glory and vulnerability. The latter is key to the former. And, it is for this reason, their vulnerability, that children can bear witness to the Son of God, whose incarnate glory he vulnerably laid down in going to the cross. This is how the cross is glorious, after all. It is this grammar, of incarnate glory and vulnerability, that is determinative of a genuine Christian political response to violence. Jesus calls the children to him because they are vulnerable, which is what the child teaches us about ourselves (Matt. 19). They point us to our impoverishment, our total dependence on the Lord. They are not windows into a lost Edenic state that commands a violent defense; rather, they point us to the way of Christ and his kingdom (e.g., Luke 1:79).

Belief in the resurrection acknowledges that even our deaths are a work of grace, thus they belong to the Lord, all, regardless of age (e.g., Ps. 116:15; Rom. 6:3-11; Gal. 2:20-21). This means that even horrible deaths can be faithfully navigable without retributive means, but only because of who God is. That is glory. The Scriptures show us how the Father willingly subjected his Son to the violence of his children, i.e., we ourselves. This means that his body cannot go on in a way that contradicts our confession that Jesus loved his enemies even as they attacked him.[3] This means the Church can show that the merits of Christ’s death applies to the unheroic, non-matryrial, child victims of school shootings. His vulnerability and glory intermix with theirs.

Yet, this is still not enough. Such victims require a community who can profess for them their relation to their attacker. In baptism, we claim we are made one with Christ, not individually but together; in this ecclesial sense we are dependent on one another for our salvation. The witness of child victims cannot be seen without the Church’s living members’ prior witness to the peace of Christ.

The doctrine of original sin posits that human evil is incomprehensible and insoluble in merely human terms. This anthropology contradicts many modern sentiments regarding the nature of children. The Church gathers around the child at the font to entrust them to society, one called the body of Christ, wherein salvation might be found. Again, childhood is a gift, one based on the satisfaction of a host of cooperative skills, values, and requirements, civic and domestic. The baptismal rite presupposes in seed form the kinds of disciplined promises that the gift of childhood necessitates. Children are “innocent,” but only in respect to that community that has taken vows, explicitly and indirectly, to carry the moral burden children are not prepared to endure. Children grow and, we hope, become those capable of returning the gift of childhood to others and exactly by being those vicariously vowed.

Nothing that I have said promises that Christian witness to God’s peace will reduce violence or stop school shootings. But, following this, it does mean that we can show in our shared lives together that the deaths of the nation’s sons and daughters can be handed over prayerfully and politically to merciful “use,” rather than subjected to a retributive or fearful political one, like those who are without God and so who live without hope. But a community capable of just this is the glory of the kind Jesus talks about in Matthew 19, exactly because such people bear witness to the truth of his body in their own.

The grace by which we are held in God is definitionally a scandal to what the human scales of justice seem to demand: an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth (Matthew 5:38-48, cf 7:1-2). For those who proclaim to know this grace — Christ — this means that the Church cannot give up on grace’s possible embrace of child murderers, too. Such was Joseph on behalf of his brothers and, for Christ, the eternal Son, for all of us children of Cain who know not what we do (Luke 23:34). Considering this option may be disturbing to some; yet this is the way the Son is ordered toward his Father, in an “unimaginable risk of obedience.”[4] The peaceful labor of the Church must then precede the non-martyrial victims of school shootings if the Church is to even honestly mourn the violent deaths of its young. Only from this can we honestly proclaim our confusion before God: “Why?” This at least admits that God has given us the power of his retributive love, the Cross, by whose power the Church’s life is given by the One who draws us up from death itself.

The Rev. Trent Pettit is a priest at The Church of St. John the Divine (Episcopal) in Houston, TX.  

* This article is the fruit of the many conversations I have shared with Kira Moolman Pettit, whose research on death and children helped consolidate my own thinking.

[1] Augustine, “Punishment and the Forgiveness of Sins,” in Answer to the Pelagians I (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1997), 76.

[2]Maria E. Doerfler, Jephthahs Daughter, Sarahs Son: The Death of Children in Late Antiquity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2020), 180.

[3] Stanley Hauerwas, “Should War Be Eliminated?” The Hauerwas Reader. (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011), 411.

[4] Ephraim Radner, A Profound Ignorance: Modern Pneumatology and Its Anti-modern Redemption

 (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2019) 281.

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