Step into the dark with me for a few moments. I am sad. This week was the kind of week when people like myself who work with students just get overwhelmed with sadness. I am sad because a 16-year-old kid named Jeffrey Weise killed nine people and then himself. I am sad because his life is being dissected right now on news shows: “He apparently communicated with Neo-Nazi websites.” Kids in his school are already speaking up. “Student Sondra Hegstrom, 17, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that Weise was into Goth culture, wore ‘a big old black trench coat,’ drew pictures of skeletons, listened to heavy metal music and ‘talked about death all the time’ (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/7259823/)” (MSNBC).
I am sad because, once again, there is a tragedy in the next generation of people in America, and many Americans will miss the message that this student was sending to us. But the even greater tragedy is that the Church will miss the message.
Of course, there are many messages—the news will do a fine job of letting us know the often-repeated messages of “gun control,” “school safety,” “warning signs of troubled kids” and more. But that was not the message Jeffrey Weise intended.
Everything I have read so far has an eerie resemblance to the massacre at Columbine in 1999. The Goth culture obsession with violence in drawing and poems, feelings of abandonment and rejection from other students, and the intentional killing of “popular” kids and kids who believe in God. Weise was a wounded kid, and the way he dealt with his woundedness was by wounding others and causing pain. As I have worked with hundreds of students, I have not met a student yet who isn’t wounded. Most sociologists are referring to this generation (ages 15 to 25) as “wounded,” “hurt” and “abandoned.”
Chap Clark, a professor at Fuller Seminary, authored the book Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers, based upon his experience observing a typical American high school. In his preface, he explains the sentiments of one junior who shaped the course of his research: “Tell them our story. Tell them the truth—that nobody cares, that nobody listens, that teachers and coaches and cops and parents don’t even know who we are. Tell them that and see if anybody listens. Ha! Not a chance.”
This kid wasn’t a Goth—he was just an ordinary high school kid. Can you hear Weise egging his peers on, “You preach it, man—they don’t understand us”? Goth kids are not the problem. Each kid today is part of a tribe where they try to find acceptance, love and a way to cope, and Goth kids are just one of those tribes. They look different on the outside (think the Mean Girls lunch room), but on the inside they all share the same hurt.
Clark writes later about the world that exists beneath what we normally see in adolescent life. “I saw encouraging and positive things even in the crevices of that world. I saw genuine kindness and loyalty. I heard lofty dreams and honest stories. I saw flashes of light. Yet as I sat on the steps of their world, I also witnessed a palpable darkness. I heard vicious and vile conversations. I saw new levels of vulgarity that I found astonishing. I saw tremendous pain masked by obnoxious defiance, an insatiable selfishness and indescribable cruelty.”
Too often, followers of Jesus are pictured as irrelevant to the real hurt in life—our message doesn’t ring true. It clangs like a symbol. Weise found acceptance not with followers of Jesus, but in a Neo-Nazi online chat room, because cultish groups understand that someone has to belong before they believe. The deepest sadness that I feel today is because we are failing to pass along the story of the Gospel to this hurting generation, telling people what to believe before they feel like they belong. Jack Johnson provides a commentary on the typical attempt to share the Gospel on his new album: Knock, knock, coming door to door/To tell you that their metaphor is better than yours/And you can either sink or swim and things are looking pretty grim.
I am sad because this generation is in pain. I am sad because this generation is looking for guidance, love, healing and someone to listen. Ultimately, I am deeply and desperately sad because this generation is sinking, to use Johnson’s metaphor.
The world of adolescence today is a world of darkness that seldom is penetrated by the light of the Gospel of Christ. Yet Jesus claimed to be the light in the darkness and urged His followers to not put that light under a covering. It should be up on a hill: “Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven” (Matthew 5).
Jesus desperately wants to get across the message that God is a “generous Father” who desires to bring light into the darkness of the world. Christ was God in the flesh, and His call to His followers was to embody God in the same way. If people ever came to see the light and to understand the truth that emanates from the light of Christ, they would experience freedom.
We have heard Weise’s story, and it is the same story of so many in this generation. The real message of this tragedy is a question: “Will you step into the darkness with me? Will you try to understand me? Will you listen? Is there a way out? Is there any light in my darkness?”
The real question at the heart of it all is: “Does anyone love me?” Weise’s answer seems to have been “no.” That should make us all sad …
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