Oregon shooting and the ideology of martyrdom

iwouldsayyesI was eleven years old when the shooting at Columbine High School happened. Without access to the Internet beyond an instant messenger account, somehow I latched on to the story of Cassie Bernall, the seventeen-year-old who was killed after being asked if she believed in God. I remember checking out her mother’s book “She Said Yes” from my middle school library and reading it several times before returning it well beyond its due date.

This made sense, considering my fascination with martyrdom and sainthood began at the age of ten, when I latched on to the story of Joan of Arc and checked out every book and movie I could find about her. My mom was worried that this apparent obsession with martyrdom was unhealthy; perhaps rightly so. How does a Jewish kid even learn about this stuff? Good question – I still have no idea.

Now here we are again, reading martyr stories in the media from another school shooting. You’ve probably heard it already: a shooter asked students if they were Christians, and the ones who answered “yes” were shot in the head. Interestingly, those who answered “no” were allowed to live, but not without being shot in the legs.

Not long after the shooting occurred, this article surfaced on my news feed: “Dear sweet Mamas,” it begins (that salutation alone makes me uncomfortable, but I kept reading), “I know you are hurting today. I won’t pretend I know how badly…He killed nine of your children, Mamas. Do you know what that means? That means eight of your brave children saw one of their own take a bullet in the head for claiming Christ and they said yes anyway.”

It goes on…

I want my children here with me, and I know you want yours with you too.

But I will tell you that a YES and a life snuffed out for Christ is better than a NO and 100 years more on this earth without Him.

To LIVE is Christ, and to DIE is gain, and your children PROVED that yesterday. May we all look to them and BE STRENGTHENED.

This…makes me uncomfortable for a couple reasons. One, if I were a mom of a dead child who was shot randomly, not martyred, I might feel that this article is elevating the deaths of these other students above my own – as if my child’s death were less important, and more senseless. Second, without denying the bravery it takes to remain true to your beliefs despite the consequences (I really don’t want to trivialize this), what does the article inadvertently say about doubt-filled people like me? This situation is a nightmare for someone with unanswerable questions that keep her up at night; whose prayer journal contains entries over the last six months that are pretty much the same: “I don’t know how I can continue to believe when there are parts of the Bible that disturb me, and questions that can’t be answered. I’m scared to bring this up in church for fear of being told that I’m not a ‘real believer.’”

I don’t mean to say we shouldn’t praise the bravery of those who die for their convictions. My problem is with an ideology that is heavily focused on a hypothetical moment of having to defend your beliefs at gunpoint. This situation is very, very rare – at least for people who live in the US. This ideology doesn’t allow much room – let alone grace – for people who constantly wrestle with doubt. Thus, my obsession with martyrdom was waned a bit. My new heroes are those who openly wrestle with doubt, and extend invitations to everyone at their table, regardless of where they are on the spectrum of doubt to faith.


5 thoughts on “Oregon shooting and the ideology of martyrdom”

    1. Interesting to consider that Peter denied Jesus three times yet he was forgiven. A terrified student who gives whatever answer is most likely to keep her alive is perfectly understandable to me.

      Of course, the people who answered “no” got shot anyway, so you really can’t predict which answer will appease a deranged psychopath with a gun.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Beth

        I’m sure you know, in [orthodox] Judaism , the sages of blessed memory interpreted “You shall keep my decrees and my laws that a person will do and LIVE by them, I am G-d.” (Leviticus 18,5) means one should live for and not die for the Torah, except in only 3 circumstances where a Jew must ya’avor v’al ye’hareg (die and not transgress) . I think denying I believed in God would be one of these three. But as you say a deranged psycho isn’t a person you could rationalise with: he/she could murder you regardless of whatever answers you have. In those circumstances , I personally would prefer to go with Hashem on my heart and Torah on my lips.


  1. Fun fact: There’s actually evidence that it wasn’t Cassie Bernall who was asked this question but another student and it was misreported. Doesn’t really have anything to do with the rest of your post but thought it was interesting, especially since like you I read the book her mom wrote and it affected me deeply at the time.


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