She was 18 when she was murdered, gunned down at a friend’s house by a jealous schoolmate. It was July 18, 2003, a day that launched Clear Lake into the national spotlight and traumatized the small suburban community just south of Houston, Texas. FOX 26, ABC 13, The Houston Chronicle, and many others interviewed family and friends. When the killer was finally caught, a high-profile trial ensued. Even 20/20 came out to document the case.
The media at that time was sensitive to the pain of victims, particularly the young siblings of the beautiful teen girl who had died. They did not sensationalize their pain, dissect their emotional trauma, or put their most intimate moments of grief on graphic display.
Fast forward to 2018. Something has changed. Children are not so off-limits as they once were. The violation of traditional boundaries is most starkly displayed in the treatment of the Parkland Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Shooting survivors. A troupe of emotional and outspoken teens who are justifiably distraught are being paraded through streets and television studios under the pretense of changing the world and saving lives.
While the teen’s proposed method of stopping mass-murderers is a point of contention, no one disagrees that future shootings must be prevented. Yet who is defending the emotional health of the survivors? Who is ensuring that their trauma is addressed; that their juvenile hearts and impressionable minds are guarded from exacerbation and exploitation?
THE IMPOSSIBLE WEIGHT OF SALVATION BY MARTYRDOM
In a dramatic piece published by The New Yorker, author Rebecca Mead refers to, The Passion of Emma González, comparing the plucky teen girl to Joan of Arc, and by implication, Jesus Christ. While the writer no doubt intends the saintly veneration of González, she is contributing to the psychological crucifixion of these children.
From the recent March For Our Lives through Washington, D.C., to interviews on national networks, these teens have been pinned to a placard. Their raw emotions have been spilled out and their bludgeoned souls put on gaudy display. As King David foretold the crucifixion of Christ in Psalm 22, “I am poured out like water … I can count all my bones.” There is indeed a martyrdom aspect to this media frenzy, but it lacks the redemptive beauty which Mead ascribes.
On March 23, 2018, CNN exposed a collection of intimate cell phone video diaries. They acquired these videos, many of which were shot in bedrooms, from Parkland teenagers for a revealing series called The Parkland Diaries. Resembling a therapy exercise, the recordings depict traumatized kids overwrought with emotion, covered in injuries that have yet to heal.
“I’m in a lot of pain,” Samantha Fuentes says, displaying a bullet hole in her thigh. “I’ve never been faced with this kind of pain before.”
Indeed, the diary compilation resembles a morbid reality television show, but instead of Ozzy Osbourne or a bachelor looking for love, we see beat-up kids who are weeping, anxious, and angry.
“I’m supposed to be recovering,” González says as tears stream down her cheeks. “We’re supposed to be recovering, and we can’t do that if these things are still going to be happening. What can we do to stop this from continuing?”
The answer, of course, is nothing. These teens can do nothing to end evil. They can speak out, coordinate events, and sign petitions, and those are all good things to do, but the reality of wickedness and violence will persist no matter how brave, strong, or vocal they are. By making their emotional healing dependent upon ending violence, they may well impede their recovery.
Hypothetically speaking, we can make schools more secure, restrict gun availability, and set up a government taskforce to monitor the dangerously mentally ill. Nevertheless, children will die, depraved degenerates will extinguish innocent lives, and psychopaths will find ways to get ahold of weapons. None of it will be Emily González’s fault. As long as mankind is fallen, evil and death will continue.
In response to the tragedy, and to the teens’ activism following it, Barack Obama tweeted, “Young people have helped lead all our great movements. How inspiring to see it again in so many smart, fearless students standing up for their right to be safe; marching and organizing to remake the world as it should be. We’ve been waiting for you. And we’ve got your backs.”
But it is not these student’s responsibility to convince Americans that shooting children is wrong. It is not these teens’ calling to “remake the world as it should be.” They’ve been charged with stopping more kids from being shot the way their friends were. Who can bear such a burden? What kind of people are willing to weigh down the souls of traumatized kids with so much impossible guilt?
When the Father laid upon Christ “the iniquity of us all,” (Isaiah 53:6) Jesus shouldered a burden that no mere human is equipped to carry. Although these idealistic teens may view themselves as gun-control messiahs, the heavy burden they’ve undertaken may well crush their spirits. While it is good to desire a better world and noble to advocate for change, it is cruel to nail the hearts of wounded children to the cross of a political cause.
There is no grace of Christ being proffered to wipe away these teenager’s tears. There’s no mercy of God being preached to soothe their souls. There is only works; a legalistic notion that recovery from trauma is the reward of political activism, legislative victory, and the sacrifice of their personal privacy. Though the Judaic Law of the Pharisees is not being endorsed, a specific ideal of American Law is, and like the Pharisaical works-heresy of apostolic times, it is being touted as a means to save.
When Trauma & Naivety Collide
Offering up agony to sate internet rubberneckers and media spectators is tempting to the overwhelmed victim. When the wounds are raw, many victims feel a compulsion to vent their pain. While it’s a normal stage in the process of recovery, the impulse leaves us vulnerable — particularly if we confide in calloused people who have no interest in helping or protecting us. Journalists are not therapists. Twitter is not GriefShare. As these kids pour out their emotions to anyone with a mic or an avatar, the criticism, vitriol, and slander mounts against them.
NRA board member Ted Nugent opined on The Joe Paggs Show:
These poor children. I’m afraid to say this and it hurts me to say this, but the evidence is irrefutable; they have no souls.
It seems that whether these teenagers are liberals or conservatives, their advocates drown them in responsibility, while their opponents question their intelligence, relevance, and legitimacy.
This extreme visibility — especially when it invites a broad spectrum of reaction — is not conducive to emotional recovery. In an interview for this piece, Dave Hughes, a counselor at North Carolina State University’s Community Counseling Education and Research Center and a military resilience teacher serving the U.S. Army Reserves, expressed concern to me over the public way in which the Parkland survivors are coping with their pain:
Trauma takes processing in a deliberate intentional way. Through therapy, community, and return to the rhythms and routine of our lives, we recover. I’m not sure the media spotlight really provides that. Relationships are medicine. I can prove this to you from either a Biblical or a neurological perspective, but the fact remains: we need real human contact to heal. Engaging with social media in the hopes of recreating that process just isn’t the same thing. It’s not what we need.
Hughes’ thoughts were echoed by another interviewee, Pastor Dane Rada, a prison minister and counselor who pastors Wye Mills United Methodist Church in Wye Mills, Maryland:
I think the media are not only exacerbating their trauma, but I believe the recovery time for the teenagers will be prolonged exponentially due to the media exposure and social media savagery that can, and no doubt will, occur. Instead of getting a time of support and peace, the teenagers will be immersed in chaos, which can potentially deepen their scars while giving them permanence.
The blame for this is three-fold. Firstly, we have some in the media who are so hungry for a juicy story, they don’t care whose bloody wounds they have to milk to get it. Secondly, we have the victims themselves who are vulnerable in their pain, inexperienced in coping with grief, and recklessly channeling their anger into any conduit open to receive it. Finally, we have the victim’s parents and advisors who have failed to shelter them from making foolish decisions, voyeurism, public ire, and those who would exploit them.
There is a dehumanizing aspect to the exhibition of pain. There is a demeaning effect that occurs when we objectify trauma. The Romans knew the power of pain as spectacle. That is why they tormented and executed their victims in such theatrical, public ways. They wanted their victim’s souls to die before their bodies did. While American culture may not have reached the physical barbarism of the Colosseum and crucifixion, we have mastered the spiritual art of apathy and emotional abuse.
Salvation by Grace Through Faith
Whether we agree with the political ideas of González, Fuentes, David Hogg, and their friends, as Christians we should be troubled by the media’s objectification of their pain. The voyeurism and emotional abuse taking place evokes the theatrical torments of old. Mead made the connection, and so have many others. If the secular world can see it and gawk in glee at the gory display, Christians should recognize it and pray for the souls being damaged.
In criticism of Marco Rubio, Cameron Kasky laughed, “Sometimes I forget that we are the high schoolers here.” While he meant it as an insult to Rubio’s maturity and professional bearing, it does seem that a great many people have forgotten that Kasky and his friends are high schoolers. We are treating them as emotionally developed adults, reality show cast members, and catalysts for change. They are, in fact, teenagers.
We are called to “Weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15), protect the afflicted (James 1:27), and comfort the brokenhearted (Isaiah 40:1). Leveraging the naivety and vanity of youth, and the bewilderment, anger, and depression of victims for the sake of television ratings and the advancement of political agendas is the antithesis of what Jesus would have us do. Yes, teenagers must be protected from school shooters, but not at the expense of the Parkland teenager’s souls.