Stop Making Martyrs Out of Mass Shooting Victims

How filling the void of heartache with religion is detrimental


Above: Masy McLain as Rachel Scott in I’m Not Ashamed

All respect to those who have dealt with that heartache and those who feel as if some part of their faith is being attacked.

Ae Padilla

When I watched the trailer for I’m not Ashamed, I cringed.

And that’s not because it was another God’s Not Dead in the making, some religious propaganda film filled with terrible actors, a cheesy script, and a high dose of jabs at those who are not religious.

I cringed because I realized the weight of religion, conversion therapy, was being placed on a girl who died when she was seventeen and has been dead for almost twenty years.

For those unaware I’m Not Ashamed is a film about the late Rachel Scott, the first victim of the Columbine High School Shooting which took place in Littleton Colorado, in 1999. The film follows Rachel’s life a year and a half before the shooting takes place, where her faith in God is examined, tested, and ultimately strengthened as a result of the high school woes that she encounters. The film also follows Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, caricatures of the real perpetrators who rant more heavily than they ever truly did about the perils of religion and how much they hate Christians.

But Klebold and Harris mean nothing in this film, it is Scott, portrayed by newcomer Masy McLain, who is the main character. She is the one seen interacting with Klebold, speaking to him passionately about the strength of compassion that can come from Christianity. She is the one seen dismissing drugs or alcohol of any sort from her peers because of her religion. And she is portrayed as so unbelievably sweet and nice that the sparking personality of the real Rachel Scott is hidden beneath the veneer of a smiling girl whose only trait is that she follows Christ.

The film concludes with what is arguably the most controversial story to arise out of the massacre. Harris shoots Scott in the back along with her friend Richard Castaldo. As she struggles to catch her breath and move, the filmmakers and many people alike, claim that Harris reportedly asked her if she believed in God. When she answered in the affirmative with the words “you know I do,” Harris reportedly shot her again, killing her, thus making a martyr.

The problem with this story is that while Castaldo (who lived but is now parlayed) has wavered about whether or not this interaction took place, the FBI and Jefferson County have concluded that this exchange never happened. The timeline simply does not add up.

But Rachel Scott became a martyr anyway, along with Cassie Bernall another student who is believed to have been asked whether she believed in God, and when answering yes was killed again by Harris in the library. However this too was proven to be unreliable from witnesses. Instead this exchange actually occurred with Valeen Schnurr who was spared by Klebold because she answered that her reason for believing in God was because her family did.

But facts mean nothing. And to this day Scott and Bernall are seen as modern day martyrs, the definition of what teenagers (teenagers who are of course viewed as rowdy and lacking morals) should aspire to be.

Religious propagation is nothing new but with mass shootings becoming more prevalent since Columbine occurred, religious heroes from mass shootings have arisen, threatening how we speak about victims and ultimately ruining their legacy with a tarnished view of their persona.

Rachel Scott was, by all definitions, brilliant. She was a talented student and artist. She was an actress who had recently chopped of all of her hair and dyed it red to play a character in her school play who harbored a more grunge/alternative style. And she did write extensively about her love of God, and even her thoughts about his existence. She journaled frequently and left behind her amazing ideas about the chain reaction that can occur from love.

By all accounts Scott was a Christian. As was Bernall. As were some of the victims of the Umpqua Community College shooting and the Red Lake massacre who were actually asked about their faith and murdered. But those victims were not murdered because they were Christians, they were murdered because someone had access (easy access most likely) to a firearm. They were simply a number, a person who happened to be eating their lunch on a school lawn or taking an English class at their local college. They were killed because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, not because they wore a cross or followed any certain religion.

I say this not to be insensitive, I say it because it is the truth. To tell people how to mourn the death of their own children or their friends is not something anyone can do lightly, if at all. But when the families of these people, and by extension the media, paint these young victims as being killed for the greater good, a higher power thereby making more people believe in God, they denounce the entire act of violence.

In their effort to give it a purpose for themselves, to make sense of a senseless situation, they paint their own caricature of their loved ones, even unknowingly. And then they dismiss, whether they mean to or not, every other victim who they do not deem as a martyr.

This is because in placing their loved one on a pedestal, as a religious figure, they state that their life was inherently more valuable because it was given up to God. But in the situation of their death, which is most likely eerily similar to that of someone else who died in the same shooting, those other unpopular victims are not given that same recognition. What this boils down to is: one victim was killed by God for the sole reason of reaching more people, to become a pillar in the community of worshipers, and one victim was killed for absolutely no reason, a less prophetic kill.

Fate, what is attributed to these killings and then these makeshift saints, ruins the possibility of us being able to help stop these mass shootings from continuing. When you have the people who are supposed to be the most upset, the families of those killed, accepting these deaths as nothing more than divine intervention then the real issues that form this problem in our country do not get fixed. Gun control, mental health, even fragile masculinity take a back seat to the fact that the killers who go on these rampages are deemed not as a threat because they are mentally unstable, instead their anger to the world is a direct result of not having prayer in school or not being as accepting of the Lord as some of the selected victims were. If you do not believe me just look at the reactions of Darrell Scott, Rachel Scott’s father who speaks adamantly at schools across America and in the days after Columbine gave a statement before a house committee on crime referring to not only Rachel but his son Craig Scott who pretended to play dead in the library amidst the massacre. “As my son Craig lay under that table in the school library and saw his two friends murdered before his very eyes — He did not hesitate to pray in school. I defy any law or politician to deny him that right!”

But the worst thing about the martyrdom of these victims is, as stated before, the effect that it has on the legacy of said victim and not politicians or news viewers. I can’t speak for the people who have died, but I am pretty certain that those who did would not want their entire lives condensed into a single byline about their affirmation to God. And if they did want their devotion publicized, I argue that they would want both the good and the bad that comes along with being a religious figure. Doubt is as important as faith. Making mistakes is as important as correcting them and asking for forgiveness.

Rachel Joy Scott’s life is a tale that she will never unfortunately be able to tell herself, but the story I want to see depicted on the screen is not the lie given to the world that she was murdered for faith in Jesus but rather that her faith made her a more giving and loving individual, perhaps the type of person who might forgive her killer. Some see it this way too, including friends of Scott who boycotted I’m Not Ashamed because they felt it was an inaccurate portrayal to the way that she lived her life. She struggled like everyone else did. She was not a saint but she was a believer and it is that which would make a movie I want to view.

Religion, like always, is not the problem. But the way it is used, especially in this instance, does not bring people together but rather divides. When a lack of actual truth is at the basis for a film or story then anything that is added to that narrative cannot be trusted, and therefor the religious message lacks validity.

Speaking about mass shooting victims as people who lost their life for no good reason is the saddest but most truthful thing we can do, because it allows us to work for that not to happen again. It’s not inspiring, romantic, or sensational in any way. But maybe the lives of the victims by themselves, the daily struggles of going to class or the fact that they liked to watch certain movies or hang out with their dog should be inspirational enough.

Let’s stop making up stories for these people. Martyrdom aside, maybe those who died didn’t hold open the door for others to run before them. Maybe they didn’t save the person next to them. Maybe they said they didn’t believe in something they did to get spared. Maybe they fled instead of fighting. Are we to blame them, someone who was put in the most frightening situation of their life for doing that? Are we to tell others they are better for doing that? We must stop saying these things as our own non-religious martyr stamps. It’s not comforting, it’s cruel.

And we would do well, like Scott said, to be a little nicer in this world.

Don’t let your character change color with your environment. Find out who you are and let it stay it’s true color.

-Rachel Scott


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