They All Fall Down

Series: Window on the World

by Rick Phillips January 30, 2000

What is happening with our kids? That is a question people have been asking for some time. Years ago that might have been asked about rock-n-roll music, and then the subject was teen sexuality. Now the question comes up with regard to the alarming stories of teenage violence and even murder.

This past week National Public Radio aired a response to this question by Dr. James Garborino, the author of Lost Boys and an expert on youth violence. Very thoroughly and very thoughtfully, this psychologist articulated his theory for explaining what is happening with our kids. According to Dr. Garborino, the way to understand youth violence is not to seek one or two causes that are producing this shocking situation, but to take an ecological perspective of the problem. By this he means that instead of isolating factors we need to see them as part of a whole context.

Like others before him, Garborino studies risk factors that predict behavioral problems like violence. Among them he sees child abuse, broken homes, poverty, violence in the community, mental illness, and substance abuse. According to him, the vast majority of children are resilient enough to handle one or two of these risk factors. It is when three, four, and more of them are combined that they begin to overwhelm a child. By the time such children reach adolescence, behavioral problems begin to crystallize into the kind of violence we are reading about in the newspapers. “There is no cause,” he says, “but rather an accumulation of factors.” Like dominoes, these risk factors bear down one upon another and they all fall down.

Hollow Children in a Violent Culture

Garborino helpfully looked both at what is going on within kids and what is going on outside and around them. According to him, the experience of rejection is the great common denominator that links as many as 90% of youth killers. Inside they feel abandoned, rejected by a world they now lash out against. Rejection comes through parental abuse or neglect, through broken families, or even the death of a care-giver.

What is going on around kids today? Garborino describes “an ideology of nastiness” that is fueled by violence in media and disrespect in popular culture, combined with easy access to guns. Televised brutality and, worse yet, point-and-shoot video games systematically strip away the revulsion to killing, literally training and psychologically preparing a whole generation for battle. Worse yet, internet web sites like alienation.com serve as secret clubhouses for the angry and aggressive, providing social support and a sense of normalcy for the worse sorts of anti-social leanings.

What is happening to kids today? Garborino argues that the combination of multiple risk factors, personal hollowness and rejection, and a culture organized for violence are exploding like the pipe bombs that went off in Columbine High School.

Oddly, proliferation of youth violence that is this one expert's main source of hope. Now that white, middle-class children are both dying and killing – now that youth violence is not mainly found among the poor and racial minorities – people are starting to take notice. Jonesboro, Columbine, Paduka are places mainstream America can relate to and so now we have a White House summit on youth violence. Garborino hopes this will spur real action. “There is plenty for us to do,” he says. “Fight youth pornography, enact gun legislation, picket video game manufacturers. Pick any one and get involved.”

Interestingly, he does not ignore spiritual matters. Having interviewed numerous youth killers he points to the absence of spirituality as a common denominator. “Kids who kill are spiritually empty,” he comments. Without a spiritual referent they acknowledge no limits on behavior. They do not see themselves living in a meaningful universe, they have no inner resources to draw upon, and the idea of reverence for life has no basis in their minds.

A Christian Assessment

What are Christians to make of such an analysis? I, for one, found myself appreciating the care and thoughtfulness apparent in this presentation. The Bible recognizes the complexity of human phenomena and does not demand simplistic solutions. We ought to respect those who spend time seeking to understand these issues and be willing to listen with appropriate care.

But as I listened to Garborino I yearned for a deeper analysis yet and found myself thinking of two biblical passages, the first of which is the opening chapter of the Book of Isaiah.

In Isaiah chapter one the prophet confronts the nation of Judah for its sins and he, too, points out the confluence of social factors. Like us, he is alarmed that a city that once knew peace is now stalked by killers. “See how the faithful city has become a harlot! She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her—but now murderers!” (Isa. 1:21). Isaiah goes on to point out political corruption and abuse, economic exploitation, the absence of justice and neglect of the needy. Christians should not be reticent to talk in these categories. While the Bible does not just brush aside individual responsibility it nonetheless laments over the brokenness of a society as described by either a prophet or by a child psychologist.

Isaiah gives a diagnosis that I find far more profound than that offered by the expert I heard on the radio. “Ah, sinful nation,” he says, “a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the Lord; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their back on him” (Isa. 1:4). Why, according to this kind of analysis, are we seeing the kind of disarray we now read about in the news? What is behind what is happening to our kids? It is because we have turned from God and have loved evil. We have embraced the sensual delights of adulterous pleasure. We drink from the fountains of virtual violence and electronic egoism. We have labeled purity with the scornful designation of “Puritanical”, and have worshiped the very things the apostle John tells us come “not from the Father but from the world”: “the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does” (1 Jn. 2:16). The risk factors we lament are in fact nothing but the down-stream pollution of our willing and delighted frenzy in sin.

With that in mind, I am not opposed to the kinds of initiatives Dr. Garborino favors. It would certainly be good to stop some of the streams flowing into the pool of young blood: video violence, available guns, ideologies of anger. But without a more fundamental repentance, without a fervent seeking of the Lord through faith in Jesus Christ, all the water-breaks we construct will be overcome by the on-rushing flood of iniquity and our children will not be safe.

Yes, Christians should be involved in society. We should be seeking justice and fighting the kinds of evils that show up in sociological studies. But we must also pray more fervently, more regularly, for God to bring repentance through the hearing and believing of the Word of God, an awakening to faith in Christ that alone can rescue us from our sin.

The Importance of Being a Christian

I said there were two Bible passages I thought of as I listened to this expert on youth violence, and the second was the opening section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, known as the beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are those who mourn… Blessed are the meek.” How vital that we recognize the extraordinary value of simple godliness, particularly in a dark and angry time. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… Blessed are the merciful… Blessed are the pure in heart… Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” How striking these are in a culture of nastiness, in the midst of hollow and rejected children lashing out in angry despair.

Jesus went on to comment, “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.” Like the light from that city, we will have to go down from the hill, down into the valleys, out into the darkness. If we do not the light will not be seen, it will not be followed, and the night will not be pierced. The guns will still be heard and the children will go on falling down.

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