Tina Leonard, 16, sat quietly while her English literature classmates talked about the teenagers killed a day earlier in a Fort Worth church. In her heart, she guarded the secret she had carried for months.
"God has laid it on my heart that I am going to be martyred," she later confided to a few close friends. She was surprised to find them unfazed by the idea. "When I told one of my friends, he said, 'That's awesome. I wish that could happen to me.'"
"If you ask many teens, a bunch would say they'd be willing to die for God," says Tina's best friend, Joanna Dobbe, 15, also of Madison, Wis. "Personally, I would like to be a martyr. You would be blessed, because Jesus said, 'Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.'"
Such thoughts shock parents and even some psychologists. But others say the popularity of martyrdom may be on the rise among Christian teens fervent about their faith and sober to the reality of violence today.
The school shooting last April in Littleton, Colo., was a defining moment for Christian teens, say Tina Leonard and other youth. Some are asking themselves tough questions like "What if it were me?" Some are finding the possibility of dying for Christ plausible and even attractive.
Such thoughts are fueled, some observers say, by the media attention given to the rash of youth violence and the hero treatment afforded its victims.
The now-famous words that reportedly cost Columbine student Cassie Bernall her life--"Yes, I do believe in God"--have shown up on T-shirts and coffee mugs. A book about the murdered teen, written by her mother, quotes a note found in Cassie's room: "I will die for my God. I will die for my faith."
The 13 wooden crosses erected near Columbine High School, which became a popular memorial after the massacre, are on tour across the country. Youth rallies in Atlanta; Nashville; Jackson, Tenn.; and elsewhere have attracted up to 14,000 people anxious to glimpse a tangible symbol of an incomprehensible tragedy.
"They're a symbol of courage and boldness," 17-year-old Maris Wainwright of Nashville told The Tennessean. Wainwright cried when she was chosen to carry the cross of Rachel Scott, a Christian student who, like Cassie Bernall, was reportedly killed after testifying to her faith. "It was the most incredible honor, knowing she had the ultimate courage, knowing what she died for."
Such enthusiasm doesn't usually lead to thoughts of martyrdom. Psychologists and youth workers say that's rare. But to some teens who see a violent world at odds with faith, it makes sense.
"Sacrificing yourself for the glory of God is a very, very mesmerizing and very attractive thing," says Herman Feifel, a Los Angeles psychologist who specializes in the study of death, dying, and bereavement. Some teen talk about martyrdom might be the bravado of immaturity, suggests Feifel. "Most, if they manage to survive, manage to grow out of it."
It's normal for children and adolescents who hear about tragedies like the shooting in Fort Worth's Wedgwood Baptist Church to imagine something similar happening to them, "to mentally place themselves in that situation somehow," says Gerald Hickson, vice chair of the department of pediatrics at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital in Nashville. "It's one of the ways we process such an event." However, Hickson says, it's unusual for adolescents to view the possibility of a martyr's death as attractive. "That's not something I find often."
Joy McInvale was part of a team of counselors called to the Fort Worth church after the shooting. That kind of violence "causes teens to believe they could be victims," says McInvale, a private counselor in nearby Bedford. "And when it happens in your hometown, your backyard, it is more than a possibility. It is a reality.... I've had dozens of students say to me, 'If it could happen at Wedgwood Baptist Church, it could happen at my church.'"
Psychologists agree that most youth feel more vulnerable in today's world, but other factors may also prompt thoughts of a violent death and even martyrdom. Among them: a widespread fatalism about the future, a drive to be noticed, a focus on apocalyptic scenarios that foresee widespread mayhem, and a desire for authenticity that, among Christian youth, makes martyrdom the ultimate testimony.
Parents and ministers need to be careful not to exaggerate the likelihood of violence or the attractiveness of martyrdom, says John Thielepape, pastor of Meadow Lane Baptist in Arlington, Texas, which sent 20 youth to the tragic prayer rally in Fort Worth.
"We're not teaching them to pursue persecution," he says. "If they're faithful, persecution may come.... [But] it's more likely that someone is going to challenge them verbally than to shoot them."