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jesus the radical pastor | exploring the life and mission of the 1st century Jesus for our 21st century

Some stories haunt you and Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes  is a story about a horrific school shooting in Sterling, New Hampshire. Her story keeps seeping through my mind, unsettling, needling me.

Do you remember Achan who “stole the bacon” in the battle of Jericho? Achan got found out in Joshua 7 after the shocking defeat at Ai. Achan had taken a Babylonian robe and a treasure of silver and a wedge of gold. Achan confesses to Joshua, “I coveted them.” Achan admits that he saw the banned items, he coveted the items, he stole and buried the items in his tent. So far, so good.

But Achan was not the only one who died because of his individual choices (sins). Joshua 7:24-26 reads, Then Joshua, together with all Israel, took Achan son of Zerah, the silver, the robe, the gold wedge, his sons and daughters, his cattle, donkeys and sheep, his tent and all that he had, to the Valley of Achor.  Joshua said, “Why have you brought this trouble on us? The LORD will bring trouble on you today.”  Then all Israel stoned him, and after they had stoned the rest, they burned them. Over Achan they heaped up a large pile of rocks, which remains to this day. Then the LORD turned from his fierce anger. Therefore that place has been called the Valley of Achor ever since (emphasis added).

I hear the chirping of the blue parakeet. One person makes bad choices and is punished. But wait! There’s more! Achan’s whole family dies along with his cattle, donkeys and sheep. That’s not fair. That’s not just. It sounds like Yahweh’s scorched earth policy. I can hear one of Achan’s children crying to Joshua, “You just can’t do this to me. Dad did it, not me! The one who sins shall die. I didn’t steal the stuff. I knew nothing about it!” Joshua responds, “God told me to kill you, too.” The bewildered, fearful child replies, “What kind of God is it that we serve? A monster god?”

I’m not sure what relational connections in the mind of God fuel this act of killing the many because of the evil choices of one. I am guessing that our ideas of individual responsibility versus community responsibility somehow are skewed. I would rather conclude that I am missing something than to conclude that God/Yhwh is a monster.

Jodi Picoult weaves together the realities of both individual and community responsibility as she tells the story of Peter Houghton’s nineteen minute killing spree in his high school. Seemingly without conscience Peter creates a diversion by placing a pipebomb in a bully’s car and in the chaos of the explosion walks into the school with several handguns and shotguns and willy-nilly kills students and a teacher. What pushes a skinny, geeky kid to cross a line and finally “take control”? Is it merely his own evil choice to act? Is his choice shaped by the (less) evil choices and actions of others against him over years of his growing up? Picoult takes us into the lives of the family of Peter, an eyewitness and one time friend, Josie, until she became “cool” and into the lives of the victims. Can a whole high school be culpable in tragic crimes perpetrated by just one of its students?

At times I did not like this book. My conservative values tend to lean heavily against Peter. He is the lone student who did the killings. But Picoult will not let me rest easy by just playing the individual responsibilty card. What about the daily ridicule and abuse of Peter by the “cool” guys and girls? What about the cool, strong, athletic brother who is disgusted by Peter? What about the fear and shame Peter experiences every hour while on school property? What about being verbally, physically and emotionally assaulted every day? What about daring not to trust adults–parents and teachers and coaches–who were charged to look after your well-being but failed because “you know, kids will be kids”? What happens to the brain, to the soul of one who is constantly living in fear, embarrassment and shame?

If you want a gripping story of both systemic and individual sin, then read Nineteen Minutes. Yes, the character Peter committed horrific crimes in a burst of terror. Picoult does not dilute Peter’s responsibility nor whitewash his breaking the law. Picoult leads us, pulls and pushes us into the evil web of systemic sin…against which there seem to be very few laws.

After reading Picoult’s story in light of Joshua 7, I wonder if God would say today, “Take Peter, his parents, his teachers and his fellow students to the valley of Achor. I am a God who is against both individual and systemic sin.”

But that’s not fair! Yeah, but would it be right?

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