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By Brian Kirk
I’ll admit it. I’m as guilty as the next youth pastor. It is so easy to get preoccupied with the latest teen hot topics–Sex! Drugs! Rock-n-roll! Facebook!–that we sometimes forget the broader world that exists beyond the walls of the high school cafeteria and our cozy youth rooms. Truthfully, sometimes it’s just easier to ignore what’s happening in the world, particularly when some current events and issues have the potential to alter how our youth see the life of faith. Case in point: the revolution in Egypt in the past several weeks.
I wonder how many youth were paying real attention to the protests that unfolded in Egypt that so quickly brought down the often violent leader who held that country in a suspended “state of emergency” for the past thirty years. I wonder how many of our teens watched as young people flooded into the streets and stood together peacefully, demanding transformation and justice for their country. I wonder if our youth reacted with some sense of awe as in seventeen days this group of ordinary, banner-waving, chanting Egyptian citizens somehow managed to topple a powerful leader without use of violent overthrow, assassination, or military coup. I wonder what the events in Egypt might tell us about the power of non-violence to transform the human tendency to use coercive power. What I really wonder: might this example of the truth of non-violence be dangerous for our youth?
Think about it. What happens if teens discover that the pacifist life of Jesus that we often idealize and couch in metaphors turns out to be an actual possibility for a way to be in the world? The question of non-violence has never been an easy one for the Christian Church. Our history together has often been bloody and there are events of the Church’s past that we’d just as soon forget. Historians assure us that the earliest followers of the way of Jesus were a pacifist movement, though that quickly changed as the Church became institutionalized and gained political power. Our teens today are probably much more familiar with the institutional Church that tends to see war as a necessary way to fight evil in the world rather than the Church that followed a Jewish peasant who was willing to go to his death rather than raise a fist in violent resistance. In many ways, the American church seems to have resigned itself to the notion that non-violence sounds good in principle but all too often feels it has to fight fire with fire.
And then along comes the revolution in Egypt, sending a message to our youth: “Yes, you can resist the powers of the world without using their violent methods in retaliation. Instead of the gun, you can use the voice of protest. Instead of the fist, you can use the social communities of Facebook and Twitter. Instead of building up your arsenal, you can simply stand your ground and refuse to participate in systems that are built upon systemic injustice.” I don’t know about you, but to me this is a dangerous message; it might actually encourage youth to live out a more radical faith–one that takes seriously Jesus’ call to respect the humanity of all people and to seek power not in coercion but in community and servanthood.
For teens who internalize and intentionally embrace such a message of peace, there are important implications. What will their response be the next time our country decides to answer a terrorist attack by retaliating with violent force? Where will their political sympathies lie the next time an American president admits to authorizing torture against suspected enemy combatants? What happens when this radically non-violent way of life comes into conflict with the national security needs of our country or our allies? What happens if our youth are inspired to take to the streets rather than participate in the next war of necessity?
There are no simple answers to these questions because the way of Christ is not simple. In fact, it is often dangerous because it calls us to make ourselves vulnerable in a world that abhors vulnerability. This very fact is the reason it is crucial that we pay attention to what is going on around us; we need to help teens engage the questions of faith as they relate to real life in a world where it is often the one who wields the biggest stick who comes out on top. Fortunately, our spiritual ancestors wrestled with this very concern long before any of us showed up on the planet. They lived in a world every bit, if not more, violent than our own. Our biblical texts are full of stories and thoughts on what it means to be peaceful and seek to live the love of God in a dangerous world. Why not invite teens to really sit and wrestle with the following texts:
Genesis 1:27 depicts all peoples as made in the image of God. But what could this mean? If we abuse, torture, or denigrate another person, what effect, if any, do we think this has on God? Do we believe all people are made in the image of God? If not, who are the exceptions? If so, what does that say about how we are to treat others?
Luke 6:27-36 and Matthew 5:44-45 speak of loving one’s enemies and doing good even to those who hurt us. Some argue that this only applies to personal relationships, not to countries. What do we think? What might these passages have to say to us about how we treat enemies during times of war?
Mark 15:15-37 describes the abuse, torture, and execution of Jesus at the hands of the Romans. Jesus was seen as an insurgent by the Roman Empire, a political enemy of the state. He was legally tortured and executed by a recognized government. For Christians who follow a man who was tortured by a lawful government for presumed crimes against the state, what should be our response when our own government uses what they term “enhanced interrogation techniques” against suspected enemies? How do we imagine Jesus himself responding to the use of violent force against another person? How do we understand the idea of peace that Jesus speaks of in the gospels? How do we react to the argument that sometimes that peace is only achieved through violence?
Matthew 10:16-31 depicts Jesus giving instructions to his disciples to go out into the world of wolves as if they were sheep, knowing that they will face violent persecution and even death. Jesus further declares to the disciples not to fear those who may harm their bodies for they cannot harm their souls. How might this passage be heard by those engaging in protest against a violent regime? What are the implications of this passage for someone contemplating self-defense?
The end result of exploring these challenging passages in light of the events in Egypt is not to suggest proof-texting as a way to encourage youth to consider the question of pacifism and the Christian life (one could find plenty of scriptures to argue this issue in various ways). Rather, what I’m suggesting is whether we are willing to take the risk of engaging teens in an honest consideration around the question: What would it mean to live in such a way that refuses to return violence with more violence? If we live in this way in the world, how might we be transformed and how might the world around us be transformed? Is such a way of life even possible?
Of course, the dangerous answer to this question is “yes” and your teens have only to look to the Jesus of scripture or the youth of Egypt to know this is true.
Rev. Brian Kirk is an ordained pastor in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and currently serves an inner-city church in St. Louis, Missouri. He also teaches as adjunct faculty at Eden Theological Seminary and write a weekly column at Patheos.