Charles Dickens wrote those words in the 1850’s but it could have been written by someone in 2017. It’s certainly the feeling I get when I listen to the current concerns of the young people at my church. In many ways these are unprecedented times and uncertainty seems to be filtering down to young people from the media and adults they know. While democracy is a privilege some can only dream of, it remains a political system that can leave many disillusioned, after all, who likes it when you don’t get what you want?
In these difficult moments we see shards of hope. People making a stand, or in one case taking a knee. You have probably heard the story of Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who refused to stand for the US national anthem. At the time Kaepernick said ‘I’m not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour.’ Kaepernick was taking a stand for those in the winter of despair, those with their backs against the wall, the disinherited. History has a knack of repeating itself. As part of the CONCRETE Theology Think Tank we read ‘Jesus and the Disinherited’ by the theologian Howard Thurman. Thurman was a key mentor to Martin Luther King and high profile activist in the US civil rights movement. Thurman is a deep thinker who frequently asks his readers to reflect on what theology might look like when it’s done by those with their ‘backs against the wall’ because most theology has been conceived by those in positions of privilege.
Thurman shows us that Christianity was a faith born out of the disinherited and oppressed. For Jews in the time of Jesus ‘Rome was the enemy; Rome symbolised total frustration; Rome was the great barrier to peace of mind. And Rome was everywhere.’ When you are disinherited frustration lurks at every corner and there are constant reminders of the life and opportunities that you don’t have.
Becoming a teenager is often a time of heightened awareness of the limitations that have been placed upon you by society, culture and circumstance. For some young people, the childhood ideals that they once held have disappeared, and the head start given to those that were born into different circumstances becomes apparent. These are the disinherited, those with their backs against the wall and these young people are in our schools, youth groups and churches. So what are we to do if the culture of the faith we profess has shifted from an embryonic movement by the disinherited to the established and inherited? How can we as youth workers realign an originally disinherited faith with young people who routinely feel disinherited? Thurman has some thoughts that might help us.
This is the mistake that the Sadducees made. The Sadducees were the ruling religious elite at the time of Jesus and ‘were astute enough to see that their own position could be perpetuated if they stood firmly against all revolutionaries and radicals.’ When Jesus came along he was a threat to the Roman authority and therefore the harmony that the Sadducees had fostered with the Romans. Thurman sees the aim of those who imitate is to ‘reduce all outer or external signs of difference to zero, so that there shall be no ostensible cause for active violence or opposition.’
Know your enemy…
Thurman writes that fear is ‘one of the persistent hounds of hell that dog the footsteps of the poor, the dispossessed, the disinherited.’ For Thurman it’s not the fear of death that is the most common fear, rather it is the humiliation that comes from living or dying without any apparent purpose. For young people in search of significance this is deeply troubling.
…but don’t hate your enemy.
Hatred destroys the life of the hater, it dries up the springs of creative thought, it leads to the ‘disintegration of ethical and moral values’ and finally it leads to death. It’s only when we listen to the voices of those with their backs against the wall that we can begin to comprehend what Jesus was getting at when he said ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’
The first steps to resistance are made internally.
Thurman argues that the greatest challenge that the Christian religion faces is to alter the horrific effects of the negative deceptions that the disinherited have faced. Resistance begins ‘as the physical, overt expression of an inner attitude.’ Therefore it’s imperative that youth workers foster a culture of empowerment in groups, relationships and life choices.
Looking back through history difficult times have resulted in green shoots of hope that have emerged from rocky places. In South Africa it was young people that were instrumental in mass demonstrations against the evil of apartheid and in communist controlled East Berlin it was young people meeting in churches that was one of the main catalysts for the bringing down of the Berlin Wall. These were times when young people were prophesying and seeing visions of how things could be. Let us hope we witness and more importantly enable more of this.