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An Heroic Ministry
Verse of the day
YWI - working with...
YWI is pleased to work in association with
Fuller Youth Institute, US
Sophia Network, UK
‘It’s not fair!’ is a cry we hear all too often from teenagers. While it’s easy to put this phrase in the box with other adolescent stereotypes, it’s worth bearing in mind that young people have a keen sense of justice and a fresh perspective on our world. If this is the ‘justice generation’, then youth workers have a crucial role in helping train them to see real injustice and to play their part in overcoming it.
Often it is too easy to tell young people about injustice, as if they don’t experience or witness it in their own lives. While it is valid to discuss worldwide issues and social injustices with our youth groups, if we want young people to become agents of change in our society, to ‘act justly, love mercy and walk humbly’, then we need to hear where they see and experience injustice and work through how they can act in those situations.
What is injustice?
Not to disregard the global picture. Overwhelmingly, all the young people I spoke to defined injustice as exploitation and corruption – the exploitation of people for the selfish gain of others, the result of a world corrupted since Adam and Eve and doomed to be filled with vast, and in some ways unassailable, inequalities.
For such a materially wealthy and comfortable generation, some young people are strikingly aware of the poverty gap, of how much the Western world has and how this deprives other nations. Sam, aged 15, explains her view: ‘First world countries have wealth in food and riches and third world countries struggle to provide these things for their families. As a result of our greed many poverty stricken people are deprived of basic human needs. It is not fair that some people have lots and some people have little, it should be shared between us all. I know this is an ideal but it isn’t right that this inequality takes place in the world. Why are first world countries more important than third and why should they get dealt the bum card over us?’
Young people can also see how different justice issues connect up – the need to earn money leads people to take jobs where they are exploited, for example, in sweat shops. Josh, aged 16, believes that abuse of people is the greatest injustice in our world. He says: ‘Exploitation makes the rich richer and the poor poorer, which doesn’t make sense. We live in a more economically developed country so we should be paying them money because they don’t have money and we have lots.’ Freddy, aged 12, linked lack of opportunities and basic resources to a desperation to reach the West which feeds a huge people trafficking ‘industry’. He says: ‘People trafficking is wrong because the slave trade was abolished years ago. But people trafficking and prostitution still exists today.’ These aren’t glib or factual statements, but outraged responses to what they see on the news and learn about in school and church.
Closer to home
Even in our own country, some young people can see how poverty and lack of opportunity leads to crime. Josh makes a profound point:
‘I think it is important to remember that injustice isn’t just about poor people in foreign countries. For example, in Britain it is perhaps a keen sense of injustice that leads teenagers into criminal behaviour. After all, if you have been told that you live in a country where opportunities for wealth, education and employment are equal, but your experience doesn’t match this, perhaps you would feel a certain amount of rage about your situation. A lot of young people grow up in homes that are plagued by poverty, drug and alcohol, domestic and child abuse, crime, mental health issues and so on, and that, in itself, isn't fair for that child. They get labelled at school whether it is because of their parents, older siblings, the state of their clothes or the estate they're living on, and sometimes, for these young people, this frustration from the word go triggers a negative and non-constructive reaction to the general injustice they see in their lives. All they can see is how other people are treating them and not what they may be doing to make a situation worse. The injustices that concern them are the ones that directly affect their lives. Perhaps these young people don’t give much thought to third world poverty, the greenhouse effect or terrorism. Their own lives have so many obstacles that it’s hard for them to see beyond them’.
Many young people have first-hand experience of this in the form of bullying at school and being approached or mugged on the streets. Josh has been mugged 18 times, and a lot of the young people I spoke to had been stolen from, had seen violence against fellow students at school or had been victims of bullying. Natalie, aged 14, recognises that although this behaviour is not justified, it often springs from another injustice: ‘Who are we to judge other people? We should sympathise with other people’s lives. Some people are brought up in really bad ways and you can’t reverse that. Often it happens that people who are bullied become bullies.’
This isn’t a description of the majority of young people, but if you were to read the papers you would be led to believe that all teenagers are knife-wielding criminals. The actions of a minority of young people leads to an unjust prejudice against all young people which is keenly felt and was highlighted recently in a report by children’s commissioners to the European Union. Lots of teenagers will tell you, they can’t all be bad, threatening or criminal. Sam explains: ‘Young people are generalised. People think that we all go round causing trouble and drinking on the streets just because of our clothing. We are kept at arms length and treated differently. It is not fair that we are stereotyped in this way. We are not all bad or thuggish like people make out.’
Modelling a different response
So, the world is a mean and nasty place and young people know it. What can we do to encourage the young people we work with first to see true injustice and then to act upon what they see in a positive way? The model for acting justly is of course Jesus. He saw the world first through eyes of God’s compassion and then acted to bring justice. In fact, throughout the Bible, compassion and justice go hand in hand. Isaiah 30:18 says: ‘Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion. For the Lord is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him!’ Because God is just he rises to show compassion. As youth practitioners, this should be the priority – compassion first for people and the situation that they are in, rather than a militant understanding of inequality.
It isn’t enough that teenagers feel unfairness. As already stated, a sense of justice without compassion can lead some adolescents to behave aggressively and anti-socially. This kind of justice leads to a desire for revenge and forgets that it is God who judges. Similarly, compassion without justice is pretty benign. It’s no use feeling compassion for the person at school who is repeatedly bullied or crying at images of starving people on the news if you don’t become an agent of God’s salvation and change for that situation.
Josh is a good example of a young person who sees life with compassionate eyes and then acts in justice. He explains: ‘I now feel very passionately about people being pushed around, even at school, because it happened to me. I know how it feels to be mugged and to have no one do anything. If I see something happening I feel compelled to help.’ He gives an example: ‘There is a year seven boy at my school who I don’t really know, but he looks a bit funny. I don’t usually take the bus but one day I did and I heard people talking about him and I started to take notice of what people were saying. I have taken him on as my friend. He gets bullied quite a lot. I sit with him at lunch and walk around with him.’
It sounds very simple, but this is a great example of a young person proactively bringing God’s justice into an unjust situation. It is a massive testimony to God’s compassion for that young year seven boy, that a year 11 student will take time to make sure he is not bullied.
Agents for change
When we talk about justice issues we often focus on the global picture and it could be very easy to give young people the impression that acting for justice is just about writing letters to Gordon Brown about issues that happen hundreds of miles away. But, we need to cultivate an attitude of justice in teenager’s lives so that they are able to bring justice to any situation in which they find themselves. For example, if a youth group member finds that all their friends are copying each other’s work and getting marks they don’t deserve, we have a responsibility to help them work out what the godly response of justice is to this. In other words, just living is a lifestyle choice, not something we do occasionally. Josh puts it very succinctly: ‘We are like God’s tools. We act as God in our society and He puts a feeling of wanting to help in your mind. That spurs me on.’
In fact, the idea that God, through you, can transform your daily life, the lives of others and even the world is extremely empowering to young people. Natalie, describes the feeling of acting in justice as ‘Like adrenaline but more wholesome.’ Josh says: ‘Just as much as injustice leads to injustice, justice leads to more justice. When you see someone doing you good you want to copy them.’ This attitude of hope that comes from the idea that people’s lives can be transformed because of their actions is incredibly motivating.
Young people are not naïve about what this might entail either. Freddy says: ‘You hear stories of these people who stand up for justice and are found dead in an alleyway.’ An idea echoed by 15 year old Lilly: ‘Injustice comes from people so if you confront them you put yourself in the line of fire.’ However, young people, rather than relying on teachers, the police or other authorities to bring about justice, are prepared to consider how they can appropriately bring justice to a situation, even if this puts them at risk of verbal abuse and bullying. Not only that, it is important to help young people to develop an awareness of God’s voice speaking to them and prompting their actions in the situations they find themselves in. Young people can be inspired with the knowledge that God is with them to help them in these situations. Natalie says: ‘I don’t think God likes injustice. So God gives you the courage when you are supposed to do something.’
It’s exciting to think about the potential of a whole generation of young people who are open to hearing God’s voice, who feel a sense of compassion for those who live with the consequences of exploitation and corruption, and who are motivated to take godly action to bring justice to their everyday lives and to our world. And the challenge to us is to model this lifestyle and to point young people towards Jesus, who modelled it perfectly, who always saw people with compassion, who never sinned when he acted in justice and who was willing to give up his life to set our imbalanced and imperfect world straight.
Johanna Derry is a writer and volunteer youth worker in the UK
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