c. 2006 Religion News Service
As Mideast violence spiraled and power grabs dominated American politics, I told 100 teenage leaders of National Episcopal Happening they would need a “tough faith for a tough world.”
By “tough faith,” I didn’t mean bullying religiosity or moral perfectionism. I meant a durable faith, with enough depth to handle a complex and challenging world, without turning mean, nostalgic or escapist.
Everything is changing. Economic competition is global. Capital and jobs flow easily across borders. U.S. teenagers will compete directly with Asians and Europeans. They won’t be able to coast or to assume any continuities of privilege. The race will go to those who are prepared, not to those skilled mainly in television, video games and soccer.
The forces resisting modernity are strong. Islamic fundamentalism wants to stop this modern world from proceeding. No more freedom for women, no more freedom of thought or expression, no more inventiveness or science, no more secular literature, no more exchanges of ideas with other cultures.
Christian fundamentalism follows a similar script, trying to turn back the clock to ancient tribal ways and demanding moral conformity.
Governments encourage this resistance to modernity, because it is easier to rule when people feel weak, afraid, isolated and distrustful.
I encouraged the youth to be enthusiastic, not discouraged, about this challenging era, for it offers many opportunities.
Where is God in this? I think God is leading us forward, not beckoning us backward. I think God cares little about our culture-war issues, but is more concerned about the relentless spread of starvation, disease, genocide, injustice, domestic violence, mind-destroying addictions, and a dangerous gap between rich and poor.
What should teen leaders be doing? First, I think the times call for more than a faith grounded in fun and nice people, but rather a faith that listens to the other, truly engages the Word in all of its ambiguities and difficulties, and is grounded in justice and servanthood.
Second, I think the times call for real community. Not like-minded people who share common moral and political viewpoints, but loving and accepting people who treasure diversity and follow the practice of Jesus in welcoming outcasts. Not winners seeking to be around winners, but kind and merciful people who break down hierarchies of power and privilege.
Third, I think the times call for healthy congregations. Our denominations might or might not get their acts together. They argue incessantly about things that didn’t concern Jesus, such as sexuality and who is in charge. The health of the church will be found at the local level, at the altar where people lay their troubles and seek food for their souls, in the pews where strangers become friends, and friends join their voices together in songs of praise and thanksgiving, in the mission projects where the privileged and pampered learn to place less value on comfort, and in the parking lots and quiet places where people share their fears and frustrations and find a listening ear.
Fourth, I think the times call for a culture of less, not more, a culture of giving, not getting, where enemies learn to love each other, the rich give away their wealth, the powerful get humble, and the meek, grieving, lost, and infirm take heart.
The world has plenty of religious zealots drawing lines in the sand and saying who belongs, plenty of religious bullies shouting their opinions and prejudices as if they were the voice of God, plenty of institution builders who worry about not offending anyone.
What the world needs is a tough faith that dares to love and to dream.
Tom Ehrich is a writer, consultant and leader of workshops. An Episcopal priest, he lives in Durham, N.C.