Why should we talk to kids about justice issues?

Sara Pantazes, a mother and director of faith formation, shares why churches should talk about justice with kids, and a couple of ideas of where these conversations can start.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Following the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in the winter of 2018, my husband and I took our four- and seven-year-old children to our community’s anti-gun violence march. I wondered if they were too young but also felt confident in their ability to handle it. Intruder drills at school were already part of their lives. I wanted them to know that there are people in this world who hate that they have to live with that threat and are working for change.

Kids are neither immune from nor unaware of injustices. Their lives have been shaped by the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the renewed national conversation about race, continued mass shootings, increasingly intense climate events, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, in my experience, we don’t seem to talk about these things with kids at church very often. I believe there are several compelling reasons for that to change.

Talking about justice in church is an opportunity for us to connect [kids’] growing understanding of the divine to their growing understanding of what is going on in the world.

  1. Kids are already aware of injustice — most of them have experienced it, in some shape or form, first-hand. Talking about justice in church is an opportunity for us to connect their growing understanding of the divine to their growing understanding of what is going on in the world. These conversations lay a foundation of understanding that the God of the universe cares intimately for every single person, especially those who are suffering, that God hurts when we hurt, that God’s power is within all who are suffering and empowering all who seek to help them, and that God’s love will ultimately win in the end.
  2. It is part of the biblical story. We witness God’s concern for justice at the moment Adam and Eve leave Eden, in the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt, in the Deuteronomic law, in Jesus’ ministry, and in the early church. There is a common theme that runs throughout these narratives: God lovingly created – and is continually concerned with – the well-being of all creation, and God wants each of us to contribute to that well-being. If we aren’t talking about justice as we teach Bible stories to children, we are not giving kids a full picture of God and what God is up to within each of us and creation. We need to show how each of story in the Bible is a part of the redemption of all creation.
  3. Justice is an important, arguably underexplored, component of faith. Many church leaders spend a lot of time thinking about how their congregation helps people live faithful lives. Common components of a church’s life include worship, music, learning and service. These are all good and fruitful things to focus on, and many churches find ways to invite children into each of those pieces of ministry. We do so hoping that their participation in the life of the church will help develop a faith that will stay with them into adulthood. If a church cares about God’s justice, shouldn’t we invite children into that care? Learning about justice has implications for all ages.

Congregations that want to talk to children about justice issues could start by digging into the difference between justice and service/mission. The latter looks at meeting people’s immediate needs while justice looks at why those needs exist in the first place. They are not mutually exclusive. It is critical to have people paying attention to both, but many churches have been missing that opportunity. If churches began to frame their engagement with the world in this way and taught that framework to kids, whole generations might grow up with a broader understanding of how to bring about meaningful change in the world.

Justice is about what is fair, what is right and wrong. When I talk about justice with the kids at my church, we start with the story of creation and remember how God made everything good. We talk about shalom, which is the biblical idea of wholeness and peace and well-being that God wants for all people and every part of creation. Whenever something is broken or hurting or not right, it is not in a state of shalom. God cares about everything and everyone in the world, and God wants us to care too. That’s what justice is about.

Pairing experiences and knowledge of injustices with faith in the creator and sustainer of the world may sound like a pretty hefty building block of a child’s faith. But maybe that’s what we all need to keep chipping away at the mountains of injustices in our world. I’m pretty sure our kids are ready for it. Are you?