How do we disciple children into a faith that includes justice? For many of us, the goodness of the gospel has expanded beyond the truncated message of individual forgiveness and opened our eyes to the way God, through Jesus Christ, is bringing shalom, justice, and healing to this world.
What does this mean for the discipleship of children? I ask this specifically and especially for those discipling children of privilege. How do we teach the next generation to be that which we have failed to be? It is difficult to pass on a lineage that was not passed on to us.
But that lineage is there. All throughout scripture, God trained up Israel in ways of justice and right relationship.
My son, Silas, recently turned eleven years old. As a parent who is committed to the good news of what God is doing through Jesus, I don’t want Silas to grow up and be in denial that there are injustices and inequalities in the world happening right before our eyes. I don’t want his personal comfort to blind him to the pain of others. I don’t want him to be afraid to follow his convictions and shrink in the face of pressure, bullying, or fear of exclusion by peers. I have had the privilege of sheltering him from some of the harsh realities of the world—and then of being the one to introduce and interpret them to him.
When he was eight, I took him for his first visit to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. The next morning I preached a sermon tying the Beatitudes and a Christian response to racial justice issues together. When it was over and I sat down, he curled up to me and wrapped his arms around me. He is precious. He is God’s. Just like every other boy and girl on this planet. We get to share in this life’s work together. God is good.
Since then, we have documented and researched predatory lending institutions in poverty-stricken rural Mississippi, researched ways to assist with housing needs in the Mississippi Delta, planned a water walk for areas that have issues related to sanitation and clean drinking water, visited the Civil Rights Museum in Atlanta, visited the site of Emmitt Till’s murder and the trial of his murderers, and studied the relational effects of Confederate symbolism within social structures. It has been a joy to do this together. We are learning so much more than what we are researching. We are learning about one another, about humanity, inhumanity, relationship, and God’s heart.
All of these various experiences came together to form a constellation inside of him one Sunday while visiting our friend Laura’s church. Laura is the associate pastor of a beautiful, Spirit-filled African American congregation. Silas experienced God profoundly there. Afterwards, through tears, he spoke of how he could see the ways in which the past and present are connected. “The past is still present. The past is not even past.” As the kids say, he was becoming “woke.” And he was not only awakening to injustices in the world; he was awakening to the beauty of a Christ-centered justice. God’s justice is so much greater than our worldly version of justice, which is easily capsized by emotion and claimed by warring “sides” of any given issue.
If, like me, you are searching for ways to disciple children to see how the good news of Jesus Christ makes a difference in this world, here are a few things I am learning. I don’t have all of the answers. But I can tell you that hope, commitment, and humility go a long way. If you are searching for ways to disciple children into the gospel that encompasses racial justice, here are four practices. Click To Tweet
Four Practices for Those Who Want to Raise Children into the Way of Justice
1. Provide opportunities for experiential learning for children.
Visit a Civil Rights Museum together. Watch a movie and talk about it together. Take a trip to a historical site and learn the story of what happened there. Children learn so much more from contextual learning than from books. You can read about concepts like empathy, but empathy is a felt experience, an internal process. In the same way, awakening to the injustices of this world, and then learning what it looks like to embody justice as we follow Jesus, must be something we experience in our bodies and in our emotions, not just in our minds.
2. Foster mutuality in relationships that cross lines of division.
Engage in relationship with people who are different from you. Cross racial and cultural lines. And as you’re crossing those lines of differences, help children see the mutuality of those relationships. If our primary interaction with others who are different from us is in the context of “helping them,” we can unintentionally objectify the other.
My friend Randy Evans speaks to this when he talks about working with those without a primary residence, often referred to as the homeless, through his nonprofit Walking Tall Wilmington in North Carolina. He points out that we’d never say, “I’m going to feed my homed friend.” We would instead say, “I’m having dinner with my friend.”
There is subtle, or not so subtle, objectification in the language, even if unconscious or unintentional. And when objectification exists in the language, it likely also exists in the spirit of what we are doing. We are not doing something “to” or “for” people; instead, our aim is to be “with” them. Randy warns against using other people for our own spiritual formation. This is not relationship. “Being a good person” is not the goal. Charity reaches down, but brotherhood reaches across.
3. Learn from others.
There is no need to be a voice of the voiceless when we can give the voiceless a platform. Ask local faith leaders from other backgrounds if they’d be willing to visit and share their experiences and perspectives. Form diverse panel discussions and host them at your church. Ask friends of color to recommend ways in which you can learn. It is not the burdensome responsibility of minority people to teach those of us in the dominant or privileged group, but we have much to learn from those willing to share their stories. Listening well is of utmost importance. Listen deeply and prayerfully.
4. Model what it looks like to learn and make mistakes along the way.
Many of us fear making the wrong move, saying the wrong thing, making a humiliating mistake. We fear that we don’t know the correct terminology. We might be unintentionally offensive.
It happens. I’ve seen it many times. It will happen to you. Try anyway. It’s called learning. And sincere apologies not only help, but they are a powerful way to model for children that they can have the courage to learn, to make mistakes, and know how to ask for forgiveness when they offend.
Raising the Next Generation in the Way of Justice
Currently, Silas is working on a letter to the Chancellor of our local university. At a basketball double-header we attended, he noticed that the female players didn’t have their names on their jerseys or their names and stats on the JumboTron like the male players. He feels that this common practice, even if unintentional, sends an inaccurate message about the importance of female athletes. In his letter, he asks the Chancellor, coaches, and others in leadership at the university to set an example for the rest of the sports community by modeling equal treatment in these areas. We are also starting to share our experiences with others in the form of workshops and public conversations. This year, we co-led a workshop at the Wild Goose Festival titled, “Conversations with Silas: Raising the Next Generation.”
In my experience, children have a natural capacity for empathy and compassion. They have natural leanings towards justice. To be certain, children are also born with their own shortcomings! But what if we found ways to tap into their capacities for empathy, compassion, and justice, fostered them, and promoted them prayerfully and consistently?
I believe in the God who is bringing about the reconciliation of all things and the healing of the world. I believe that God has a dream for the world that is yet unfulfilled and I can think of no better way to spend our days than participating in the coming of that Kingdom, that Beloved Community, in some small way. May we train up children in the right way, so that when old, they will not stray. And may we become as little children in the process. AMEN. May we train up children in the way of justice, so that when old, they will not stray. Click To Tweet