Commentary by Patrick Scriven
A week after the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that killed 17 people, thousands of students in Florida and in various cities across the country walked out of their high schools to protest against gun violence and for legislation to address it, including measures calling for gun control. NPR reported on a ‘walk out’ at a high school in Bellingham, Wash., far removed in geography and temperature from Florida, but close enough to empathize.
The news has been filled this week with stories of students, many of them from this same high school in Florida, boldly lifting their voices to challenge power and the reluctance, or animus, towards the consideration of new gun control legislation. Ugly attacks on these young people from conspiracy theorists and the fringe right, are evidence that they are touching a nerve. For his part, President Trump met with some students and family members representing a number of school shootings on Wednesday and made promises of a response that will be “very strong.”
It all makes me asks this question:
Is our government irreparably broken if we need teenagers to shame us so that we might fix our problems?
I realize how objectionable this sentiment might sound at first glance, but this thought didn’t cross my mind because of any low estimation of the potential intelligence or creativity of young people to solve problems. If anything, my experience working with stellar young people prejudices me to overestimate their capabilities. What young people may lack in wisdom, they generally make up in spades with conviction and idealism.
But this doesn’t change the fact that teenagers shouldn’t need to do this work. They should be allowed to study, to play sports, to experience love and heartbreak, success and failure, and all the things that prepare us to live into our God-given potential. They should be able to do these things with a reasonable assurance that the “adults” are doing everything possible to make sure this is the case.
Of course, people have been advocating for safe schools, sensible gun laws, and reasonable reforms to how we provide care for those suffering from mental illness for years now. The problem is that no one pays attention. Or more accurately, we only pay attention for a moment when something bad happens. And then we all pivot back to our personal opinions and the next cultural event.
Our culture suffers deeply from its attention deficit disorder, and real people pay the price.
I’d like to believe that this time is different. I really hope that these children will lead us to a new place where our elected representatives rediscover the practice of crafting common-sense legislation not paid for by one group or another. After all, reasonable restraints on the access to firearms, particularly assault rifles, have broad support.
But I have serious doubts that this time will be different.
A United Methodist Angle
During the 2016 United Methodist General Council, the relatively few young people present gathered around a microphone on the plenary floor. In the midst of a conference fraught with anxiety of potential schism over long-debated disagreements regarding the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ peoples in the life of the church, these young people brought a statement of unity and hope crafted by 300 young, promising United Methodist leaders from 34 countries the previous year.
There has been increasing talk of schism of The United Methodist Church in recent months. Many say that the issue of homosexuality is so contentious that it will inevitably split our Church. We, as the young people of The United Methodist Church, would like to say that we do not desire a divided Church.
The Church that we have taken our places in is called to a ministry that includes so much more than this one issue. There are genuine, passionate perspectives on all sides of the issue and though we disagree, we have committed ourselves to loving, faithful discussion on this subject. Part of the beauty of our Church is that there has always been room at the table for a wide range of theological diversity within our connectional church family. As Wesley said, ‘May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?’
We urge everyone to seek solutions that promote our global unity as the United Methodist Church of Jesus Christ, rather than focus only on the issues that divide us, so that we may faithfully live out our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
The statement was received with a standing ovation, and then we got back to business as usual.
To my knowledge, The United Methodist Church hasn’t been subjected to any organized protests by its young people demanding action on behalf of their LGBTQI+ friends, or even one for the more generous orthodoxy embodied in the aforementioned statement. The pressure points are different; attendance at school is required, church is increasingly understood as optional.
Because of this difference, we don’t often see young people rising up in unison to demand the changes they intuit as they seek to like faithfully in the world today. Instead we experience a slow, ongoing protest as they simply remove themselves from the life of an organization that speaks less meaningfully into their lives with each coming year. It would be inaccurate to suggest this exodus was simply about the church’s position on full inclusion, but every decent survey I’ve seen puts it on the list.
While the question of gun control is somewhat peripheral in The United Methodist Church today, it is all too reasonable to question whether our institutional life together, the connection we sometimes cherish, is any healthier than the federal government. Do we not also suffer from an absence of meaningful relationships across difference and a surplus of people unwilling to listen deeply to the other? I think so.
Young people can change the world. Heck, they could possibly even change the church. But to take advantage of their energy and idealism, we need to step out of the way to make room for them, really listen, resist for a moment all of the wisdom we’ve accumulated that tells us what isn’t possible, and ask them: “How can we help?”
Patrick Scriven serves as Director of Communications and Young People’s Ministries for the Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist Church.
Photo Credit: Featured image by Lorie Shaull via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.