Here’s an exercise: If you, like me, attained the majority of your education in Christian institutions, be it a Christian school or Sunday school classes at a church, try to recall the major themes running through the instruction you were given.
It probably goes something like this: when we were small children it had mostly to do with honoring our parents and the various precautions and warnings that go along with that. As we grew a bit older, maybe in the latter half of elementary school—maybe into middle school—many of our lessons had to do with our interactions with our classmates. This is where it became clear that Jesus had some things to say about kicking or punching weaker students for lunch money.
Toward the end of middle school and into high school the content of our education became more “adult.” In Christian high schools and youth groups across the country students are deemed mature enough for the heaviest of subjects, sex. Almost equal of importance, however, and not to be ignored, are warnings regarding inappropriate movies, secular music, drugs and alcohol. Of course in particular corners of the country there are variations on these themes, but we can all agree that these trends certainly existed.
Now that I’ve progressed through the ranks of Christian education, even graduating from a Christian college, I’m beginning to notice some major failings in my education. I got over the fact that I wasn’t familiar with much of the “classic literature” I have come to appreciate. And despite never experiencing formal sex education, I’ve pretty much figured all that out. What I cannot reconcile, what I refuse to accept, however, is the complete lack of emphasis given to Christ’s teachings on peace and justice.
Why is it that the last time I heard a serious sermon on Jesus’ call to “turn the other cheek” was in elementary school, and even then as a punishment for hitting my little sister? How is it that I made it through high school, a time where people choose sides and factions as readily as nations do, without ever being told, seriously, to love my neighbor?
When a great deal of Jesus’ sermons and interactions with people instruct us to care for the poor, the sick and the widowed, it is a travesty that modern Christians spend significantly less time passing on this message, let alone living it. “The least of these” has become a meaningless phrase that we toss around to refer to just about anybody who isn’t “us.” And when we gather together to learn from God’s Word, we conveniently avoid these difficult but essential teachings. It is not, as some more liberal theologians have suggested, a rejection of Christ’s ethics. Jesus’ teachings on ethics are often pulled and stretched to offer some divine sanction to many less than biblical sermons. No, Jesus’ ethics are not off limits, only those, it seems, that would have been most inconvenient and uncomfortable in suburban, middle class communities.
Jesus condemned the Pharisees very specifically for this same shortcoming. In Matthew 23:23, He says, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (TNIV).
I learned that I am not alone in my miseducation as I began to ask around and found that hardly any of my peers can recall being taught to respond to the Biblical call to social justice. Everyone seems to be familiar with Jesus’ command to “love your enemies,” but the radical nature of this passage has been lost. The result, I’m afraid, is a large group of young, well-educated Christians living in a nation at war and passively watching as innumerable social injustices occur all around us. Many of us may still be virgins, fulfilling the call to save ourselves for marriage, many made it through high school and even college without ever using drugs or drinking alcohol, some have even returned to our schools to carry on the tradition of Christian education that we benefited from. But where, in our generation, is the cry for peace and justice?
It is not my intention to condemn Christian educators or to take anything away from the valuable lessons we are taught, but rather to insist that there is an element of our faith that is being left out of Christian curricula. And as the political situation here in the United States and around the world becomes more and more volatile, and as we are continuously misrepresented by so-called “Christian leaders,” it has never been more important for young people of faith to remind the world of Jesus’ message of love, peace and justice, and to live it out in such a way that we become a driving force for real social change, thus fulfilling an integral piece of our call to be salt and light.