Our perspectives on the past are shaped by our own experiences, what we have learned or continue to discover, as well as our own suspicions. I chuckled the other day when I heard a fellow telling our current events discussion group that “a few days after the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, the US Congress elected George Washington as the first U.S. president.” Quite imaginative. I reminded him later, without embarrassing him in front of the group, that the Constitutional Convention in 1787 established the U.S. Constitution and the federal government. George Washington, however, was not elected president until 1789. (We did not get into a discussion about young George’s cherry tree myth.)
Our perspectives on key religious figures are subject to distortions as well. In the West we have inherited an image of Jesus as a light-haired, blue-eyed Western European — and often rather androgynous — male. In fact, like most people from Judea at his time, Jesus probably had brown eyes, short black hair, and olive-brown skin. And he would have been much more rugged-looking than many of his famous portraits and holy card images.
I have often wondered, as well, about our images of Jesus’ mom and dad, whom we know as Mary (Miriam) and Joseph. In grade school I learned from Sr. Mary Angelo that Joseph was “a much older man” who took care of Mary and her son. I pictured him looking more like my grandfather……Years later after much biblical and historical study, my perspective about Jesus’ parents changed significantly.
I came to understand actually that both Mary and Joseph were teenagers. Yes Mary was a teenage mother, when Jesus was born. She was probably between 14 and 16 years old. Joseph, as was customary back then, would have been a couple years older than Mary. Not at all uncommon for the time. Most young people married as teenagers. But then… the average life expectancy in the days of Jesus was between 30 and 40. (By age 20 most people had lost their teeth.)
This brings us to a consideration of the ages of the men and women who were Jesus disciples. They too were most likely 15 to 18 tears old. Let that sink in a bit. Young men and women, many of whom were probably married with small children. The first Christian community. The Disciples of Christ….So very different from the Last Supper perspective in the late 15th-century mural painting by Leonardo da Vinci. Perspective.
And what is our perspective on young people today?
We are living in a time of tremendous economic, technological, demographic, and cultural transition. I look hopefully to younger people for the open-mindedness, flexibility, and sense of solidarity needed to help people come together and be effective change agents. Many of them, like the seventeen years old Greta Thunberg, have the courage and energy to make it happen.
The Pew Center and other research groups have begun to study the make-up of “Generation Z”: young people born between 1995 and 2010. Donald Trump may be the first U.S. president most Generation Z have known as they turn 18. Just as the contrast between George W. Bush and Barack Obama shaped the political debate for Millennials, the current political environment may have a similar effect on the attitudes and engagement of Generation Z. Exactly how remains a question.
Generation Z young people feel empowered and connected. Sixty-six percent believe that communities are created by causes and interests, not by economic backgrounds or educational levels. They are empathetic self-starters who want to stand out and make a difference in the world. Their key values are searching for the truth, authenticity, and creativity. They believe strongly in the efficacy of dialogue to solve conflicts and improve the world. They relate to institutions in an analytical and pragmatic way. For them, institutional credibility is very important.
Now……How can our Christian communities welcome and engage young people today? An acquaintance said we need, first of all, to educate them. I replied that perhaps we need first of all to study and discover together. The real question is not how can we speak to them but how can we truly listen to them? What is their image of Jesus? Their image of church? How can we dialogue and be creative contemporary Christians with them?
Faith, hope, and charity have not disappeared.