I’m embarrassed and ashamed at the failure of leadership and vision coming from some of the world’s ‘adults’ when measured against that of those many years younger.
Probably the worst example of this has been the response of not only Donald Trump but also other politicians and media commentators – including some from my own country – to teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg’s impassioned plea to save the planet.
On the 23rd of September, 16-year-old Greta gave an indignant speech at the United Nations General Assembly. She opened by saying: ‘My message is that we’ll be watching you. This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!’
After her speech, negative reaction was swift and merciless. Part of me wants to write that she was ‘mocked’ for her words (and for her age, her clothing and her Asberger’s). But let’s call a spade a spade, she was bullied. And, as has been pointed out by many already, a lot of that bullying came from old, angry white men. (I’m not male bashing here. I’m sure some old white women were just as annoyed, but being women, they’ve probably been taught by these same angry old men that it’s not a woman’s place to do the talking anyway!)
Greta fired back: ‘I honestly don’t understand why adults would choose to spend their time mocking and threatening teenagers and children for promoting science, when they could do something good instead. I guess they must simply feel so threatened by us. But don’t waste your time giving them any more attention. The world is waking up. Change is coming whether they like it or not.’
A 16-year-old has the courage and smarts to see what must be apparent to all – that our pillaging of the world’s resources places us at the most critically dangerous time in all of history – and yet she was attacked for telling the truth.
This same anger and frustration took to the streets of New Zealand just a few days later when an estimated 170,000 people joined the country’s third Strike 4 Climate march. Coordinated by School Strike NZ, the New Zealand version of Greta Thunberg’s Europe strikes, this youth-led movement demands that we take their futures seriously ‘and treat climate change for what it is – a crisis’.
Billed as an inter-generational protest, students were urged to bring their parents and other adults along. In Wellington, 40,000 people marched on Parliament, and as many as 80,000 took part in Auckland. The Christchurch event was organised by 12-year-old Lucy Gray, who told protesters, ‘We continue to act as if our house is fine. But our house is on fire, and the fire brigade is asleep. Today we join together and march together as if our futures depend on it. Because they do.’
‘A little child shall lead them,’ the Bible says in Isaiah 11:6. This is not patronising a small child and allowing them to take the lead for an easy family stroll. The Jewish word for ‘shall lead’ is the same word used to describe someone driving a chariot – impelling forward a powerful driving force.
That’s the type of awe-inspiring leadership we are seeing from many young people today as they help the world’s leaders understand where to apply their political and economic will.
‘Show me where to push!’
When I was a teenager, I heard a sermon about the Old Testament’s Samson that captured the same idea. This sermon made a real impression on me – helping me understand that youth does not disqualify anyone from playing a part in God’s victories.
Samson was a miracle child born to infertile parents and dedicated to God from birth. The last of the Israelite warrior-judges, he had extraordinary strength, yet allowed himself to be swayed from God’s purposes so that he was betrayed by his lover Delilah and captured by the Philistines.
Samson’s eyes were gouged out by his captors. He was then brought to their temple so they could mock him as they sacrificed offerings to their god. Humbled by blindness and captivity, Samson asked a servant boy to guide his hands onto two pillars so he could brace himself in the most strategic place to carry out his final mission.
Samson then pushed against the pillars, calling on God’s strength one last time so he could bring the temple down. The Bible concludes its history of Samson’s life by reporting he killed more of God’s enemies in death than during his 20 years as Israel’s judge.
A brutal story, but the same lesson is there:
Not too young!
The weekend before Greta’s speech, I was at a Salvation Army event for (mostly) younger adults considering leadership within The Salvation Army, and particularly the challenge of signing up to lead as officers (ordained ministers). Many of us oldies in the room looked around in excitement and gratitude. ‘Imagine how it could change The Salvation Army’s culture if these people were our leaders!’ we said to one another.
I’d like to think that as an organisation we would be willing to embrace such leadership. And yet, at the same time, I hear some of my peers (and even those many years younger) protest that these would-be candidates for ministry are ‘too young’. ‘They need more experience first. Let’s give them a few more years.’ I am glad these people were not in the room when I was applying to become an officer at the age of 21!
In the church we send mixed messages. We call for innovation and change, yet side with caution and conservatism. And then we wonder at the downward slide of Christianity – 2018 census figures just released in New Zealand show that the number of people identifying as Christian has fallen from 47.65 per cent in 2013 to 37.31 per cent!
Are we listening?
As a young child, I was a huge fan of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, about two tailors who promise an Emperor a splendid suit of clothes that will be the envy of everyone. Of course, these tailors are tricksters who take his money, give him nothing in return, and persuade him that only the ‘hopelessly stupid’ will not be able to see the beautiful clothes they have crafted.
Of course, no one in the Emperor’s court – not even the Emperor himself – sees any clothes, but not wanting to be judged as stupid and therefore unfit for their jobs, they all remain quiet. The same is true for those who gather on the streets to watch the royal parade. Despite the Emperor’s embarrassing nudity, they cheer him on … until one child finally speaks the truth: ‘But he hasn’t got anything on!’ Only then does the crowd find the courage to speak of what they also plainly see.
As one translation of this Danish tale puts it: ‘The Emperor shivered, for he suspected they were right. But he thought, “This procession has got to go on.” So he walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train that wasn’t there at all.’
It’s sadly no fairy tale that our greatest idiocy today lies in ignoring the wisdom of youth – those who have the vision of truth in their sight.
Christina Tyson has been a Salvation Army officer (minister) for almost 30 years. For 16 years she was involved in Salvation Army communications, but now works to support local churches and recruit future leaders. Recently she also took on an additional role as The Salvation Army’s Response Officer for the New Zealand Royal Commission into Abuse in Care. Christina and her husband Keith live in Wellington, New Zealand, and have three adult children.