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It’s the only explanation I can come up with, and I’m thinking more and more lately that it’s all our fault.
It’s the only explanation for why kids are using semi-automatic rifles to slaughter their classmates in shockingly routine fashion, and why the adults with the power to stop it are too feckless and compromised to do anything.
It’s the only explanation for why the Internet and ERs across the country are filled with young bodies voluntarily pumped full of toxic chemicals, and why the rest of us dismiss it with a chuckle and wonder why anyone could ever be so stupid as to eat a Tide Pod.
It’s exacerbated by a job market that leaves twice as many young people unemployed than it does other wage-earning adults, by a credit crunch that makes it almost impossible to build a financial life, and an economic future that will—for the first time in U.S. history—leave Millennials and Generation Z poorer than their parents, despite their record levels of education (and corresponding student debt).
It’s accelerated by the weakening of religious institutions that refuse to grapple openly with the questions of postmodernity being asked by the children of our congregations, coming off as out of touch at best and as hypocritical at worst.
It’s heightened by every 100-year-storm in Houston and New Orleans, by every historic drought and wildfire season in California and Montana, and by every evidence-based scientific report reminding the Climate Change Generation that the only one they’ve ever known—namely, a warming one—is only getting hotter, more dangerous, and more unpredictable.
It’s fed by a political reality so mired in petty partisanship and cynical one-upmanship as to be all but impotent to solve any of the problems facing the communities where our kids live. All the while, they watch helplessly as their friends are deported, their earning potential evaporates, and their very ability to thrive and flourish on Planet Earth is endangered.
But none of these are the cause of our kids’ nihilism. We are.
After all, economic systems are designed and maintained by humans. We are the ones who accept an economic system which exploits natural and human capital with ever more impunity. We are the ones who silently accept the unprecedented wealth accumulation for the top sliver of society while the rest of the world fights over the scraps rather than fighting for a more just and compassionate capitalism which would truly raise all boats.
After all, religious institutions are designed and maintained by humans. We are the ones who choose to keep ourselves at arm’s length from the curious and earnest questioning of a generation coming of age with the world in their pockets, reifying answers to questions posed centuries ago as ultimate and refusing to translate the transformative, hopeful message of the gospel for a new generation.
After all, the unprecedented levels of warming around the world is caused largely by humans. We are the ones who treasure our unparalleled level of wealth and comfort so much that we are willing to gamble with the lives of millions of people the world over who are bearing the brunt of stronger storms, more erratic weather patterns, and rising seas.
After all, political intransigence is perpetrated and normalized by humans. We are the ones who demand that our politicians adhere unflinchingly to our rigid set of ideological litmus tests and foreswear any form of compromise as base treachery. We are the ones who have paved the way for perhaps the most cynically nihilistic Administration in U.S. history, whose guiding principle appears to be that there is no guiding principle, there is only power and those who are willing to grasp and consolidate it (and lest we feel the temptation to absolve ourselves from responsibility for our current political moment, names like Huizenga, Hoekstra, and DeVos remind us that some of the highest-ranking and most vocal advocates for Trumpism have their theological roots in the Reformed tradition).
And the deepest tragedy of it all is that we are the ones with the answer to nihilism. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the true story of the entire world—a story of fathomless love, unexpected liberation, undeserved redemption, long-awaited reconciliation, rebellious hope. A story that kicks at the darkness until it bleeds daylight. But I’m worried we’ve been losing the thread. I’m worried we Christians are, in the words of Craig Gay, living as functional atheists—trusting in the market for our daily bread and the industrial-military complex for our security. Or worse, that Gay’s analysis is too rosy, and we’ve in fact been living as functional nihilists—and that the kids have picked up on it.
To be sure, not all of the kids are so hopeless. The Parkland teens, the Dreamers, and the young people in my own organization remind me everyday that there is tremendous leadership bubbling up to combat the apathy and cynicism of our time.
I hope they will begin to feel more like the rule rather than the exception that proves the rule.
I hope the church will start to feel more like a conspirator in their holy mischief, rather than a hinderance.
Kyle Meyaard-Schaap is the national organizer and spokesperson for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action.