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The Younger Names

May 7, 2012

“The Younger Names” Micah 4:1-4; 1 John 2:7-17 © 5/6/12 First Presbyterian Youth Sunday by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

The Hunger Games is the first volume in the popular young adult trilogy by Suzanne Collins. It’s also, of course, the title of the high-grossing current film based on the book. The novel is the story of a dystopian society sometime in the future; we’re never told exactly when. Droughts, disasters, encroaching seas, and storms have devastated what once was North America. A war for resources follows, and out of that conflict arises a nation known as “Panem,” a land of thirteen districts ruled from a fabulous Capitol in the Rockies. A subsequent war of rebellion against the authoritarian Capitol wipes out one of the districts, and defeats the other twelve. Now they are subjugated, afraid, kept under control, near starvation.

Each year, to remind the districts of its power, the Capitol demands and gets from each area a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to participate as so-called “tributes” in the Hunger Games. These young people are imprisoned in a vast, artificially created arena, where they face starvation, cold, thirst, and genetically engineered insects and animals along with their opponents. Their goal is to kill each other until only one is left. All this is televised nationally, and everyone is expected to watch.

When I finished the book not too long ago, I had the eerie feeling that it could happen here. Sci-fi is actually about the present, so I wondered what Collins was saying through her story about our day. I started to draw parallels, speculative, of course, but entirely possible.

First, what sound very much like the effects of global warming lead to war for scarce resources, then to a totalitarian government. Could it happen here? Think about the record-breaking heat of the past couple of months, the droughts in Georgia, Florida, and other states, the fires, the floods, the storm outbreaks. Consider the rising sea levels along the coasts and the danger of storm surge flooding (

Climatologist Heidi Cullen expects increasing problems with heat waves, heavy rainfall, and drought over the next decades if the amount of “heat-trapping pollution” is not reduced. She notes: “All weather is now born into an environment that is warmer and moister because of man-made greenhouse-gas pollution. But we don’t always know what influences (man-made or natural) will win out on any given day” (see note 1).

So perhaps Collins’ scenario is not so far-fetched. What would happen in our nation if there were indeed a number of environmental disasters, increasing in intensity and frequency, over a period of years?

Next, Collins may be reminding us of the growing disparity between what we have come to call the “1%” and the rest of us. In her Capitol, the people spend their time in distractions. They live in luxury. They color their hair outlandish, unnatural shades, and even do the same to their skin. The residents speak in odd accents that clearly identify them as Capitol-dwellers. This, while the rest of the country, near starvation most of the time, labors to provide for the Capitol’s needs and even must sacrifice their youth to satisfy the never-ending lust of the Capitol for control and entertainment.

Consider for comparison these startling facts, reported in the journal The Christian Century. The top one-tenth of the top one percent of households in the US received 37% of all the economic gains during 2010. The rest of the 1% got all the other gains. In 2011, the richest 1% of taxpayers saved more in taxes from previously enacted cuts than the rest of the 141 million taxpaying Americans made in total income (4/8/12: 9, citing; emphasis mine).

The writer Michael Sandel comments: “The more things money can buy, the fewer the occasions when people from different walks of life encounter one another. We see this when we go to a baseball game and gaze up at the skyboxes, or down from them, as the case may be. The disappearance of the class-mixing experiment once found at the ballpark represents a loss not only for those looking up but also for those looking down.

“Something similar has been happening throughout our society. At a time of rising inequality, the marketization of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives. We live and work and shop and play in different places. Our children go to different schools. You might call it the skyboxification of American life. It’s not good for democracy, nor is it a satisfying way to live.

“Democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share in a common life. What matters is that people of different backgrounds and social positions encounter one another, and bump up against one another, in the course of everyday life. For this is how we learn to negotiate and abide our differences, and how we come to care for the common good” (see note 2).

So, again, a nation with deep economic inequality which persists is not so far-fetched. But finally, Collins addresses the distraction of our day, especially the flood of so-called “reality TV” shows. The very real killing and gore of the Hunger Games, the deprivation and anxiety of the participants, is broadcast to all of Panem. People in the Capitol place bets on who will win. So Collins is raising the question of how much it takes to entertain us, to sate our lust for more and more violence. Will the day come when only actual killing will suffice, with young people pitted against each other in a manipulated environment? Will some of us become so immune to violence, so unconcerned for the suffering of others, that we can watch as drama the slaughter of innocents?

We are already a distracted society. Think of the Hulu Plus commercial in which people sit in a coffee house, but no one is talking to anyone else. Everyone is glued to the TV on their tablets. The Hulu rep comically says it’s an “eviler plot” than regular Hulu.

What he says in jest we may need to take seriously. The author Sherry Turkle says that technology increasingly draws us apart (review of Alone Together…, The Christian Century, 5/2/12: 25). What is supposed to connect us actually isolates us so often. We are focused on trivia, the sometimes minute details of everybody’s lives in our Facebook and Twitter posts. We “follow” people on social media. I thought that’s what we were supposed to do with Jesus. Have we become disciples of idols?

Of course, no one can know what the future holds with any specificity or certainty. But like the biblical prophets, we can say that if we keep on going the way we are going, there will be certain consequences. We have to ask what sort of world today’s emerging adults, youth, and children will be living in 5, 10, 20 years from now. I’m sad and sorry to say that I believe it will not be even as good as this one. The Millennial generation, born between 1982 and 2002, likely can expect to be worse off than their parents. Consider just one factor: student loan debt. It reached one trillion dollars on April 25 this year. And from 1999 through the first quarter of 2011, it climbed 511%, outstripping even the huge household debts during the Great Recession. The current cost of an education at a state school is about $21,000, with a private school costing twice that (see note 3). With schools increasing tuition due to state cuts, we can only expect the cost to keep going up, which means more debt for those soon to go to college and those now growing up.

What will be the effect of that? According to an article in The Atlantic, “all this college debt could put the U.S. on a slower growth path in the years to come. As Americans grapple with high student loan payments for the first few decades of their adult lives, they’ll have less money to spend and invest. All that money flowing into colleges and universities is being funneled away from other industries where it would have been spent in future years. Of course, this would be a rather unfortunate irony: higher education is supposed to enhance a nation’s growth, but with such an enormous debt burden, graduates might not be able to spend and invest enough to allow that growth to occur” (See note 4).

Ours is a world of constant war, suspicion, fear, terrorist threats, hunger even in a land of plenty, unending partisan conflict in the government and the church, and loss of community. The biblical vision of peaceful security for all, rather than Suzanne Collins’ idea, sounds far-fetched. We have a hard time believing any such utopia, any peaceable kingdom where natural enemies live together, is possible.

Yes, our faith remains that one day the purpose of God will be fulfilled. Right now, though, for youth and all of us, that is not the reality. What does the church need to do for and give to 12-18 year-olds so they may live with faith, hope, and love today and in years to come?

First, we need to provide resources for reasoning so youth make responsible choices. Someone has said that choices create the universe. They certainly make us who we are, perhaps determine the shape of our lives for years after we make them. Yet in their book Lost in Transition, Christian Smith and his research colleagues report that the emerging adults they interviewed were unable to articulate in simple terms why a choice was right or wrong. But why is that? Early on they observe: “many of the ways that emerging adults often think poorly about moral issues are misguided attempts to achieve some good. That is worth recognizing. Second, we are convinced that most emerging adults have been poorly educated in how to think about moral issues well. The adult world that has socialized emerging adults as they have grown up has provided them with few useful intellectual tools for working on moral questions. As a result, we see in our interviews how unprepared they are for convincing and coherent moral reasoning” (20). Parents, schools, and the church need to be able to help youth and children reflect on what makes for good and responsible choices.

In The Hunger Games, 16 year-old skilled bow hunter Katniss Everdeen from District 12 makes a choice that could mean her life. She volunteers in place of her fragile sister to enter the games. Later on, there is another choice. How and by whom are our youth equipped to make decisions, especially in stressful or morally ambiguous situations like Katniss faced? It’s up to older, experienced, faithful adults to help them with such answers.

Second, and related, we need to provide mentoring by what Richard Rohr has called “true elders.” He defines “elder” this way: “Elder is a capacity of soul that allows you to patiently understand things…It is not chronological maturity. It’s how you’ve dealt with the dark side and how successfully you’ve dealt with disappointment, betrayal, abandonment, failure, and rejection” (see note 5). So the peers of youth can be elders as well as older adults. It’s not how old you are or the office you hold, but how you have approached and learned from life.

In The Hunger Games, Haymitch Abernathy is a drunk who has dealt poorly with his success in the games years before. He is now supposed to be a mentor to Katniss and Peeta, the boy from District 12. He does give one piece of crucial advice and comes through at very critical times. Like him, we may not be perfect as mentor elders, but we ought to be there and share wisdom at those times when the need is great, and therefore so is the potential for learning.

Third, we can help youth find focus in an age of distractions. It’s more likely we will lose our freedom when we are distracted, dulled, and anesthetized. So we can’t give in to the temptation to go after the next shiny thing that comes along. And there are lots of such shiny things that attract youth, from the latest gadget to a potential romantic partner to the lure of a lucrative career in these uncertain times. These can be good and helpful and right, but also distractions that lead off the path to wholeness and success. As the classic hero is tempted by many things, but must keep his or her eye on the goal, so do youth. The church and parents can model and nurture practices that contribute to a more focused life, like silence, building things, outdoor activities, setting boundaries, playing a musical instrument, keeping our eyes open, and engaging in face to face relationships like eating together and talking.

Finally, the church must nurture wonder. The biblical scholar William Brown has noted how “[t]oday, losing wonder is more the norm. The reasons are many: economic uncertainty, divisive politics, polarizing discourse, hectic schedules” (“Lost in Wonder,” Vantage, Spring/Summer 2012: 8). Wonder is the opposite of distraction. When we are full of wonder, we are focused on the tiniest intricacy and the biggest picture, the nuance of a word and the splash of color in a painting, the coo of a baby and the soaring speech of a gifted orator. We are amazed at the most basic building block of nature and the majestic towering trees of the forest and the incredible beauty of the stars and galaxies. When the church nurtures wonder in youth, we demonstrate and practice that all the senses are essential to mature spirituality. Sight, sound, touch, smell, intuition, emotion, as well as the mind are all the gifts of God to engage the world. We become and are a community in which the heavens are opened in worship, and we are lost in wonder, love, and praise.

What kind of society, what kind of world do we want? That is the basic, essential question. What will life be like for the emerging adults, youth, and children associated with this congregation? For (here I named 35 emerging adults, youth, and children)? Let us keep lifting up these younger names in prayer and pledge our nurture and support and guidance, our efforts to work how we can for a better world that in God’s grace will one day come to pass.


Note 1:

Note 2:

Note 3:

Note 4:

Note 5: (includes a wonderful video from PBS)


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