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Youth and Social Justice

Repeat after me: “Having been created in the image of God, all humans are equal in value, honor, and dignity.”  It’s a statement that I go over and over again in my theology classes. It begins freshmen year, when we encounter God in Genesis muddying his hands as He shapes his beloved creation in His own image. It continues through senior year as students consider the root of ethics: all humans have a common, innate dignity, derived from their relationship with the Creator, which compels that we love one another. Any ethical system devoid of that truth fails to maintain the intrinsic dignity of humanity.

In today’s time of crisis, we find that intrinsic dignity under attack both overtly and covertly. Sinful forces are pulling apart our social structures and in response our young people are barraged by ethical systems demanding they love their neighbors based on common-enemy identity politics. The world’s panacea for her sins just exacerbate sin.  And yet, “At least someone is doing something” our young people say, because there is a general impression in our culture that the church has been slow to act when sinful persons wage war against God’s image-bearers. As a body full of and led by sinners, this impression unfortunately has been vindicated all too often. 

Incomplete Images

Such an impression can become a barrier to faith for those enflamed with the passion of youth and a growing zeal for social justice. The images that fill their screens are bombastic and further provoke those passions. That is not to say those images are false—but they are incomplete. As I write these words, I sit in hospital waiting room, supporting a friend receiving an outpatient procedure. Scanning the room, I can’t help but notice the tapestry of humanity moving, living and serving together. A white woman pushes a black man in a wheelchair.  A black woman compassionately walks an elderly couple wearing traditional Muslim clothing through an insurance issue before lovingly chiding a white co-worker to get to the eye doctor so she’ll be able to see her grandson. A male nurse smiles as he checks in a man with a thick African accent. This is not the world our social-media laden young people see crumbling into hatred. This is a world in which our differences don’t make us enemies but where the single commonality is humanity: humanity at work as God mysteriously serves His creation through His image-bearers.

Unified in Love

There is no denying that social justice is an increasing concern of our young people, a concern that we can’t ignore. However, we address this not because of trending hashtags—but because the commonality of humanity compels the church’s love.  When Christ was challenged regarding the greatest commandment, His answer was to love God with everything.  The “second is like it,” he continued: love those who bear God’s image also (Matthew 22:34-40).  Do not be misled: the church’s primary mission is not to reform society into a utopia. Many have traveled that road and it has only led to more chaos (consider the Münster Rebellion of 1534). Paradise is coming—but it will not be at our hands. Paradise will be ushered in when Jesus returns in glory and people from every nation will bow before Him—unified in love. 

Rather than reforming society, the church’s mission is to be agents of the Holy Spirit as He reforms hearts one God-image bearing person at a time. At the heart of that mission is love . . . love for neighbor because of our love for God. And ultimately, we love only because he first loved us and gave His Son as a ransom to die for us (1 John 4:19).

Demanding More

It’s easy to proclaim Jesus’ forgiveness for our own sins of injustice and assume everything will fall into place. For many youths, that is simply not enough—and quite frankly they’re right to demand more. The love of Christ that restores each of us is a love that must overflow. It is a love that places healing hands on lepers and invites those despised by worldly standards to places of respect and dignity. It’s a love that looks into the eyes of one’s neighbor and seeing God’s image staring back, reacts accordingly—not out of duty but out of desire. It’s a love that isn’t going to trend on Twitter or splash the headlines, because it’s a love that subtly serves, calling no more attention to itself than God does as He hides himself behind the mask of common people going about their seemingly mundane vocations as students and neighbors and citizens and friends. 

On the night when He was betrayed, Jesus encouraged his disciples, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13).  He then proceeded to call each of us his friends as he took up the cross and laid down his life for every-single human throughout history. Our young people clamor for the church to stand for social justice and then sate themselves with hashtag retweets and symbolic acts. The love Jesus described isn’t that easy. Love calls little attention to itself as it gets muddied recognizing the common humanity in service to those with whom we share God’s image. Love holds doors for strangers, forgives microaggressions and takes seriously others’ pain. Love treats the neighbor as the self—whether that neighbor is a beloved family member or an estranged classmate.  Love points to the cross and the assurance of the resurrection in which God sealed his promise that we will one day stand side-by-side as co-heirs of paradise; sin destroyed with only love remaining. The cross is rooted in God’s love for humanity and that love is the root of our ethical treatment for our fellow humans.  When we teach our youth to take the cross seriously, we teach them to love.


See how the Father through the Holy Spirit works in our hearts to bring us salvation in His Son, Jesus. 

Encourage youth to begin writing their own story.

Written by

Joe Cox

Rev. Joe Cox serves as the head of the Theology Department at Lutheran High School South in St. Louis, MO, where he teaches English and Theology. He also coaches the school’s Mock Trial teams. Joe is married to Barb Cox, and they have two adult children, Caleb and Megan. In his free time, Joe is an avid board-gamer and enjoys travelling.

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