Youth as Climate Prophets
“I am looking forward to having the world see the incredible power my generation holds.”
—Victoria Barrett, one of 21 youth suing the federal government over climate change
When it comes to the damage done to our climate, no voice is as morally powerful and persuasive as that of youth. Our youth are the ones who will inherit the consequences of our society’s action or inaction in addressing the climate emergency presently faced. It is one thing for older generations to become ideological adherents of climate denialism or skepticism. It is another thing for those older generations to hear directly from a child or grandchild about the threats faced. As a result, one of the most important acts a pastor or youth minister can take to address our climate is to hand over the microphone and the pulpit to a climate prophet of the younger generation.
To be honest, it is not just climate deniers who need to hear from youthful climate prophets. It is also climate realists—those with at least a basic understanding of the causes and consequences of climate change. It has become increasingly evident to me that even among this group there can be a profound lack of the moral urgency required to take necessary immediate actions. However, a sense of urgency quickly arises when you realize some of those you love the most will be the most affected.
The young climate prophets of today possess not only a moral power but also a theological power, a sense of calling. The story of Jeremiah’s call serves as a relevant touchstone in this regard. As some translations have it, Jeremiah was called as a “youth,” and the task before him was daunting. It involved challenging the political and religious powers of his time: the kings, princes, and priests along with the broader populace (Jeremiah 1:18).
Similar to Moses, Jeremiah responds to his call with doubt and objection. He believes himself unfit for the task. He does not “know how to speak” because he is “only a youth” (Jeremiah 1:6). Jeremiah has internalized the belittling underestimation of youth that adults commonly hold. Yet, God assures Jeremiah of a steadfast, delivering presence that will ultimately turn him into “a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls” in the face of the powerful (Jeremiah 1:18).
The youth of today face a daunting task in confronting those in power. Nothing exemplifies this more than the 21 youth in the landmark case known as Juliana v. U.S. These youth ranging in age from 10 to 21 have taken the federal government to court for violating their generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, while also failing to protect essential public trust resources. Power in this case is not a mere abstraction. The President of the United States is a defendant.
In response to the courage of the youth plaintiffs, 19 faith organizations have called for more than a thousand sermons preached in solidarity. Youth are especially encouraged to preach. The campaign is called “Justice for #EachGeneration,” and it stakes out a moral ground not often considered. In contrast to a cultural outlook found in the Bible that consistently thinks in terms of a continuum of generations stretching from the past to the future, our current society tends to myopically focus on the present.
Among people of faith, however, a countercultural ethic is emerging. Notably, in his encyclical on climate change, Pope Francis declared, “Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us.” Not surprisingly, the pope’s stance on climate is cited as a reason for his popularity among youth.
In opening the pulpit to young climate prophets, churches can forge a stronger connection to the younger generation. More importantly, churches can discover their own sense of calling in addressing a matter of utmost urgency.
The Rev. Dr. Brooks Berndt is the UCC Minister for Environmental Justice. This article was originally published in Engage, a publication of The Institute for Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary.” It is part of a larger series of short articles designed for youth groups, Bible studies, church committees, or devotional groups looking to jump-start a conversation on climate change.