"Generation to Generation: A Preferential Option for an Emerging, Diverse Generation"
The following is an extended reflection of an article that was originally published in The Friend, July 2022.
By David Vásquez-Levy, president, Pacific School of Religion, Berkeley, California
From Phil Collins singing “every generation blames the one before,” to Bye Bye Birdie’s “What’s the Matter with Kids Today,” to Socrates saying in 400 BCE of children, “They show disrespect for elders . . . contradict their parents . . . and tyrannize their teachers,” it seems every generation harbors concern about the next. And as we live through a time of significant disruption, the ever-present question of how one generation passes wisdom, knowledge, and faith to another feels even more pressing.
Jesus broke into this world at just such a time of upheaval for the people of Israel living under Roman occupation. Immediately after the angel announced that Mary would bear God’s Son, she acknowledged the reality of that pivotal moment:
God’s mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation. . . .
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:50-53)
Jesus’ time, like ours, was apocalyptic; that is, much was being revealed about the world’s brokenness and the need for change Mary sang about. It is this apocalyptic context of flux that frames the disciples’ question in Matthew 18: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” The disciples are trying to figure things out in this topsy-turvy time, this time when the mighty may be brought down and the hungry fed. They are asking what matters most—the kind of questions we have asked the last couple years as we reimagine what is essential work and what is most important amid new realities.
Jesus surprises the disciples by pointing to a child. This is what Mary had prophesied: a reorientation of everything, a complete turning around of what was considered most valuable, rethinking the world through the lens of those most marginalized and in need. In Jesus’ day, children were considered a liability, so it was a monumental shift for Jesus to say, “You ought to reorganize yourselves around the vulnerability of children.”
Our faith communities have long paid attention to individual life transitions, marking with ritual the pivotal moments of birth, coming of age, marriage and relationship, death. But how do we mark pivotal communal or congregational moments? By drawing on the wisdom of our traditions.
My mother was Jewish and my father Christian. I am a Christian pastor whose faith is profoundly shaped by my Jewish roots. When a Jewish community marks the coming-of-age moment with a bar or bat mitzvah, it includes a song with the Hebrew words “generation to generation” and a ritual in which the family of the child being received into adulthood lines up oldest to youngest and passes the scroll of the Torah from one to the next, and finally to the child, who then reads and reflects on the sacred Scripture that has been handed down from generation to generation.
How do we transfer our convictions, our faith, to the next generation? In this pivotal time, what might we hear in Jesus’ challenge to his disciples to reimagine the community, reorienting ourselves around “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40)?
I grew up in Guatemala, a place and culture similar to traditional communities in Hawaii and the Pacific Islands, particularly in its sense of ʻohana. I also grew up during an apocalyptic time of civil war pitting rich against poor. In that pivotal moment, Latin American church leaders called the church to reorient itself, as Jesus had called his disciples to do. They said the church needed to exercise a “preferential option for the poor”—to reorient itself by “walking closer to the poor.” To face that pivotal moment in society and bear witness to the gospel, every question the faithful asked—how they worshipped, what language they used, what they preached and taught—should be considered through the lens of the poor.
At Pacific School of Religion in this pivotal time, we have drawn on the wisdom of the Latin American church by committing ourselves to a “preferential option for an emerging, diverse generation.” We are challenging ourselves to see everything we do through the lens of this new generation and to reorient ourselves around them.
Brothers and sisters of the Hawaii Conference of the UCC, as you at this pivotal moment ask the same questions the disciples did, I encourage you to consider reorienting yourselves around a preferential option for an emerging, diverse generation. What would it mean to think about worship, teaching, church in society, use of buildings—everything—not only in terms of “our” congregation, “our” property, but in terms of all children across the Hawaiian Islands, what they need in education, what kind of political advocacy should be done for their well-being? For where the next generation thrives, we will all thrive.
As an adoptive parent of children from Ethiopia, I have deep appreciation for the Hawaiian concept of hanai. In an LA Times article I read as my wife and I were going through the adoption process, Judith Jenya Jackman, executive director of the Global Children’s Organization, suggests that hanai holds lessons for everyone involved with children. “[We] can learn that children are not personal property,” she says. “It’s important for people, whether they have hanai, [birth] or adoptive children, to think of these children as temporary gifts in their life, not as possessions.”
How do we, the church, draw from the roots of our communities and, particularly in Hawaii, from the traditions that teach about children as the greatest gifts—as both pua (flowers) and mamo (descendants)—and that they do not belong to us individually but communally? How do we see all children of the islands, no matter their status, background, or religion, as part of the ʻohana of the church?
We live in a time that is revealing much about society’s brokenness and our challenges. But it is also a time when people of faith can attend to what else God is revealing. What I see, at PSR and elsewhere, in my children and others, is God’s remarkable action in a new generation. That brings me hope.
We serve a God who is faithful from generation to generation. We must at this time not give up but think about how we will transfer our faith in word and action as we care for all the children around us and reorient ourselves to a preferential option for this emerging, diverse generation. By the help of God, we come alive anew in our children.