False Gifts for a Starving World

Young adults are notorious for giving their hearts to whatever zealotry is fashionable in their generation. Any parent, teacher, or just plain curmudgeon will readily bemoan the fact; after all, one of the great consolations of middle age is ritual lamentation over the foolishness of youth. Certainly our present day youth – my students, my offspring, the children of my friends, those hooligans loitering outside the vape shop on the corner – offer an easy target for this time-honored tradition. We want their enthusiasm for the blandishments of identity politics, for critical race theory, for mass-media induced hysteria to be blameworthy.  We want it to be wrong-headed, a deficit on their part, a symptom of shallow hearts and muddled minds. But allow me to propose this shocking counter-thesis: those young hooligans actually have it right. 

Or rather, they are right about what they want. They’re just looking for it in the wrong places – and those wrong places are so entrancing because they consistently mimic the real and life-giving sources of those same things. Don’t misunderstand: what our radicalized, media-hypnotized youth want are not the mere abstractions of justice, or compassion, or even safety – no matter what the slogans on their crop-top shirts say. Abstractions get stale after a while, and they have an annoying habit of hovering perpetually over the horizon. Moving targets are frustrating that way. No – what our popular ideologies offer is far more concrete, something that nourishes and binds the soul to itself, day after day. What our youth are longing for – and have found, and are flocking to receive –are pseudo-sacraments.  

For instance, consider the liberating initiation offered by identity politics. The question, “What do you identify as?” opens the door to new life; the human self, hitherto floundering in the textureless void of modern suburbia, is simultaneously given individuality and membership in the Body, meaning the collective of those who “identify” the same way. This “body” is almost always understood as a participation in victimhood of some kind; thus, identification within the group empowers, defines, and connects one to a kind of cosmic “suffering” which our post-Christian culture still dimly remembers as important for salvation.  The moment when a young person comes to this realization about her true identity has the same emotional resonance as being “born again” – is it any wonder teens, students, and much older people alike ‘go down to the river’ in droves? They are seeking baptism; the tragedy is not that they seek, but that they do not know what they are truly looking for. 

The attraction of these “false Gifts” is pervasive; students at the non-denominational Christian school where I teach are no more immune to it than their secular counterparts. I often wonder why. Perhaps, as Arthur Miller said of the Puritans in his play The Crucible, “they had no ritual for the washing away of sin.” Absolution, a treasure largely neglected by the American church and ironically revived within the context of Critical Theory, sounds a powerful siren call to the souls of the lost. Humans must grapple with sin; we must be freed of its fatal burden. To admit that one is part of the oppressor, that one is oppression, that one’s whole mind and heart are corrupted by power, and then to be able to root out and expurgate this original sin through ideological re-programming – well, that is repentance and forgiveness indeed. “We have sinned in thought, word, and deed, in what we have done and what we have failed to do”; every human heart knows this hidden and ugly truth. Embracing CRT provides an avenue of repentance and forgiveness; cancel culture even allows us a system of public penance. After all, toppling statues is an act of piety on par with that of medieval pilgrims and flagellant monks – it presupposes a looming purgatory for the un-woke. Thus, it is the tatters of real conscience that drive our young people into the Marxist confessional – we should not blame them for desiring to be cleansed. We should instead be asking, why have they not heard the Name in which all real forgiveness is given?

The most recent iteration of these “bogus sacraments” is to be found in the quasi-liturgical hype surrounding the COVID-19 vaccination campaign. Preceded by the Lenten fast of extended lockdowns, what should have remained a matter of expedience and personal prudence was – via the ceaseless doxology sung by our media – suddenly elevated to the status of a false eucharist. If this claim seems extreme, consider the odd reverence paid to the act of “getting the jab.” In the public mind, an experimental inoculation technique has been transformed into a mystical Gift. This Gift – bestowed on mankind by its elite technicians – is nothing less than a real and corporal communion. We receive it in the body; in point if fact, in the blood.  It is indeed one cup of immunity that we bless, and we do it all together, as the ad campaigns will not let us forget. What benefit does this blessed communion provide us? Why, it is the very medicine of immortality (forgive me, Ignatius of Antioch)! It is that by which we have life within us and hope for the world to come- otherwise known as the “new normal.” It is, of course, received by a sort of faith, since skepticism is forbidden and questions about efficacy are to be left to the expert priestly caste. And in a very obvious sense, it is the visible sign of membership in the body of the faithful. If you doubt the last bit, try suggesting to your neighbor or employer that you will not be partaking. Excommunication, of course, results in shunning by the world at large. I’ll leave it to you, gentle reader, to decide precisely what Lord instituted this strange Supper. My point here is that our youth and older folk alike yearn – without realizing it –  for something far better than such earthly tables can provide. Before we scoff or condemn, we must wonder why they are so starved for true sustenance. 

The point of all these reflections is suggest that the foolishness of the contemporary world might not be so foolish. The social justice warriors, the teenager who belongs to the newest obscure identity group, the fanatic who demands vaccine passports at the restaurant door: these are all impoverished children of God, orphans like every one of us born on earth, all equally in need of the same undeserved grace, the same unexpected Gifts. The things the hooligans want are not so very strange; they are simply fractured and distorted images of the true forgiveness, the true life without which we are all dead and dying already. They can teach us, in their youthful and foolish zealotry, what it is to hunger and thirst; and if we dare to say we love our neighbor, we will heed the lesson – and pray that someday every one of them will stop starving on empty images and be fed on Truth instead.