BY DR DAVID SMITH
The very last verse in the Old Testament predicts that when a prophet comes to announce the arrival of the ‘great and dreadful day of the Lord’, he will ‘turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers’ (Malachi 4:6). Centuries later, the evangelist Luke began writing his gospel and recorded that an angel had appeared to the father of John the Baptist with the astounding message that his son would become a prophet, anointed with ‘the spirit and power of Elijah’ and would ‘turn the hearts of the fathers to their children’ (Luke 1:17).
We are used to thinking of the gospel as a message of reconciliation, overcoming the barriers and divisions of culture, race and class and creating a new community united through the healing power of the cross. In the first century the great division which concerned the disciples of Christ was that between Jews and Gentiles, and the letter to the Ephesians celebrates the power of the cross which is able to remove the dividing wall between these ethnic and religious identities and ‘in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross’ (Ephesians 2:16). However, there are other divisions within human society which may easily be overlooked, yet can be at least as significant as those which have ethnicity, class, or religion as their source. At the present time, perhaps the most pervasive and urgent of these tensions is what we have been used to call the generation gap.
The twenty first century is witnessing an explosion in the numbers of young people growing up with high expectations of change in the conditions of life which their parents and grand-parents took for granted and assumed were likely to be unchanging. An Indian writer, Snigdha Poonam, recently published a book with the title, Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing The World, in which he says that half the population of the sub-continent, more than 600 million people, are under the age of 25. Mind-blowing statistics like these can easily be paralleled elsewhere across the majority world and just walking the streets of cities like Lahore, Bangkok, Shanghai or Lagos, the youthfulness of the crowds encountered on the pavements is immediately striking.
Yet, what future is there for this generation? Millions of young people have access to education which comes with the promise of a different kind of future, only to discover that the reality of their situations is often bleak. In India in 2016 more than 1.5 million people applied for 1,500 jobs with a state-owned bank; more than 9 million took entrance exams for less than 1,000 vacancies on the railways; and 19,000 applied for 114 jobs as municipal street sweepers! Little wonder then that Pankaj Mishra has warned of a rising tide of frustration and anger among the young, making them vulnerable to political demagogues who prey upon their disappointments for their own ends.
What about the generation gap in the West? Here young and old seem increasingly to exist in different worlds, one of which is virtual, the other solid and time-bound. How do we cross that gap? Those promises in Malachi and Luke suddenly seem to be really significant, reminding us that the healing power of Christ relates to the tensions and alienation that can exist across the generations. Where the healing power of Jesus Christ is at work, old people will love and encourage the young, rejoicing in their zest for life and affirming their hopes and dreams, while the young will recognise and treasure the wisdom that comes with life-experience and be grateful for the knowledge left to them by parents and earlier generations stretching back into the mists of time.
A final point: sometimes the generation gap is also a faith gap; children turn away from the deeply held beliefs of their parents. Where this happens the promise of Malachi has to be read in the light of the extraordinary image of the ‘waiting father’ in Luke 15. If Christian parents need help in knowing how to relate to children who have rejected their faith, let them reflect on the example of God himself who granted freedom for the exploration of the far country, and whose love remained undimmed and was expressed in the uncritical embrace of the returning son.