The Clash of Generations and the Spirit of Holy Week
In 1996, Samuel P. Huntington published his work The Clash of Civilizations, an assessment of the post-War order, and famously predicted: “In the emerging era, clashes of civilizations are the greatest threat to world peace, and an international order based on civilizations is the surest safeguard against world war.”1
Huntington’s prediction may hold true, and in many ways has proven prescient, but economists and historians have recently begun speaking of a more pressing issue than Huntington’s clash of civilizations or Marx’s clash of classes. We are now witnessing a clash of generations.2 On the side of the youngsters, much of their angst and all-around disdain for the past (and allegedly archaic viewpoints) can be witnessed in the seemingly nationwide campus unrest. And in perhaps the most blatant affront to aging generations is the growing support for physicians assisted suicide and euthanasia.
On the side of those more senior in years there is a decades-long disregard for posterity, as exemplified by the reckless spending, abuse of so-called entitlements, and increased debt at the hands of the baby boomer generation. “Never in the history of intergenerational transfers has one generation left such a mountain of IOUs to another as the baby boomers are leaving to their grandchildren,” observed Niall Ferguson. The enthusiasm for limiting entitlements during the Reagan years was itself limited to the periphery, and its application to future generations. In short, the externalities of the predominant political convictions of the eighties were to be accounted for by future generations.
This can even be seen in the approach to the environment over the past several decades. “The real cause of the environmental problems we face is not so much large private enterprises or the pursuit of profit or even capitalism as such. It is the habit we all have of externalizing our costs,” says Roger Scruton. Yet, reckless consumerist behavior “goes ahead because it is something that people want, and the cost can be easily externalized onto other generations or people in other parts of the world.”
The old don’t want to concern themselves with the needs of their progeny, and the young don’t want to bother themselves with learning the lessons of their ancestry.
But the antipathy between the generations has a way of coming full circle. Millennials aren’t getting married and aren’t having children, perhaps because of their own less-than-favorable familial experiences. At first brush, this trend may seem to evade pain and suffering, broken relationships, etc. One cannot lose what one never had and all that. But there are future repercussions of a different nature. As a recent article in The Guardian asked, “If you have no children, who will care for you when you’re old?” People are already dying alone at increasing rates, and loneliness in general has become a spotlight health concern. The problems can at least in part be traced to the breakdown of families and intergenerational relations.
In our hyper-politicized, pseudo-Marxist culture these trends are not confined to private life but must receive political and social justification. That which is rebelled against must be discredited and detested on all fronts. Thus, the past and the old are being cast aside as bigoted and outdated by one camp in the generational clash. Militant youth activism (which demands radical political correctness) is the order of the day from campus protests (e.g. students versus Charles Murray, John C. Calhoun, or whomever) to the #MarchForOurLives movement (e.g. youth versus the NRA, old conservative politicians, etc.).
To my surprise, I found Pope Francis’s Palm Sunday address to evince this generational conflict dynamic. On a more spiritual level, the Pontiff’s message struck me as divisive, and antithetical to the spirit of Holy Week. In his address, the Pope, who has said often that he wants a “church with a young face,”, remarked that, “the temptation to silence young people has always existed. . . There are many ways to silence young people and make them invisible. Many ways to anesthetize them, to make them keep quiet, ask nothing, question nothing. There are many ways to sedate them, to keep them from getting involved, to make their dreams flat and dreary, petty and plaintive.” But he told youth “you have it in you to shout. . . It is up to you not to keep quiet,” he continued. “Even if others keep quiet, if we older people and leaders, some corrupt, keep quiet, if the whole world keeps quiet and loses its joy, I ask you: Will you cry out?”
The statement was most directly about the #MarchForOurLives demonstration that had occurred the day before, but in a way, it conformed, perhaps unintentionally, to the spirit of the age: the elevation of emotions over reasoned discourse, the subjective over the objective, self-indulgence over self-sacrifice, and a disregard for the past that epitomizes the outrage culture, with its selective tolerance and (ironically) fleeting empathy. It intentionally glorified the unchecked emotionalism of the youth, and devalued any urgings to pump the brakes that might arise from the elderly. And it did nothing to unite the competing interests of the generations in conflict. It is strange to hear the leader of an institution that celebrates its historical rootedness harping on the supposed oppression of the older class against the young. At the most basic level, the Pope’s message furthers the youth culture’s current mission of eradicating any institutional memory by demonizing those who provide such as necessarily oppressive.
The Meaning of History
To understand and appreciate history is to value the future and make sense of the present. It is not to reduplicate the past, it is to learn from it. Henry Kissinger has said that history “can illuminate the consequences of actions in comparable situations.” But to accomplish this, “each generation must discover for itself what situations are in fact comparable.”
Philadelphia Archbishop Chaput recently wrote in First Things, “A fine line exists between self-confidence and self-delusion. Sanity involves seeing the difference. An adult knows his skills and takes pride in his talents. He also has the common sense to admit his weaknesses, and the prudence to respect his own limitations and the experience and abilities of others. Striking this balance is a key to the good life—the life that increases the happiness and well-being not only of oneself, but of others.”
The result of the disregard for history, and those who deliver it to posterity, is a shift from self-confidence to self-delusion, the inability to understand the present or chart a course forward; the unwillingness to recognize the limitations of present generations and failure to appreciate the abilities of others who have gone before. As Winston Churchill once observed, “the longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.” We are witnessing self-delusion, an ill-conceived moral superiority, and arrogant self-sufficiency in our culture today (partially) as a result of the generational clash.
Looking to the Church
Sadly, Christianity is not immune from this clash, much to its shame. Given that the Church is full of human beings, this is not surprising. Cultural engagement and ministry strategies are hot button issues. The recent debates within the Southern Baptist Convention over Calvinism can also be framed as generational struggle.
Ironically, there are also generational clashes within the Church because of a resurgence of (older) tradition among young Christians (especially Catholics and Anglicans) in reaction to what they see as the commercialized and doctrinally sloppy practices of the previous generation. Like most self-professed traditionalists, the new, young traditionalists have rejected their father’s expressions of faith and embraced their grandfather’s, much to the dismay of their fathers. In this facet of the generational conflict “young traditionalists are competing against old progressives.” As Matthew Schmitz, put it, “the kids are old rite,” which shows that much of what is labeled (by Pope Francis and others) as “what the young people want” is actually just a hold-over of the rebellious, deconstructionist liberalism of the older generation improperly transposed onto the next generation. Understandably then, some (but by no means all) of the disruptive behavior of the present generation is an overreaction to the sense that they have been denied their full inheritance. Where the old progressives exhibit optimism and freedom, young traditionalists see only moral chaos and a demystified spirituality. Instead, the kids want the stability provided by traditional practices and the transcendence provided by traditional belief.
These conflicts, not only between the present (living) generations themselves, but also between the present generations and past (dead) generations, has no place in the Church and is altogether antithetical to the spirit and significance of Holy Week.
On Passover and Holy Week
To understand the significance of Holy Week, one must understand the significance of both the Lord’s Supper and its predecessor, Passover. Christians often speak of Holy Communion as being the union of believers both past and present, joining together in worship and the reception of Christ’s benefits.
Passover, as a celebratory and reflective ritual, was established after God rescued Israel from Egyptian tyranny. Following the first nine plagues, to which Pharaoh did not yield to Moses’ demands (Ex. 7:14–10:29), God sent the final plague, in which the firstborn were killed by the death angel (Ex. 11:1–10). The blood of the Passover lamb, spread over their doorposts, protected the Israelites from this plague, causing the angel of the Lord to spare their respective households (Ex. 12:7-13). This ritual marked the Israelites out as God’s people.
Pharaoh then temporarily relented and granted the Israelites leave to exit the country, providing a short window of time to escape before Pharaoh launched a last-ditch effort to stop the Israelites. Thus, the “feast” of the Israelites had to be eaten in haste and somewhat on the go, as it were. Hence the unleavened bread. There was no time for the dough to rise (Deut. 16:3).
The blood of the lamb marked out Israel as God’s elect nation, and the meal signified and celebrated their liberation from bondage. The nature of the hurried meal was a response to the work of God done, but also looked forward to a future day when the Lord would save his people from eternal judgment; a time when the threat of slavery and destruction would be a distant memory and they would walk and wander no more.
Holy Week is an extension of, and progression from, Passover. It celebrates the last week of Jesus’ life (prior to resurrection), beginning with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (John 12:13), through Maundy Thursday (derived from John 13:34), Good Friday, and culminating in the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. It marks the end of the self-denial of Lent, traverses through a time of self-reflection and sorrow over sin, and the suffering of the Final Lamb, passing from death into life on the basis of the blood of the Savior.
The parallels between Holy Week and Passover are evident. The Lord’s Supper as well, is derived from the Passover feast celebrated by Christ and his disciples, at which point it took on greater meaning, no longer being merely a remembrance feast (yet, certainly no less than such), but a real means of grace wherein Christ is feasted upon.
This occurs in every observance of the Communion, but it takes on special significance in the context of Holy Week. It is a time of deep reflection on, and appreciation for, the past and the future. By the blood of Christ and his righteousness imputed to us, we pass from death into life everlasting. This is the subjective, personal side of this reflection in which we think on Christ’s atonement applied to us as an individual. But there must also be a reflection on the life of the Church, the body of Christ, as a whole. Christ did not come to provide a sentimental, abstract idea for the comfort of individuals, but to establish a new people, of which we are a part. Thus, we must reflect on history, not only on our lives prior to the reception of grace, when we were dead in our trespasses, but also on the life of Christ’s body, brought out of bondage and founded as a new nation, a chosen people (1 Peter 2:9).
This project—if we can call it that—of Christ is necessarily intergenerational, continuing throughout the ages. We live at a mere moment within the life of the whole. How are we to reflect on the full life of this collective life and people if we occupy but piece of it ourselves? We must be told of it by others. We need others to supply institutional memory so that a course forward can be charted. To appreciate the newness of life gifted to us in Christ, and the future life we will enjoy in him and in communion with all the saints for all time, we must have an appreciation of where and what we have been brought from. To robustly experience, and have confidence in, the blessed faithfulness of Christ to his people, we must receive an account of past promises fulfilled, past faithfulness exhibited, and the future blessings promised. We cannot do this without a prior generation to tell of the great works of God in and through his people; past generations have a duty not to withhold such joyous news from their children.
This pattern is given to us in Scripture: “And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.’” And the people bowed their heads and worshiped.” (Ex. 12:26-27). Joshua 4:21-24 provides a similar exhortation, adding that this recounting of the history of God’s dealings with his people is done “So that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, that you may fear the Lord your God forever.”
Similarly, Paul instructs Timothy to “Hold on to the pattern of sound teaching you have heard from me, with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us.” (2 Tim. 1:14). It appears from the combination of Exodus, Joshua, and 2 Timothy that the Church has no inherent value in the present outside of this duty to guard the teaching it received from the past generation, in order to pass it on to the next generation untainted.3
It is essential to the worship of the Church that the past be remembered and considered. Otherwise, it will be lost on us that we are saved from God’s wrath by God himself. We will forget the righteous character of our Creator, who, despite our sin, mercifully chooses to redeem his people. Without this practice, present generations will slip into self-delusion and a crisis of identity and purpose, something which already plagues the culture writ large. They will fail to see themselves properly as heirs of promise.
Likewise, the prior generation cannot accurately reflect on their own past, nor look to the future with quiet confidence and relish its prospects, if they do not look on the future generations who will occupy it with love and care. A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. (Eccl. 1:4). To quote Henry Kissinger again, “The present, while never repeating the past exactly, must inevitably resemble it. Hence, so must the future.”
Both generations must be present and active in our Churches during Holy Week for full reflection to take place, commensurate joy to be expressed, and a coherent story of the Church be told. The Church was established as an intergenerational organism, not to be reinvented wholesale according the the whims and particular concerns of each generation in isolation. The young must not be despised because of their youth (1 Tim. 4:12), but they must also heed the wisdom of the past, lest they stray from the narrow path (Matt. 7:14).
We often speak of racial, socioeconomic, or doctrinal divisions within the Church. But the greater threat to the inner health of the Church is generational conflict. Yet, abandoning the model set down by Christ himself (e.g. the emergent church movement) is not the answer. We must not become generationally segregated for the sake of avoiding conflict. As the truism goes, peace is not the mere absence of war. Rather, the intergenerational model of the Church must be more fully embraced and practiced.
While I hold to many of the doctrinal convictions and general sentiments of the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement, more caution needs to be inserted into those championing its cause, especially regarding its rebuke of the largely evangelical, baby boomer generation. A useful hindsight view can only be so when it considers the past in toto. In short, members of the YRR could do with a more Reformed-minded approach to church relations. In executing his revamp of church worship, Martin Luther was very conscious of the older generation. While he was eager to institute a vernacular mass and the singing of hymns, he was slow and prudent in doing so, as to not alienate the older members of the newly Lutheran parishes. Acting too fast would be a shock to the system of medieval Catholics, and would unnecessarily risk losing them. Instead, he waited at least five years (after hatching the idea) before introducing his worship reforms, so that the elderly could be brought along in due course to sharing his convictions. This is highly instructive for the present generational conflict as it relates to interchurch relations today.
I do not aim to provide a firm solution for, nor make light of, the clash of generations within the Church, which we are witnessing today. I only hope to have offered caution and reflection (to all of us experiencing this clash) in relation to Holy Week. To conclude—and borrow from Huntington, who found civilization to be both the problem and the answer—the clash of generations is the greatest threat to both civic and ecclesiastical (and familial) peace, and an order (Church) based on generations (plural) is the surest safeguard against self-destruction.
(2) See generally Matthew Shaffer, “Ages Apart,” National Review (June 2, 2011), available at https://www.nationalreview.com/magazine/2011/06/02/ages-apart/.
(3) See Carl Trueman on this point in his lecture, “Why All Christians Should Be Interested in Church History,” available at https://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=3261715165.