Millennials and Global Justice: The New Optimistic Activism

I come from a church tradition established most notably by a man who founded a journal called The Millennial Harbinger. Alexander Campbell was a postmillennialist–he believed that Christ would return after a thousand year utopian period. Moreover, he believed that he was part of ushering in this “millennium.” Commentary abounds on the these heady Enlightenment days, when optimism prevailed, and the perfection of human society seemed immanent and inevitable. Like all of us, Campbell was a product of his culture.

Campbell’s chief Restorationist coconspirator, Barton Stone, held a far more pessimistic view (often called “apocalyptic”). In the spirit of the prophets who decried the world-destroying juggernaut that is human evil, Stone had no expectation that humans would progress morally or socially. Society was hopeless unless God would interrupt history to set things right.

I don’t know precisely what Campbell had in mind for the future. It probably didn’t include the horrific wars that ensued after his death and ultimately broke the optimistic spirit of Enlightenment cultures. Safe to say, he probably didn’t imagine the current decline of Western Christianity, though he might have dreamed of the current rise of global Christianity. And the technological revolution has not only outstripped the wildest dreams of the industrial revolution’s pioneers but has given rise to an unprecedented kind of globalization. The world has changed. It is neither a Christian utopia nor a downward spiral of degeneration. But it is very different. In a variety of ways, Christians are still choosing between these two broad streams of optimism and pessimism.

These thoughts come to mind at the intersection of my current reading. Amid preparations for a Missio Dei issue on globalization, I’m also slowly reading Tom and Jess Rainer’s The Millennials. The present globalization is really about the nature of global human society at the dawn of the new millennium. The Millennials are the first generation of this new era. Of course, Campbell didn’t have the calendar millennium in mind per se. Still, I can’t help but think of his hopes as I survey the trends of the globalized world and the outlook of many Millennial Christians. To be clear, I’m not talking about a particular eschatology here; I’m talking about a new Christian optimism and the new global context in which it exists.

So far, The Millennials has demonstrated some interesting characteristics among my peers. The Rainers define Millennials as those born between 1980 and 2000, though other demographers adopt different ranges. 1982-2001 is an influential one. Either way, I (b. 1982) am on the front edge of this generation, so I’m looking at our characteristics form the inside. On a personal note, though, my mother was born at the end of the Silent Generation, whereas most Millennials are characterized by the influence of their Baby Boomer parents. I’ve noted differences as I read.

In any event, one of the most interesting hallmarks of the Millennials is the strong, pervasive belief that we can change the world for the better. We are confident that we are truly capable of tackling the world’s problems and prevailing. We look for ways to integrate this sense of purpose in our lives and careers. Consider the following extended excerpt:

One of the most amazing responses in our study was to a simple statement: “I believe I can do something great.” First, the number of respondents who agreed is amazing. About 60 percent agreed strongly and another 36 percent agreed somewhat. Of course, that’s almost every respondent, 96 percent in total!

But the data based response needs unpacking. As much as the number is incredible in its sheer magnitude, the voices behind the numbers were even more telling. This is where the subjective responses in our study were extremely helpful. Millennials do not, as a generation, define greatness in the same way others may perceive it. When Tom was growing up as a Boomer in Alabama, he and his peers defined greatness in terms of fame, wealth, and personal power.

But Jess did not have that same perspective as a Millennial growing up in Louisville, Kentucky. He had great hope for greatness as did his Boomer predecessors, but the hope was not locked into the achievement of great wealth, fame, or power alone. Instead, if a Millennial does achieve wealth, fame, or power, it is a means to a greater good than an end in an of itself.

Sharon reflects this sentiment well. She was born in 1984 and has experienced early success as a registered nurse. She is continuing her education toward a doctorate so she can train other nurses in a university. “I have a good income,” she began, “and this is not unimportant to me. I want to be financially successful. At least I want to be financially stable. I certainly have seen what can happen when you’re not financially prepared for personal or economic crises. I mean, look how many people got wiped out in the Great Recession.”

She continued her point. “But my desire for a good income is so I don’t get sidetracked on my greater goals. I became a nurse because I really like helping people. It’s good money, but there are better paying jobs out there. I then decided to pursue my doctorate because I saw the nursing shortage might become a big issue as the Boomers become senior adults. I want to be able to be part of the training of the upcoming generation of nurses. That’s how I want to make a difference.”

Sharon also mentioned that nursing as a profession has a great opportunity to be on the scene when global tragedies strike. “When the Haiti earthquakes happened in early 2010, I was prepared to go,” she explained. “I took two weeks vacation, and my employer was gracious enough to give me one extra week of paid leave. Those three weeks in Haiti were life changing for me. That’s what I mean when I say I want to be great. I want to do something that makes a difference. I am doing something that makes a difference.”

Sharon’s attitude is pervasive among the Millennials. A significant majority of this generation was raised to be hopeful. . . .

Thus we have a generation of optimists unlike the Gen X members before them. The Millennials tend to be upbeat, positive, and happy. But they are realists as well. They know that not all is well with the world. The Boomer Generation knew that and protested it. The Gen X Generation knew that and was depressed about it. And the Millennials know that, but they believe they can have a role in changing it. (16-18)

In an article on The Next Wave, Palmer Chinchen labeled Millennials as “Generation Justice.” Writing of evangelical Millennials, he sees this concern for making a difference in a suffering world as their standout quality. “Generation Justice,” he contends, “has taken to heart Jesus’ kingom-cry to feed the hungry, give clean water to the thirsty, put clothes on the naked . . . , and care for the sick—and end the pandemics.” Chinchen’s observations are a poignant description of a generation whose concern for serving the world is an increasingly dominant trait.

Interestingly, though, the motivation behind this tendency remains ambiguous. The Rainers surveyed a representative American sample group—meaning hardly even religious, much less evangelical. Yet, the great expectations of social activism are present. Among evangelicals, says Chinchen, it’s “Jesus’ kingdom-cry.” Clearly, among Christians, there is more than one force at work upon Millennials pulling them toward an optimistic, activist disposition.

Before suggesting some of those possible forces, I note that this commonality irrespective of religion is a very good thing. As Tom Krattenmaker recently suggested in a USA Today article, social activism provides a common platform for bridging one of America’s deepest cultural rifts. Many evangelical Millennnials are prepared to seek common good with any fellow do-gooder.

So what contributes to this phenomenon? The Rainers attribute the generation’s optimism primarily to their parents instilling hope and a belief that they can do and be anything. That’s not an incredible claim, but I don’t find it to have quite enough explanatory power. What we are talking about is an emerging American worldview. What else has shaped it?

Some, no doubt, will point out the youth of the Millennials and suggest that what we are dealing with is naivete and idealism, soon to be stripped. Yet, whatever frustrations the Millennials’ philanthropic ambitions meet, the uniquely benevolent drive is undeniable. Moreover, the expectation of success thrives despite a far keener awareness of poverty and desperation in the majority world than ever before. And notably, 9/11—a defining moment for this generation—and the ensuing “war on terror” has done nothing to curb their optimism.

This is where my globalization studies come in. I think that the Millennials’ resilient optimistic worldview can be chalked up, to a great extent, to a literally new world. The globalized world, and particularly the technology that has enabled globalization in the postmodern sense, has convinced my generation that possibilities for human progress are as infinite as the digital worldscapes many of them have created and inhabited. The rate and scope of change we have grown to take for granted is the reality we assume. Change and progress is not only possible. It is seemingly natural. It is simply the world we know.

Ours is not merely an era of technological advancement, akin to every era of technological advancement. It is an era of exponential growth, in which paradigm shifts have become typical.

Technological Paradigm Shifts: The Rise of Digital

These shifts are not unprecedented. And they are not truly diverse, because they all revolve around the same kinds of technology. But I believe the speed and breadth of sustained change has profoundly affected the way my generation sees the world.

The shift from the gramophone (vinyl) record (ca. 1880s-1970s) to the battle between the eight-track and the cassette tape just predates the Millennials. No sooner had the cassette won the day than the digital revolution began. Millennials have grown up alongside the CD, then the digital file and the Napster controversy, and finally the rise of iTunes. All of this involved not only a change in format, but also a shift to no physical medium and a whole new discussion about the economics of the music industry and copyright law.

Similarly, magnetic video tape was a major development in the 1950s. But Millennials have witnessed the move to DVDs and, again, to iTunes and, of course, YouTube. Not only the user end of video technology changed. Digital video also made every personal computer into a studio. Expression and creativity have exploded as a result. (I might have made similar comments about audio technology, but YouTube is evidence that society has a high tolerance for all kinds of video quality, whereas music still demands artistic sensibility and talent.)

I note briefly the equally colossal move from film photography to digital cameras. I will look more at the digital camera evolution below.

One final example is the transition from telephones to cell phones to the iPhone and its competition.

It virtually goes without saying that all of this is profoundly connected to the rise of the personal computer. The Millennials were the first generation born into a world where the PC was a given. The year I was born, 1982, Time named The Computer as Machine of the Year.

But the truly game-changing phenomenon of the Millennial generation flowered in the mid-90s: the Internet. The Web changed everything. Virtual reality became our new reality. Millennials can’t imagine the world without the Internet and all that it implies. We see everything in terms of its connectivity, its plurality and relativity, and its efficiency.

Probably much like the children of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, Millennials know only a world where massive swaths of their culture change for the productive and efficient on a regular basis. Change, progress, innovation, flexibility, and adaptability: these are norms for the Millennials. Stability, consistency, tradition, and predictability are not.

Yet, it is not merely the normativeness of technological and cultural transformation that shapes Millennials. It is also, and perhaps more importantly, the speed at which the technology evolves. If the optimism of Millennials is rooted in anything, it may be the exponential rate of change coded into their world. Some examples:

Millennials are the video game generation. The iconic Nintendo Entertainment System hit the shelves in 1985, when I was three. It was an 8-bit system. The Nintendo 64, a 64-bit system, debuted in 1995. In the course of 10 years, the game console’s CPU capacity had doubled every 3.3 years on average. These numbers are impressive and certainly exponential. But consider what lies underneath them. From Wikipedia: “There are . . . 256 . . . possible values for 8 bits.” “A 64-bit register can store . . . 18 446 744 073 709 551 616 different values.”

Or consider the digital camera. “In 1991, Kodak brought to market the Kodak DCS-100, the beginning of a long line of professional Kodak DCS SLR cameras that were based in part on film bodies, often Nikons. It used a 1.3 megapixel sensor and was priced at $13,000” (Wikipedia). Today, 20 years later, professional-grade digital cameras are taking pictures upwards of 24 megapixels. That is, the resolution—and therefore the visual quality—of digital pictures has doubled at a rate of slightly less than once every five years.

Another easily observable example is the storage capacity of PCs. “The IBM PC/XT in 1983 included an internal standard 10MB hard disk drive” (Wikipedia). The laptop I’m typing on has a 750 gigabyte hard drive, but terabyte drives are common. In my lifetime, the storage capacity on a personal computer has increased by a multiple of 100,000. That is astounding. I would expect nothing less.

A final example (and there are many, many more) is one of the most important among my peers: Internet connection speed. In high school, the infamous 56k dialup modem was our pathway to the Web. Today in Peru, a majority world country, I will post this article via a 4mbps connection—over 71 times faster than my stateside connection 12 years ago. Of course, most states in the US average between a 6 and a 10mbps connection. 10mbps is 178 times faster than 56kbps. Then there are the business connection packages of, say, 100mpbs. You get the idea. At this point, things only seem to be escalating.

The point of these simple observations is to draw out the implications for Millennials’ worldview. In every one of these examples, the proof is in the pudding. Graphics improve drastically. Gameplay transforms by leaps and bounds. The movement of information and media excellerates seemingly without brakes. And this is the world we’ve known from day one. Moreover, my specific examples aside, it is virtually impossible to find an aspect of life the technology doesn’t touch. I really do not find it surprising that Millennials have such an optimistic outlook, because our existence has been tinged with unyielding, apparently limitless progress, and it has formed some of our foundational, unconscious assumptions. If we had a mantra, it might be “It just keeps getting better.”

This is why I think many Millennials look at Tahrir Square with something like satisfaction rather than surprise. While much of the media, mainly represented by older generations, was flabbergasted by the impact of social media on a momentous democratic revolution, I suspect many Millennials saw events unfold and thought, “That figures.” It was a confirmation of the reality they already live. That socio-political situation is extremely complex, sure. But if people plug in with good intentions, communicate and share, act innovatively and get outside the box—then good things are bound to happen. I’m not saying this isn’t simplistic. And I’m not trying to make sweeping generalizations. I’m just saying I think it’s the lenses through which many of us Millennials perceive the world. It’s why we’re so sure we can change the world: because the world changes, fast.

Finally, the idea that we can change the world often refers specifically to the many poor segments of the world. Those segments are usually distant both spatially and culturally. Yet, Millennials feels more empowered to make a difference than ever before. This is due in some measure to greater ease of travel, and it will remain the case as long as no more planes fly into skyscrapers and the US economy doesn’t evaporate. Far more important, though, is the connection and impact the Internet makes possible. The problems of struggling nations and people groups are no longer as distant and overwhelming as they once seemed to the individual. For example, a solitary person with only $25 dollars can personally impact a struggling entrepreneur across the globe through initiatives like Kiva or the ministry that I work with, CUDA. We can change the world, because the whole world is only a few clicks away.

Christian Millennials

Now as for Christian Millennials (referring broadly to evangelicals/conservatives, but specifically post-conservative/emergent/missional types), there is another set of issues. In fact, I hope there is a significantly different worldview, in the sense that the biblical narrative intends to transform all our worldviews. I expect the general contours remain the same. Yet, there are some important theological developments compelling certain Christian Millennials further into an optimistic activism.

Foremost is the increasingly popular conception of the kingdom of God. Krattenmaker says it well:

What these younger evangelicals mean by “kingdom” is not a Christian conquest of America as the ranks of the wary might fear, but the divine ideal of something closer to heaven here on earth a world in which the most vulnerable are protected and the poorest are fed and clothed.

Likewise, in the context of a globalized world, the kingdom is not confused with American cultural imperialism or a political power play by the church. Although there is undoubtedly confusion about what exactly this “divine ideal” will be or how to get there—and some problematic elements will get mixed in along the way—the intention is not anything akin to historical colonial missions or the Religious Right. It is a fresh look at Jesus’ message and the way his particular lifestyle and teaching is in fact the path to the kingdom.

And maybe this is about eschatology after all; just not pre- and post-millennialism. Rather, it is about the extent to which the kingdom has come and extent to which the church can bring it in. Whatever the answers to those questions, the Millennial Christians described here are committed to working toward it and participating in it one way or another.

I also note that many evangelicals are moving beyond the predominant but distorted “grace alone” teaching. I haven’t seen any indication that Millennials are trying to “earn their salvation.” But many seem to be recognizing that the overdone anti-works polemic ended up undermining the biblical imperative to do good works and be kingdom people. Millennial Christians may still humbly believe they are not “good enough” to save themselves, but they realize that they are good enough to effect real, lasting good in the world. This is connected with a resurgence of a creational theology that recognizes the image of God as a powerful reality, and a pneumatology that recognizes present transformation into Christlikeness to be that reality’s vindication.

If Chinchen is right about “Generation Justice,” then it is worthwhile to note “justice” and “righteousness” are the same word in the NT. We may not have “works righteousness,” but we’re not going to be shy about working justice as Jesus taught us to do. There is a pessimism inherent to the old “grace alone” teaching. It is a low view of humanity, and not without reason. The corollary is that an optimism shines through the new emphasis. To put it bluntly, our works, done in Jesus’ way, are truly righteous and precisely what God wants.

Two Big Problems, Briefly Stated

It’s not clear just how much faith Christian Millennials are putting in the technology and in the free market capitalism that is globalized through it. Perhaps far too much.

It may also be that Christian Millennials have an over-realized eschatology. That is, they may be too ambitious, too arrogant, in their presumption about “building” or “demonstrating” the kingdom. As usual, hubris may be the Achilles Heel of this new optimism.

Your thoughts?

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