Wild Lectionary: Agency, Age, and Attentiveness to Power

Photo from Salal and Cedar

Proper 16 C
Jeremiah 1:4-10

By Rachael Bullock

The word of the Lord came to me, saying,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”
“Alas, Sovereign Lord,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.”

But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord.

Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”

For the past three summers, I have had the privilege of working for Sacred Earth Camp, an intergenerational program based out of unceded Coast Salish Territories. The camp aims to teach youth about environmental justice, Indigenous resistance, and sustainable changemaking. Each year, I am deeply encouraged by the different characteristics of participants: fiery indignation at injustice, deep concern with climate crisis, and dry commentary accompanied by sharp political and introspective analysis. Imperfect as we are, I am also encouraged by camper and staff willingness to learn about perspectives beyond their own, to reflect critically on their own attitudes and behaviours, and to consider why and how their experiences differ from others.

These are all qualities I look for in people exercising leadership skills. However, young people’s thoughts and feelings are often overlooked, undermined, or included as a token without being given meaningful weight or consideration. While age certainly brings with it more experience, it does not necessarily bring wisdom, nor does a lack of life experience preclude insight. If we wish to live in a world where everyone’s lived experiences, autonomy, and wishes are respected, it follows that respect ought also to be extended to those without privileges granted to adults.

There are various consequences of relying on an authoritarian, top-down model which assumes that 1. young people do not know enough to be taken seriously, and 2. they need to be “kept under control” until they reach the magical age of adulthood. A few major concerns that come to mind:

  • By lumping young people together, we generalize and fail to offer care that is appropriate, assuming needs instead of getting to know and listening to individuals.
  • By telling young people what to think and do instead of including them in conversation, we undermine young people’s feelings and intuition, which in turn discourages critical thinking, emotional intelligence, and introspection.
  • By enforcing lower standards of behaviour for adults than children, we communicate that there are different standards for older and physically stronger people, which means that younger, smaller people can be treated with less respect and bodily autonomy. We teach that there are contexts in which their agency matters less.

In sum, failing to recognize young people as already being full, autonomous persons provides a poor foundation for youth to take initiative, assert themselves when they feel uncomfortable, and speak up against unjust authority. All of these are things that those who seek to adhere to “Christian values” should be concerned with, as an integrated expression of faith requires coming alongside the most vulnerable in society. In no uncertain terms, Biblical accounts show that children are consistently attended to and cared for by the Creator. We risk participating in the dehumanization of children when we do not see and respect the image of God in all people, regardless of age or social standing.

We further risk finding ourselves aligned with exploitative and oppressive forces when we refuse to hear prophetic voices in all the forms (and ages) they appear. Younger people are generally granted less influence and power, even when they have keen insights and are most impacted by the decisions being made. (Issues of climate crisis, school policies, and educational curriculum come to mind.) This is not to romanticize the voice of younger people as inherently revolutionary or prophetic. This is also not to disregard familial and social roles which vary by culture or to suggest any one absolute “correct” way of relating to children and youth. Rather, it is a reminder to recognize and respond to truth when it is spoken, regardless of who it comes from, and especially if it comes from those marginalized and overlooked by the powerful.

When adults disregard people who are younger simply on the basis of age, it becomes easier to disregard the “childlike.” In turn, this perpetuates condescension of those who are perceived or caricatured as “childlike,” where the term is defined as less capable or “properly” “adult.” The colonial tool of infantilization loses its edge as a weapon in the grip of racism, sexism, classism, and other forms of violence when people of all ages are recognized as bearing the image of the Creator, respected for their varied knowledge and convictions. Any time one group claims to know what is best for another without listening to and being in relationship with the other, it should send up a red flag and a prompt a visit through recent history.

One of the things I like most about Sacred Earth Camp is that we strive to foster an environment where all people are honoured as co-conspirators, trusted to make decisions best for themselves, and included in planning which concerns them. Imperfect as camp is, we seek to hold each other accountable to the standards which are collectively agreed upon. It seems critical that this applies to staff and participants alike, as adequately respecting young people requires also holding adults accountable for their actions. We must expect similar levels of effort to act with kindness and humility from older folks as is often expected in younger people. If younger people are expected to take responsibility for their actions, apologize, and grow, then they must be afforded the same dignities and see it modelled by adults in their life.

Turning 18, 19, or 21 does not arbitrarily provide all the skills for “adulting” (alas), and so responsibilities and relational capacities must have room to develop. If we want people to mature into responsible, respectful, and adaptable adults, then it is the role of older folks to carve out and give up space for this to be practiced. Some significant ways I’ve seen this enacted (at camp and elsewhere) involve providing younger people with responsibility and mentorship, giving and expecting respect, and allowing for autonomous decision making and experiential learning within safe limits.

I am not suggesting that we trust unqualified children to be rocket scientists. However, I would also not suggest trusting unqualified adults to be rocket scientists. The point is that attending to people as capable, autonomous beings wired for relationships at all ages allows for meaningful intergenerational relationships to develop, knowledge to be transmitted, and new perspectives to be fostered. Though the process is imperfect, as we heal and grow, the gift of holistic respect paves the way for open communication, healthy boundary setting, and relationships free of coercion. When young people are taught to honour their own agency and authority as well as others’, the entire community benefits.


Ma Hua (or Rachael Bullock) is a migrant and settler of mixed ancestry living on the unceded, occupied, traditional, and ancestral territory of Coast Salish peoples. Recently, she has been contemplating how many well-intentioned folks who are part of Christian churches + co. have embodied authoritarian approaches, with deeply destructive results. She is very appreciative of people who are doing work to unlearn old patterns and move towards more just, collaborative paradigms. On this subject, Rachael recommends checking out the Parenting Forward conference happening online in September (whether you’re a parent or not). 

Wild Lectionary is a weekly blog on ecological justice themes in the revised common lectionary, curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territory.


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