This past weekend approximately 800,000 people attended the “March for Our Lives” student protest in Washington D.C., calling for tighter gun restrictions. The protest, which some estimate is the largest single-day gathering at the capitol in American history, was inspired and led by student survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida.
The role of young people in leading this change has sparked strong reactions in the media. On The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon praised the students’ activism saying “They’re speaking out with more guts, passion, conviction and common sense than most adults. It’s beyond impressive. They’re angry and doing something about it. This is a real revolution.”
President Donald Trump praised the students’ message, listing a number of actions the White House is taking in response to the shooting, and concluding “We applaud the many courageous young Americans exercising their First Amendment rights.”
However, in a video released by the National Rifle Association two days before the event, gun rights activist Colion Noir criticized the student protests saying “You want to save innocent lives? Take the millions of dollars going to this carnival of a march and hire armed guards in schools all over this country. But then these kids would have to shrink from the spotlight and go back to their homework. And the forces funding them, would lose the opportunity to further an agenda that’s a million times bigger than the guns.”
The day following the student protests former Senator Rick Santorum implied on CNN that students should be responsible for their own actions rather than expecting “phony gun laws” to change things. Santorum suggested the students should take personal steps such as practicing responding to a shooter or learning CPR.
“They didn’t take action to say, ‘How do I, as an individual, deal with this problem? How am I going to do something about stopping bullying within my own community? What am I going to do to actually help respond to a shooter?’” Santorum said. “Those are the kind of things where you can take it internally, and say, ‘Here’s how I’m going to deal with this. Here’s how I’m going to help the situation,’ instead of going and protesting and saying, ‘Oh, someone else needs to pass a law to protect me.’”
The Church’s Role in Shaping Student Activism
The passionate, and at times vitriolic, response to the student protesters is something young voices have to take seriously, says Jay Watts from the Life Training Institute. In a roundtable interview ChurchLeaders conducted with youth pastors from a variety of evangelical perspectives, Watts said that students who are passionate about change have to realize that change will happen slowly, and with intense opposition.
“Just because you were shot at, just because you’re young, does not mean that they are not going to argue with you. A great deal of that opposition will not be charitable. Some people will be respectful. Some people will dialogue with them. Some people are just going to come with hate, right out of the gates. I have very real concerns, as a Christian, and as a man who’s looking after children and young people, and deals with them a lot, to help them get ready for the difference between the passion that is driving you out right now, and the resolve and grit that you need to … get something done over a long term. It takes a long time to do important things.”
Pope Francis’ Palm Sunday Homily Calls Students to Speak Out
Regardless of how churches feel about specific issues like gun regulations, the larger point is young people need wise voices encouraging them to speak out, and helping them do so wisely. On the same day as the March for Our Lives protest, Pope Francis was modelling how the church can empower the next generation at the Vatican.
The Catholic church invited 300 young people from around the globe to attend a weekend conference where they were encouraged to give blunt feedback on how the Catholic Church could better reach the next generation.
In his Palm Sunday homily the following day, Pope Francis spoke directly to young people, telling them “There are many ways to silence young people and make them invisible,” Francis said. “Dear young people, you have it in you to shout … 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?”