One of the realities of the 2016 election is the participation of millennials- the 18 to 35 age group. This is most apparent in the crowds that are responding to the anti-establishment message of Senator Bernie Sanders. Their enthusiasm is expressed in the slogan “Feel the Bern?”
Poll after poll shows that the message of Sanders is resonating among the young. I think the percent among the Democrats voting for the Vermont senator in New Hampshire was something like 70%. Even a higher percentage in Alaska and Washington. It is surprising to see millennials get turned on by politics. They’ve sure got turned off to religion like no other age cohort before them. So why, when they have abandoned many institutions are they getting excited about politics?
What draws them to the message of Sanders? What makes them feel a burn? Is it not that his message speaks of the high expenses of the young as they seek a higher education? Yes, of course, the young who desire an education hear something that strikes their own self-interest, making it affordable for them to get the education they desire. Are they not drawn to his plan for a national medical health system which would insure their need were covered? Yes, certainly. But is not their idealism captured? The idea that everyone in our country can be assured of a medical plan for all that would eliminate one major reason for people filing bankruptcy over the high costs of medical care? Just like in every other industrialized country?
But from what I read, their enthusiasm for Bernie’s message goes beyond his support of the issues that affect them. And I believe the reason they are turning out in high numbers for him is not just “feeling the Bern” but feeling a yearn. A yearn for a nation in which the economy is not just tilted toward the rich. A yearn for a nation in which the rich use their money by buying political influence to make them more money. A yearn for a nation in which a justice system is, well, just. Where the color of one’s skin does not make a difference in how law enforcement treats one or how the courts decide a case.
Before it begins to seem that I am just talking about politics, let me shift the gears here. An older friend has just died. He was a Christian minister. His death made me remember when I was young and he was the speaker at a Church summer camp. At the end of the week I had decided to change the course of my life. I no longer wanted to be an engineer or an architect. I wanted to be a minister. I wanted to be like the camp preacher. I “felt the yearn”. I didn’t want to build better houses. I wanted to build a better world. A world in which the way of Jesus would be the blueprint. I still had the teen-agers love of self. But I was captured by the vision of a world in which all of us who loved ourselves would be stretched beyond to love God and love others. A vision of a world in which “Thy will would be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Decades later I still have a yearning for the winsome (and awesome) message of Jesus- not just to love my neighbor but to love my enemies. Just the other day on Facebook was that ideal stated ironically “It’s strange that when I ask Jesus to come into my life he insists on bringing his friends along.” This is what draws me to my current project called Dinner Church.
Dinner Church for me combines a methodology in which the human hunger for food is paired with the original message and way of operating of the Church in its earliest meetings. For recent Biblical scholarship has unearthed the fact that when the church first met, it met around the dinner table- the Greco-Roman banquet. And the reason for gathering was trying to get a handle on how to live in the Roman Empire, which was economically exploitative, politically dominating, and in which religion undergirded the dominating, exploitative system.
Sound familiar? Yes, it was there long before Bernie: the rich, the money changers, the religious functionaries that gave support to the status quo. He reminds me of my time in seminary and of studying the Hebrew prophets as they railed against the idolatries of their time: power, wealth, privilege.
It is no surprise that these same millennials have left the church. It is no wonder that they want to be ‘spiritual not religious’. The largest denomination today in America is ‘none of the above.’
Of course, some people may say that not all of them are religious. But Paul Tillich in the mid twentieth century would have said they were. He would have said they were looking for Ultimate Reality. In my terms they don’t just ‘Feel the Bern’, they ‘Feel the Yearn’. Another theologian, St Augustine, phrased it “You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.”
Don’t knock hunger as a motive to gather people together. Especially if you’ve never really experienced hunger. I remember a religious community told those gathered to eat that food that it reminded us of our contingency: if we don’t keep eating, some day we just won’t show up at the table.
Now the act of gathering to eat can be exploited, like everything else. One can become more interested what you eat than who you are to eat with. Churches can be gourmet churches, made up of those who like the kind of things we like.
There were more than Christians gathering to eat in the Roman Empire. You could tell the difference. One of the ways was that these meals or banquets were used generally to confirm the class status of the diners. You weren’t invited to the meals of your betters and you sure as heck wouldn’t lower yourself to eat with those beneath you.
But Christians were different. Jesus had made them different by what he had taught and lived. He would eat with anyone- sinners, tax collectors. You name it: he did it. That got him in trouble with the powers that be; messing with the socio-economic system. They didn’t have the term Socialist then. So they called him subversive, seditious and took care of him. After all, he kept talking about what he called the Kingdom, the rule of God, not the Roman Empire.
Against the other groups that gathered for meals, whether they were the elite or the slave, the Christian community saw all people as Children of God and included them at the table.
It is just possible that the Dinner Church might help millennials, as well as other ages, ‘Feel the Yearn’. Try it and see.
“My soul thirsts for the living God.” “Give us today the bread we need.”