Media, government leaders, and adults have all expressed a great deal of frustration with the young people’s lack of compliance to social distancing during the Coronavirus Crisis. States shut down their beaches after pictures surfaced of college-age spring-breakers flooding the coastline in full violation of social distancing recommendations. Government leaders, healthcare authorities, media outlets, and the President of the United States himself have warned and implored young people to obey the quarantine regulations, if not for themselves, then for the sake of the vulnerable. Many in the media have expressed outrage that many (if not most) young people have completely ignored the mandates.
My question for is this: why are you surprised by their defiance? After all, they are being faithful followers of the prevailing pop-religion, “You Do You,” fed to them frequently through various media and institutions. With all authenticity, they are being “true to themselves.” They embody the sacred maxim, YOLO – You Only Live Once.
“You Do You” combines radical individualism with moral relativism. This pop religion involves each person developing and dictating his or her own ethical framework with individual happiness comprising the highest aim. After the these individual determinations, “being true to yourself” constitutes the real measure of virtue.
To the extent that this incoherent moral system considers others, the primary rule involves supporting and enabling other people to be true to themselves. Whether that involves sexuality, gender, or other forms of self-expression, the primary responsibility of mankind and deepest promotion of human flourishing means affirming every person’s pursuit of authenticity. Intolerance — or not affirming another person’s self-engineered norms for ethics and self-expression — remains the carnal sin of the pop religion. You simply cannot resort to moral absolutes, whereby you tell a person what to do or suggest that their standards of self-expression may be harmful to themselves or society.
Now we have a healthcare crisis on our hands, which requires virtually every citizen to think collectively. Even if we are young and healthy, we all absolutely must quarantine. We have to put the needs of the elderly, the immunocompromised, the diabetics, and those with respiratory conditions above our personal freedoms and wants. We must die to a “me first” individualism and comply for the greater good. Lives are at stake.
Many young people, however, mainly those out from under parental supervision, just don’t seem to get it. They just don’t seem to care. They will not comply.
Given all of the aforementioned reasons, nobody should be surprised. They’re just doing what they’ve been trained to do.
Christian Failure in Teaching the Law
It could be easy to dismiss the hyper-individualism and moral relativism as a purely secular issue and act as if Christianity has moral high ground. Unfortunately, the current of ethical individualism has a strong influence on Christians, both in evangelical and progressive camps.
In one sense, I have seen just how powerful the individualistic mentality is among the students I serve. Even my most mature students struggle to accept and comply with God’s law if it conflicts with their preferences. Some of this is a reflection of the fact that, as sinners, self-rule and self-determination constitute the fabric of our sinful nature. I have observed, though, that the cultural messaging has greatly influenced my students and reinforced their natural tendencies.
At the same time, the way that we teach God’s law to young people plays a role in this. We tend to teach kids “right and wrong” in abstraction. By this I mean that we present the rules and communicate that good Christians follow the rules. The broader context, in which God presents his law, is for the flourishing of the individual but also (and mainly) for the greater good of communities. The summary of the law, which is to love God and love thy neighbor, aims to promote loving relationships and a harmonious society.
Biblical ethics have a collective mindset of “we are all in this life together.” Particularly in evangelical corners, in which I reside, we fail to convey this corporate fabric of the law. In youth ministry historically, moral teaching can sometimes feel like individual achievement for kids. Resisting sin and obeying certain boundaries can feel like wins and losses. Consequently, Christian kids can inherit a self-focused or non-corporate mentality toward ethics and morality.
Furthermore, very often we neglect biblical mandates for social justice, which inherently communicate that we are, in fact, our brother’s keeper. The Bible abounds with ethical obligations to the poor, disenfranchised, and vulnerable. When we forsake this part of the Bible, we miss a great opportunity to demonstrate the community orientation of God’s law.
The Lessons to Learn in Leading Our Kids
The Coronavirus Crisis creates an opportunity for our education on biblical ethics for our kids. Here are three steps I recommend taking:
(1) Point out the intellectual incoherence and pragmatic unworkability of moral relativism and “you do you” ethics.
We should never demean people; ideas, however, are fair game. Moral relativism is philosophically asinine and intellectually bankrupt. It sounds very appealing at the fleshly level, but objective reasoning demonstrates that moral relativism taken to its furthest extent ends in self-destruction, self-absorption, and anarchy.
The Coronavirus Crisis exposes the glaring inadequacies of the “You Do You” mentality. As Michael Kruger wrote in a must-read article,
“The virus will be curbed when people embody a spirit of self-sacrifice. A posture of self-denial. We must limit our travel, limit our social contact, even limit our “fun” so that the virus won’t spread. And that requires a worldview that gives us a reason to deny ourselves. A reason to think of others. In other words, we need a worldview that is about more than us. In short, “You do you” won’t work.”
Take advantage of this moment to point out how the “you do you” ethic has no power to help and no defense against selfish, destructive behavior that neglects the greater good.
(2) Start teaching biblical ethics to kids with the greater good in mind.
As children grow up, we need to connect constantly God’s law to the greater good. The law intends to create shalom: peaceful, harmonious relationship between God, self, others, and the created world. We do not violate God’s law in a vacuum. Sin’s consequences carry into society in one way or another, regardless of what we may think. When a person looks at porn, they are not just sinning in a private manner. They are impacting the way they view and objectify other people. They are propping up human trafficking and exploitation, the bedrocks of the porn industry.
Not only do we teach morality through a corporate lens, we remain faithful to the biblical mandates for social justice. When we instruct about care for the poor, compassion for immigrants, and defense of the weak, we implicitly teach the interdependence of ethics and our relationship to society.
(3) Show that God’s love for mankind and the world underlies ethics.
Our resistance to ethical action reflects a lack of trust in authorities, namely God. When the now infamous spring-breaker said, “If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day, I’m not going to let it stop me from partying,” his statements reflected mistrust. The authorities are against me and my desire to have fun. All sin contains a belief that God is against us and is holding out on us.
We should show kids that God gave us his law because he loves us and wants the best for us. Furthermore, God not only desires the best for us as individuals, he desires the best for all of society. God desires shalom, flourishing, and wholeness for the whole world.
Let’s tell kids that our obedience to God’s law through the power of the Holy Spirit and out of faith in his grace are a part of something bigger: that obedience is part of God blessing and redeeming the world.