The term youth violence refers to when young people aged 10–24 years intentionally use physical force or power to threaten or harm others. The World Health Organization has described this behavior as “violence between individuals who are unrelated, and who may or may not know each other, generally taking place outside the home.” Youth violence typically involves youth perpetrating violence against other young people. A young person can be involved with youth violence as a victim, an offender, or a witness. Youth violence can take different forms, such as fighting, bullying, threats with weapons, and gang-related violence. These different forms of youth violence can vary in where and how often they occur and who is impacted. They can also vary in the harm that results and can include physical harm, such as injuries or death as well as psychological harm.
Every time a young person is harmed by violence, our nation’s future strength and growth are jeopardized. We are losing our next generation of young people—our future community builders and leaders—to homicide at an alarming rate. Beyond premature death, youth violence causes emotional, academic, and physical scars that limit young people’s potential independence, growth, and success. When the opportunities of our young people are curtailed by youth violence, we all suffer the negative and long-lasting consequences
Violence among youth in the United States has reached critical mass. More specifically, the African American community is disproportionately affected by violence and crime. A Center for Disease Control (CDC) report confirmed that homicide was the second leading cause of death for individuals between the ages of 10 to 24. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency prevention, African American youth account for a significant number of youth in the Unites States arrested and prosecuted for violent offenses.
In Matthew 5:44-45, Jesus seeks to break the cycle of violence by advancing the characteristics of a new love ethic; a love ethic that captures an essence of righteousness that embraces the personhood of “the other” amidst strife and derision. The type of radical love Jesus describes in verses 44 and 45 requires an evolved interpretation of the Law. In verse 44, Jesus commissions his audience, comprised of his disciples first, and then the larger crowd, to not only love your enemies, but to also pray for those who persecute you. Jesus commends that love be extended to all individuals irrespective of differences in class, gender, race, clan, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religious affiliation. Jesus presents an alternative way of being in community that is simple yet challenging. He calls for his audience to relinquish the steadfast, divisive ethos of their society in order to embrace a distinct way of living in a community that encourages wholeness and values those that are characterized as other.
The power associated with valuing the other increases and also diminishes in light of youth violence in contemporary society. Youth violence happens as a result of an absence of love between youth in diverse communities, and this lack of love is taught to youth by adults in so many arenas. Once youth are taught to classify the “enemy,” this voids the weight of harm enacted towards the other. Furthermore, after the violence has been committed, it cripples the capacity of the community as a whole to propagate love towards one another. In short, violence begets violence and paralyzes the capacity to love.
Teaching children non violence is easier than teaching adults. However, children must be taught love of the other at a young age, and this message must be reiterated again and again in one venue after another, as this message will always have to compete with messages of hate and distrust of the other from media. Specifically for youths, the problem has reached epidemic proportions. This means that we must be much more intentional about teaching love to children before they become teens. The Church can be much more proactive in sermons and church programs and in partnerships with parents, schools, and social service agencies in lessening youth violence. Too few in number are the churches that intentionally promote nonviolence
There are many professionals whose work is peacemaking, and we need to pray for them and support them. Law enforcement, criminal justice, educators, mental health professionals, and many others. Safety and security in a community comes from a network of collaborators. We will never eliminate violence, but we can lessen it.
What is the impetus that is motivating Jesus to command this new love ethic? He confirms that we must embrace this radical form of love as a path towards our rightful position as God’s children (v. 45). We are to love our neighbors and our enemies precisely because that is how God loves. Verse 45 states that God makes the “sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” God’s indiscriminate love for God’s creation is our example. As children of God, we are called to emulate the characteristics of the Creator in our thoughts, words, and actions.
Our God is a God of action. God did not teach love of the other as some abstract concept and expect the world to catch the vision. Instead God acted. Loving us enough to send us a Savior for our redemption in spite of our constant inhumane acts one to another, God continues to extend mercy to us when our acts and thoughts of violence merit justice. This is our clarion call to give what we have received. So, whether as young adults, parents, pastors, teachers, elders in the village, members of the media, athletes, or blue-collar or white-collar professionals, it’s our time to stand up in our corners of the world and help stop the violence. This is our day. This day we get to decide what will we do with intentionality from this point forward to be part of the Jesus army that saves children from being instruments of violence?