The signature gifts that young people offer their communities vary greatly, but typically include a keen sense for justice, beauty, physical prowess, intellectual curiosity, camaraderie, idealism, and hope. While contemporary structures that contain young people sometimes marginalize youth and obscure their gifts, historically the spirited gifts of young people have served their communities and the public good.
GIFTS OF YOUTH ENERGIZED BY THE SPIRIT
Throughout history young people have accepted roles in shaping a better world-including participation in every major justice movement, labor movement, civil rights movement, and environmental movement in modern history-as well as the various contemporary antiwar, antisweatshop, and antiglobalization movements. Before the middle of the 19th century, many young people engaged in serious work, held significant social roles, and contributed to social equilibrium. Prior to the 20th century, young people were anything but passive commodity consumers or recipients of education, roles to which they are now largely relegated. For example, David Farragut, the U.S. Navy's first admiral, had his first commission as a midshipman at age 10, and his first command of a vessel at age 12. Thomas Edison ran his own printing business at age 12. The men who won the American Revolution were barely out of high school- Alexander Hamilton was 20, Aaron Burr, 21, and Lafayette, 19. What amounted to a college class rose up and struck down the British Empire. In France, Delacroix's painting of the French Revolution, Lady Liberty Leads the People, depicts Lady Liberty leading the people into freedom-herself led along by young people. French young people were among those who in 1789 fomented revolution in Paris cafes and died in numbers on the barricades, with cries of "liberty, fraternity, and equality," and marched alongside their elders in the early industrial era demanding lower bread prices and higher wages. The power of these young people to change the world included a keen social awareness and ability to comprehend and construct some of the most sophisticated political documents in history. Because the social roles embraced by youth engaged their signature gifts-of seeking justice, social renewal, beauty, and creativity-medieval myths also identified youth with spring, Easter, and the spirited rebirth of life.
In more recent times, young poets, musicians, and activists of the 1960s, like their premodern counterparts, broke open social codes that validated racism, sexism, militarism, and classism. Youthful revolutionaries and poets throughout history have held a sense of passion, curiosity, adventure, and creativity. And when the Spirit energizes these signature gifts of youth, they advance God's Kingdom of justice and joy. Christian spirituality at its best is not a device for alienating young people from themselves, but a resource for awakening the unique vocation and gifts of youth as youth. As Catholic mystic Thomas Merton insists, "[W]e give glory to God by living into God's purpose for creation." As observed by developmental theorist Erik Erikson, adolescence has its own virtue, and its own natural energy and telos apart from its trajectory toward adulthood. And when young people are empowered through spiritual practices to fully employ these gifts and to organize them around the Spirit's purpose of love, God is glorified and human life is vitalized.