When I grew up, persecution was a dark and powerful force--the frightening oppression of a group of people whose origins, race, class system, or religion were systematically abused by those in power.
But today if you’re an American teenager, you can easily own a share of such suffering.
We know that the narrative of suffering is one of literature’s most enduring archetypes. Nearly every fairy tale or legend has at its core an element of persecution. Whether it’s Cinderella herself, rapper Eminem, or the narrator in Dave Pelzer’s bestseller A Child Called It, the suffering narrative speaks to teenagers in particular because, by comparison, they probably feel relieved to know that their own lives are not as lousy they thought.
Lately, however, the suffering narrative has become a slick marketing campaign for everything from LGBT power to a cheaply made T-shirt. Apparently, whatever you want to sell to teenagers, especially an ideology, is best sold when it’s shrink wrapped in persecution.
I have three teenagers in my own house, and I hang out with 150 more every day. As I’ve come to know, the intensity of their transition from child to adult allows them to feel more deeply than the average adult. Their lives are a rotating pattern of love-fear-hope (that, quite frankly, often depends upon how they answer the question: “Who’s your daddy?”)The teenagers I know are suspicious of over-achievers, jealous of the beautiful, scared of total losers, but sympathetic toward the marginalized. We want you to be popular, but not too much; if you don’t suffer like we do, we might not like you anymore.
Marketers have seized this opportunity and some of them aren’t selling products, but ideas. Shows like Glee create entire campaigns around persecution (think Slushie in the face). The idea that we should love and accept everyone is an unarguable narrative, so producers are keen to the idea of bundling their own ideology with softer products. To feel compassion for the plight of a paraplegic must be the same as showing compassion for a drag queen, right? Aren’t they all the same?
The nuances of life are lost on some teenagers. Sad things out of their control (divorced parents, a health crisis, poverty) get bundled together with sad things in their control (sexual irresponsibility, self-destruction, rebellion) until pretty soon all victims are identical, all choices given a “You go, girl” fist bump. We seem to be afraid to tell our children that some persecution is indulgent--just a cheap way to legitimize our choices. Lady Gaga knows the secret formula. She has made millions from her fans (“Little Monsters” she calls them) by becoming a power symbol for “self-professed freaks of the universe” (her words). When she sings “I was born this way,” she’s not just championing her sexual orientation, but creating an entire industry that elevates suffering over wholeness. When kids hear break-up songs like “Jar of Hearts,” they rally around each other’s pain, but rarely reconsider the stupidity that might have led them to sleeping with a loser in the first place. When my low-achieving students show me their trump card (“You don’t get it--my life sucks”), should I write a celebration song for them? Or should I instead give them tools to get out from under the persecution?
There are a few variations of the theme. Disney teen star Demi Lovato has recently faced a personal crisis in her own life. Rather than dealing with her eating disorders in privacy and retreat, her handlers rushed to produce a beautiful-but-premature single entitled “Skyscraper” which tells girls everywhere that it is only others’ abuse that makes her fragile; inside she’s really just a “skyscraper” ready to rise to the sky in defiance.
The restoration narrative is a good one, for Lovato is deserving of beauty and compassion. But how does a girl become a “skyscraper”? Does she do it by rising above her circumstances with raw self-esteem and magical powers? Does she do it by giving the finger to all her detractors? Does she do it by using her fame-money to pay for the best therapy? The goosebumps an average girl feels when she hears the song might be real, but the emotion has nowhere to land.
As a believer in the life-changing power of Jesus Christ, I want to tell my children that our weaknesses, not our strengths, are precisely what God redeems. If I’m already a skyscraper, what do I need of you? What do I need of God?
If you know a teenager, remind him that persecution itself is not what gives way to strength. The competition for “most-persecuted” might sell a lot of products--and a lot of ideas--but by itself suffering does not make something good. Faith, hope, and love drive our Savior’s redemption. He is looking to restore his children to health and wholeness, not celebrate their persecution. And guess what? It won’t even cost them their allowance.