Gen Z and the thirst for justice

May 14, 2023 8:00 am

The original stone sculpture honoring Justitia, the female champion of justice brandishing sword and scales, was reproduced in bronze in 1887 and stands in front of city hall in Frankfurt, Germany. The Fountain of Justice played an important role at coronation ceremonies. (Photo by Werner Schnell/Getty Images)

Several of my media ethics students have used a religious phrase in a secular manner, apparently uncertain of its source: “a thirst for justice.”

It appears in the Gospel of Matthew (5:3-10), commonly known as the Beatitudes, a series of blessings by Jesus of Nazareth during his Sermon on the Mount, a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee in what is now northern Israel. The blessings are revered not only for their hopeful message but also for their eloquent poetry, probably cast in that mode to be remembered.

Jesus recites those blessings in two stanzas, each 36 words as translated in Greek, with the first four lines depicting human suffering and the second, heavenly virtues:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall possess the earth.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be consoled.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

Blessed are those who endure persecution for the sake of justice, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The fourth line about justice has endured in memory for millennia because it relates to everyday bodily feelings essential to life: hunger and thirst.

As such, they are universal.

Bishop Patricia Lull, Saint Paul Area Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is cheered when people live out a thirst and hunger for justice “as a deep expression of their faith life.” Such individuals claim in their vocation the blessing described by Jesus in Matthew 5:6.

“Here,” she says, “righteousness means justice and right relationship with God and with neighbors.”

The Theology of Work affirms that vocation:

“What does it mean to hunger and thirst for justice? The Greek word translated here as ‘justice’ is dikaiosune, a term that refers to personal righteousness as well as to social justice. Those who hunger and thirst for dikaiosune have a deep yearning for things to be right in their individual lives and in society.”

That describes what is happening within Gen Z — the generation born during the late 1990s and early 2000s.

My students say they “thirst for justice” in response to violence and unfairness in news reports, especially concerning school shootings, hate crimes and economic inequities.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation, concerned about the well-being of children, states that Gen Z members “tend to be more open-minded, liberal leaning and actively engaged in advocating for the fair and equal treatment of others.” Their core values include health care, mental health, higher education, economic security, civic engagement, racial equity, and the environment.

They are vocal about justice, to such extent that U.S. businesses now cater to that attribute. Forbes magazine notes that Gen-Z is the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in U.S. history. “Unsurprisingly, most young people demand equal access to opportunities and social justice”—so much so, that many “will only work and buy from brands that contribute to a more inclusive world.”

I see that impulse in my students who compose personal ethics codes aligned with firms that share their beliefs.

But why the “thirst”?

As part of ethics education, we ask students to feel rather than think about ethics, from the gut punch of manipulation and push-pull of temptation to the eyerolls of hyperbole and heartthrobs of gratitude.

Thirst is an pesky sensation, described by neuroscience as “a slight itch in the back of your throat, a distracting urge to turn away from whatever you’re doing and find something to drink.” When students feel that itch, they take out phones and scour news sites in an oft-futile search to find justice or, at the very least, justification for current social ills.

What happens to the body when a thirsty person cannot find water? Blood pressure and heart rate change, triggering confusion. That is what Gen Z might feel in their quest to address sorrows of the human condition.

And that leads us back to the Beatitudes, which provides answers: empathy for the poor, compassion for the powerless, consolation for suffering, mercy for wrongs, purity for rights, prayers for peace, and justice for all.

Politicians regularly advocate for the 10 Commandments of the Old Testament to be posted in public classrooms. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1980 that this violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment regarding separation of church and state. Nevertheless, the Texas State Senate recently passed a similar bill about posting the commandments in classrooms, perhaps testing the current makeup of the high court.

How would the justices react if there was a bill to post the Beatitudes of the New Testament in public classrooms? Many Gen Z members might approve.

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Michael Bugeja
Michael Bugeja

Michael Bugeja is the author of "Living Media Ethics" (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) and "Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine" (Oxford Univ. Press). He is a regular contributor to Iowa Capital Dispatch and is writing a series of columns on the topic of "Living Ethics." Views expressed here are his own.