The name John Walker Lindh has become a household word as we watch an American tried for crimes against the United States during a time of war.
Most of us know that Lindh was captured in December during the war against terrorism in Afghanistan. He was an American who embraced Islam and moved to Yemen, then Afghanistan, where he apparently befriended the Taliban way of life and became a supporter of an oppressive regime. Reports stated that Lindh was an "impressionable" young man who had simply been "misled."
Perhaps you felt as confused as I was when I heard this news. How could a young man from an upper class and educated family adopt a lifestyle that seemed to be the opposite of what we strive for in the United States? With interest I listened to Lindh's father as he spoke on several news programs. He talked about his son's spiritual search and how he had supported his son's decision to assume a Middle Eastern identity on his quest for meaning in life.
I do not know the details of this young man's upbringing. I do not know what he was taught or not taught in relation to God or religion in his home. I'm led to believe he was brought up in an open and tolerant atmosphere, yet one in which there was no allegiance or participation in any expression of any faith, Christian or otherwise.
Parents' roles: What I do know, however, is that young people are desperate to find meaning and purpose in their lives. Our young people need something to believe in. If they cannot find direction and guidance among their most important relationships -- parents -- they will search for it elsewhere. That search takes some young people to questionable and potentially dangerous places.
I have heard parents say, "We aren't bringing our children up in any certain religion; we'll just let them choose for themselves." Studies show that when these children grow up, they "choose" to have no faith tradition at all; their "choice" is not to become a part of any specific faith community.
Religious expression -- worship, service and fellowship -- becomes abstract; more to be observed and discarded than to be taken seriously and considered a resource.
But life has a funny way of forcing us to ask some hard questions. Questions like: "Is there a personal God, and does he care about me?" Life events move us to wonder about God in the face of evil and suffering. With so much leisure time and money, our children wonder, "What is truly important in this life? Is the pursuit of my own happiness all there is? Is the point of life to be entertained? Is winning the lottery the ultimate goal?"
Important gift: Parents do not realize what a treasure it is to pass on and nurture the values taught and respected in a faith community. The religious education of our children is a privilege that we naturally take for granted in a country where so many opportunities exist. The most important gift a parent can give to his or her child is a life of faith, nurtured in a community of friends who offer support and guidance.
Letting children "decide for themselves" is something I call a spiritual cop-out that leads to confusion. We must acknowledge the significance of the spiritual nurture and education of our children and take it seriously, involving them in opportunities to know more about the God who created them, loves them and has a purpose for their lives. If we do not, they will search for that life-giving knowledge elsewhere.
XThe Rev. Kathryn T. Adams is director of Protestant Campus Ministry at Youngstown State University.