Having spent my career ministering to young people in the juvenile correctional facilities of San Diego, I’ve noticed that a lot of people think education is important to having young people change their lives. If we can just teach the kids more about drugs and alcohol, if they know more about safe sex, if we can help them with their anger problems, and if they can gain a better self-worth, that’s going to be a turning point in their life to help them move forward. I agree with all of that in one sense, that all of that is important, but I’m not certain that any of those issues by themselves are going to be a major change factor for the young people.
Education does not make a person better, it simply makes him or smarter. We have a lot of young people with some very serious problems in our institution who were well educated on the issues. More information is not always the solution. What troubles me is when I see the Christian community employing some of those methods. Some people who come in to minister to kids think that what the young people need is a better understanding of the Bible. So they engage the kids in reading the Bible, maybe some additional books they’ll bring with them. I’m not sure that imparting of a correct knowledge of the Bible, for some people it’s making sure they have the right theology, is going to result in correct behavior.
The truth is, we have plenty of young people in juvenile hall who understand the Bible quite well, who have grown up in the Church and have read deeply of the Bible and other religious books, but for whose behavior has not changed significantly. It takes far more than a biblical education to help someone change their life.
The Carthaginian king, Hannibal, in 2018 B.C., stood atop the lofty Col de Traversette pass in the Alps, looking down upon the Roman army waiting in the flat below. That was the empire he had come to destroy. Inflamed with hatred, he drove his decimated army down the mountainside. Before his quest for glory could be accomplished, one last obstacle stood in his path. An enormous rock stook wedged into the valley floor, preventing his passage. Attempts to crack the rock with picks and hammers had failed. They tried sacrifices and incantations, which had a similar result.
Desperate, impatient, Hannibal finally cried out, “Burn it.” To his exhausted troops, that irrational command was madness, but they didn’t argue. A large pyre was built under the rock and lit afire. The flames crept up the rock sides until finally, unable to withstand the heat, a deafening crack resounded down the valley and that supposedly impenetrable rock split in two. As Hannibal sent his army down into the valley, they engaged the Roman army and defeated them. Hannibal went on to almost destroy the Roman Empire.
Education by itself can be a pick and hammer approach to improving the quality of lives for young people. That’s as true for the Church as it is for any educational discipline. There was a young man in juvenile hall, to whom I spent a great deal of time working with. He was a very serious offender, a very damaged young man, and he was facing some serious charges. All I can say is all the time I put into him, and it had been quality time and a lot of time, there’d been no significant change in behavior or in attitude.
One day, he called me into his room. We sat down, he looked me in the eye, and he says, “You know, when you come in here I can feel God’s presence.” Knowing his attitude towards God, knowing his hostility towards religion, that was a huge crack that I felt had cracked his heart open. The roar of that crack to me was deafening.
The touch of God can be powerful and leave an imprint on a person that’ll last for the rest of their life. In some cases, the crack may be imperceptible and it takes time for it to spread and expand, until it’s achieved its purpose. Other times, the crack can be loud, direct, and bring about immediate change. I spent my earlier years trying to use a pick and shovel. Now, I just gather firewood. Hannibal was correct. Rocks can burn.