In a large, open classroom, high school students make their way among stations representing different governmental or corporate services. They engage with the bureaucrats working at each site -- an education office, an employment office, a bank, a real estate office, a marketplace selling furniture, clothing or cars.

Some stand in long lines or sit in waiting areas, filling out long and confusing forms or idling, bored, until a bureaucrat calls them forward. A few students wander aimlessly, unable to gain entry to any of the offices. Others sit, furious, in the penned-off area labeled “County Jail,” temporarily pulled away from the activity of their peers.

As students, visibly frustrated, start to disengage or disrupt the flow of the movement, we call time. We’ve just played the Game of Life in our three-week summer youth academy, the Youth Theological Initiative, or YTI.

Established in 1993 at Candler School of Theology at Emory University with a grant from Lilly Endowment Inc., YTI is an intensive residential summer program for high school youth. Participants come from around the world and across a diverse range of theological, denominational, ethnic, racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. One of our commitments is to cultivate public theologians -- that is, people of faith who can connect what they believe with what they see and understand to be going on in the world. We jump-start this process with a half-day workshop that begins with the Game of Life and ends with the introduction of a few core concepts.

The Game of Life is an elaborate simulation of structural injustice. Students are assigned multifaceted identities -- generally, quite different from the ones they have in real life -- that include class, race, immigrant status, sexual orientation, disability and gender. Not knowing the specific combinations of identities they carry with them, the students are given different amounts of play money and told simply to go out and “live.”

As they quickly discover, the Game of Life is easier to play for some.

The adults in the roles of bureaucrats -- bank tellers, government workers, salespeople, police officers, wardens and court judges -- are instructed to treat students differently based on the social location codes on their nametags. Though the exercise is only a game, all participants -- both adults and youth -- become caught up in it quickly. Within 30 minutes, real emotions are churning.

In our reflective conversations after the game, several insights emerge. The students who begin the game with the most social and financial capital always amass more capital and are rarely even aware of the fact that their peers are struggling to keep up or play the game at all. The students at the bottom of the social hierarchy, cycling in and out of jail and unable to find work because of their criminal records, become genuinely angry or despondent.

The adults playing the bureaucrats are amazed at how quickly they take on the mentality of prejudice and suspicion -- and how seductive the abuse of power becomes.

Resistance to the injustice is minimal, episodic and confined to only a few people; on the whole, everyone assumes that the point of the game is to amass wealth and wield power as isolated individuals, and very rarely does anyone try to organize, share power or wealth, or stand in solidarity with others. Because of the multiple layers of the assigned identities, a particular student might experience respect or warmth in certain spaces yet be treated with suspicion or condescension in others.

The Game of Life is normally used in secular educational contexts, but we have found it invaluable for teaching youth about structural sin. At the conclusion of the game, after debriefing the students, I introduce two concepts, one sociological and one theological.

“Intersectionality” -- the idea that multiple social identities overlap and oppression is multidimensional -- helps the students make sense of their experience of participating in a complex world in which they have more power in some spaces than others and can indeed benefit from the oppression of others even as they also experience oppression themselves.

“Principalities and powers” -- the Pauline phrase theologian Walter Wink draws on to explain how human systems, created good yet now fallen, can be redeemed through Jesus Christ’s liberating grace -- helps illuminate what is at stake for the students as Christians. We are all participants in human institutions and systems that can become demonic when they destroy the imago Dei of both the oppressors and the oppressed caught up in them. The powers are bigger than any one individual and therefore cannot be blamed on any scapegoat individual or group. But they do operate with the complicity of each individual, and we therefore have the power and the responsibility to act to transform them.

This workshop undergirds the rest of our curriculum, in which we explore current social justice issues by going out into the city to learn from those impacted by them; develop skills in using Scripture and Christian traditions to reflect theologically on these experiences; and study nonviolent action and its connection to Christian history and theology. Our program culminates in the students forming small groups based on personal interest in particular social justice issues and writing “Kairos” documents that succinctly articulate their understanding of the issue, their theological reflection upon it and their call to action for the church to respond. These documents embody the understanding that we as Christians are caught up in systems that cause harm to others -- sometimes even without our realizing it -- and that these principalities and powers are under the dominion of God and are therefore redeemable when we use what power we have to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world.

This approach both raises awareness of injustice and sin and offers specific pathways to action. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by the seemingly insurmountable problems in the world, students are inspired to act because they know they stand in a tradition of brave, faithful people whose personal piety propelled them into social transformation. This approach expands and invigorates our imagination of what the church can be: a place where we can take seriously what is going on around us, engage it out of the deep wealth of our traditions, and then move out, bolstered by the great cloud of witnesses, to join in where God is already working in the world.

We can teach young people how to engage in a kind of practical theology that takes seriously not only their budding adult faith but also their current capacity to act in the world with compassion and courage. Our first step, however, is simply to take young people seriously.


This essay was produced in partnership with the Lilly Youth Theology Network.