The other day I saw the documentary Jesus Camp, a film which followed several children going to an evangelical camp in North Dakota run by a minister named Becky Fischer. Here’s the trailer for it:
The film caused a bit of a controversy when it was released.
It covered several different viewpoints, including some of the children who attended, the minister who ran the camp, and some footage of a Christian radio host criticizing the camp. What people seemed to focus on was the manner in which Ms. Fischer preached to kids, along with the specific rhetoric she used. A lot of people even went so far to call it abusive.
With some of that in mind, I sat down to watch the movie on Netflix. As it turns out, I saw a lot of familiar things from my childhood in that movie. Kids got into a frenzy of guilt and praise, dedicated themselves at very young ages to Jesus, and went through a marathon of Christian-only talks and workshops. Outside of speaking in tongues (I was Lutheran, so I didn’t believe in that particular nonsense), the movie could have been footage of Sunday school or church across the country.
It’s widespread. But is it abuse?
Many Christians can and did say Ms. Fischer’s particular brand of ministry was abusive. Dressing kids up in camouflage paint and proclaiming Christian fatwa doesn’t leave much room for having a mild reaction. But to me that wasn’t the most egregious part of what was going on.
Rather, I saw too many examples of things that should have been alarming. One child was given wrong information about climatology. A 10-year-old girl voiced concerns that she wanted to dance, but not dance “for reasons of the flesh.” A different girl walked up to a complete stranger and did an awkward guilt conversation in a bowling alley. Yet another child confessed in tears that sometimes he really didn’t know what to believe about the Christian deity. What prompts these kids to do these things?
The answer to that question isn’t exactly comfortable to many people within the faith, but it needs to be dealt with in the open. These kids do these things because they’re made to feel guilt, to use it as a weapon against people, and that it’s okay to manipulate so long as it’s for their deity. Children are being told about sexuality before they even know what it means, often in ways that scar them for life. Parents are able to hide facts from their children for no other reason than they can.
In other words, the abuse isn’t just the specific rhetoric of one minister who has it in her head that kids need to be radicalized for their faith. That radicalization happens in many different ways, but it never gets acknowledged. It’s always someone else’s radical acts that need to get criticized; it’s always someone else’s problem. Or, it’s not abuse when one person does it, but only when someone else does it.
That’s a very subjective view, coming from a community which prides itself on universal truth.
The film struck a nerve with me because I saw too many familiar things. I got to watch adults make conscious decisions to manipulate people who couldn’t know better. Is that really something necessary to promote belief in an actual higher power?
If that’s the case, it means that nothing is sacred when it comes to promoting a religion. Anything is possible, and it’s entirely okay to seek out vulnerable targets who can’t fend for themselves. And yes, it’s even okay to use the smallest of human shields.
Is that abuse? I don’t know how anyone can say anything but, “Yes.”