Bread. August 2007
Cinema: Jesus camp
There is something awfully eerie seeing children as young as six possessed by the spirit, speaking in tongues, with tears rolling down their cheeks. Yet one sees this again and again in the film Jesus Camp.... with many different kids.
How have they been brought to this? Award-winning documentary filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady take their cameras to the Kids on Fire summer camp in North Dakota, USA, run by Becky Fischer (left), a preacher to kids. There, amidst activities like go-karting and cave exploring -- but not Harry Potter books, which are condemned as evil -- the children, some as young as 6, spend an inordinate amount of time being preached to.
They also get a chance to try their hand at preaching to their peers, for Fischer's mission is to train these kids to be "Christian soldiers" to wage war against unbelievers.
The services she presides over are no ordinary ones. They are highly charismatic, hyper-expressive affairs with weeping, jumping and trance-like adulation of "God" and "Jesus" -- names invoked again and again like talismans.
As one 9 or 10 year-old points out, what they have is not a "dead church" where people listen quietly to sermons and engage in low-decibel prayer. In her mind, God does not visit his favours on those Christians who participate in dead churches.
What more of non-Christians then? Indeed, one hears Fisher speak about Muslims, for example, in combative tones. "Our enemies", she says in the film, are putting efforts into training their children, and so Americans must be "as committed to the cause of Jesus Christ as [Muslims] are to Islam."
At another point in the film, you hear her declaring, "This means war! This means war!"
Here's the Youtube trailer:
Fischer sees children as a "usable" resource for the cause of Christianity. "Studies have shown that a person's moral values in life are set in place between the ages of 7 to 9 years of age and will change very little after that."
She speaks of morality, but as the film shows, it's hard to miss the political motives. "Raise our righteous judges," implores another preacher in prayer, presumably to defeat another enemy they see -- liberals.
There's a scene where a cardboard effigy of President George Bush is propped up in the chapel and the children are asked to pray and ask God to bless and protect him from his opponents. They come forward like zombies with outstretched arms to touch the cardboard.
At no time in the adults' interaction with the children is any room made for doubt or questioning. Not even reason. Just wave after relentless wave of intense fervour.
The only oxygen in the film available to a gasping audience is provided by lawyer and radio talkshow host Mike Papantonio. This is political Christianity, he says, whose members "elbow their way into positions of influence". You see him speaking out against their intolerance and bigotry; on another day, he is shaking his head, exhausted after a short interview with Fischer.
The problem isn't just her. These children aren't exposed to such indoctrination -- for there is really no other word to describe what goes on there -- at only the summer camp. They come from homes that have primed them since they were infants. 12-year-old Levi O'Brien is home-schooled by his mother (?), and in the scene we're shown, the lesson is about the absolute truth of creationism. "When you think about it," she says, "there is just no other explanation."
Indeed, home schooling is strongly correlated with these extreme Christians. They generally feel the public school system would contaminate their offspring with unwanted ideas, such as evolution, liberalism and cultural relativism. In turn, the social isolation that home schooling breeds makes it easier to perpetuate their extremist ideas through a new generation.
In another home, the whole family has to recite an oath of allegiance to the Christian doctrine before what looks like mealtime. Saying grace may be too effete for these future warriors, both boys and girls.
One is tempted to think that what we're seeing is a cult. But "cult" is a wholly inadequate word when some 100 million Americans are evangelicals and 30 million of them are charismatic or Pentecostal -- the type who lay great store in speaking in tongues, rolling and writhing on the ground, and who believe in healing through the laying of hands.
About half of all Americans reject evolution as an explanation for how the world has come to be what it is, and 43 percent of evangelicals in the US claim to have "accepted Christ" before the age of 13. What exactly this means in children of such tender age must surely be open to debate.
Becky Fisher, on her part, sees children as "potential spiritual dynamos". She wants people to see, through this film, "the importance of disciplining children in the Christian faith".
"My hope is they will be able to see the more obvious truth which is children are capable of understanding, feeling, being an enthusiastic and powerfully effective part of extreme faith in Jesus Christ because this is an extreme generation."
Seriously, folks, these are her words, given in an interview with the film's producers after seeing the final edit. Then, to underscore it all, she says, "We feel it absolutely critical to grasp hold of [the fact that] children are key players in these end times."
It's bad enough that religion
is being used as a political instrument; what we're seeing here is
children being exploited for it too.
They are manipulated when they are young and impressionable. The messages are highly emotive: about love, being wanted, and standing up to social ridicule for being so devout. Fearsome images of Satan testing them with temptation are conjured; guilt and repentance are elevated to public spectacle. In short, worship services are well-choreographed exercises in mass hysteria.
There is at the same time, a stoking of insecurity, cultivating a sense of being under siege. The "threat of Islam" is repeatedly paraded. Secularism too is painted as a huge monster out to exterminate them. These kids spend their entire lives in a pressure-cooker of dogma and scare-mongering.
How different is this brain-washing from the horrors of child soldiers used by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s and the rebels in Sierra Leone in the 1990s? (The latter figured in the acclaimed film Blood Diamonds). In those places too, children were brutalised for a cause and taught to see enemies all around.
How different is all this from the madrasahs in Pakistan, which, we're told by our press, are incubators of zealous Islamists and not a few terrorists?
Such churches are not confined to America. They're here in Singapore, some with the "mega" label too. Have they gone as far as Becky Fischer? I don't know. But one cannot help but wonder what really, really, goes on in some Sunday schools.
It was interesting for me to hear from a source how 4 representatives from the Grace Assembly of God church responded to Jesus Camp. They had earlier come to a preview of the film. They recognised many of the charismatic practices depicted there as something found in their own church, but they still voiced a certain discomfort. Were they disturbed because they were seeing what's happening to children, now from a slightly more detached position? Or were they concerned about the likely glare of publicity into their inner (other words that spring to mind are: hidden, occult, cabalistic) practices?
What's also here in Singapore is political Christianity. Fired by the American example, we have seen too their readiness to use their positions and influence to capture state policy.
And as a gay person, I have seen an unremitting campaign to spread disinformation about gay people. One of the most common tactics is the conflation of homosexuality with paedophilia. Homosexuals, according to the propaganda handbook, are always on the lookout to recruit children into the "homosexual lifestyle".
Go watch Jesus Camp, and see who is doing the recruiting.
© Yawning Bread