Jesus Camp and Me

This year I will be turning twenty years old. A decade ago, half my life ago, I attended a camp called Camp Geneva in Holland, Michigan. This was not an evangelical camp, it was defined only as a ‘Christian Camp’, and indicated no denomination. I was lucky not to be brought up in a more disturbing form of Christianity, as my parents are Lutheran and Catholic (as they would describe it, the only difference is whether communion is symbolic or literal). Other than that, Catholicism is more ritualized and formal, Lutherans eat a larger variety of food after church, and so forth, both pretty chill.

The children in that film, “Jesus Camp”, are within just a few years of my age. They are brought up in a Christianity I would never describe as chill or calm. One of the focus children, Levi, is the same age as me. Some of these children are growing up taught to ignore the world around them for the sake of making it to an unobserved world besides this. Like misguided intergalactic salesmen they grow up trying to sign people’s lives into the cost of a ticket to a world no one has ever seen. These children experience a camp at which they cry every night and are told how flawed they are, for what they may not even know. These children are manipulated to ‘speak in tongues’, pound the ground, and move violently to impulses. They are told what to think about things entirely outside of their church and encouraged to have their lives overpowered by the one force of this mass of humans and pressures.

However, this camp experience, though mostly a recreational time, had some aspects which stick out chillingly from the background of archery attempts, capture the flag, and camp store ice cream. No worries, no one there spoke in tongues as they did in the film, nor did anyone fall on their knees and cry from what I can remember. But there were skits and talks on stage every evening and one of them I remember still as it caused me more trauma than just about any other experience I had in the churches and church functions I attended in childhood. ¬†For this reason it’s a story I tell often when the subjects of indoctrination and fear arise.

One night we sat in our seats in the darkened auditorium/chapel late after dinner. On the stage were three yardsticks laid end to end. The speaker started to describe to us the scene. The yardsticks showed a lifetime and on the left a man in a red body suit and velvet horns took the stage. To the right, one in sandals and a white robe. As different councilors of ours entered, they walked downstage on the line of the yardsticks with the two men heckling them for attention. The speaker described the personal struggles of each character.

When a walker took the hand of the red velvet man, he lead them a few gentle steps from the yardstick while the robed fellow made anguished faces and grasped across the line for them until they were thrown violently to the ground where they lay. On the Jesus side of the sticks, the person would be lead to the back and side and helped into a kneeling prayer position. The devil would throw up his hands in frustration. All of this well and good, I contemplated how much more comfortable the people playing sinners must have been, not having to kneel.

The last walker turned back and forth between the two sides, inching slowly along the line. He reached the end of the line and stood, looking out for a moment. He turned left and right and decided to face to the Jesus side. ‘Oh good,’ we all thought, ‘no one else thrown to the ground.’ But the speaker informed us this was not so. The walker had run out of time, he said, and, though the walker faced the robed man, the scarlet clad actor grabbed him from behind and flung him brutally down onto the stage. The speaker told us how he’d waited too long to decide, and was cast down.

I have a few big problems with this. One, I simply don’t believe ‘educating’ children based on fear is proper. Children should be nurtured, not emotionally tortured and told they are individually worthless and only achieve worth through adopting given dogmas. Children should not be told their lives mean so little and there is something bigger than life. Children should be nurtured and taught what can be known with evidence, not what is assumed due to tradition. Two, the time-line was scrunched up and jumbled by the statements of the speaker that you could die that very night and, if you did, where would you be? These children have been told of their inherent undeservedness of a good end for ten to twelve years. These children have been told that you’re sinning even if you don’t know it. My prayers as a child only taught me to apologize and resign to waiting for things instead of trying for what I wanted. I apologized every night to some horrible figure who wanted me to be sorrowful for what I didn’t know I had done, but must certainly have done, due to my inherent flaws. I do not think it’s a healthy relationship to lay in bed apologizing and then feel so unsafe one is compelled to pretend to fall asleep so that the figure is still paying attention to them. I did this near every night. I was terrified as a child of dying and so I’d pray I wouldn’t die during the night and, just in case, pretend to fall asleep without ‘hanging up’ with a sign of the cross. No Amens for me as a child, it was ‘please don’t let me die tonight’ ‘please don’t have me die tonight’ and ‘I’ll go to sleep while you’re still watching close, just in case.’

Imagine this, if you would, as a human romantic relationship. What would you tell me, the young woman who I am, if I told you that every night I came home to my angry boyfriend, not sure what was wrong but knowing¬†it must have been something I had done? If I told you that I would quietly whisper apologies into his ear and then ask him not to hurt me for it, not to let anyone hurt me, and accepted him as the protection I had against ills and fell asleep in his arms, gently squeezing to remind myself he was protecting me. If he never told me what was wrong but there was always something, would you tell me I should be apologizing? Would you tell me it was healthy to fall asleep in his arms and feel that he, my fear, was my safety? It doesn’t sound healthy to me.

I still apologize for nearly anything, though I’m getting better at it. I learned from my Christian upbringing to feel truly and deeply miserable whenever anyone is upset around me, and to accept that I’m not doing anything to help and, even if I want to help, am probably making it worse. Just as miserable as if I have really done something bad. I am very quick to apologize when I have done something bad. I learned how faulted I necessarily was, being human, in this way. And that is a grossly inappropriate thing to do to a child. Children should be taught to be accountable for what they have and have not done. Children should be proud of their strengths and unashamed of their flaws. Children’s flaws should not be exaggerated.