Documentary Date Night

Last night, Evan and I decided to watch the documentary Jesus Camp,  which is about an evangelical Christian children’s camp in North Dakota. This was probably not the best decision for a date night movie, as both of us ended up quite upset at the end (and not in the weepy “Oh, that was so good but so sad” manner of finishing Titanic). 

Lots of parts pained me. It gave me flashbacks of the Baptist youth camps I went to as a child, the pressure to go down at the altar calls to “recommit to Jesus,” and the time we were assigned to go up to people in a restaurant and proselytize to them–it made me cringe then, and it still makes me cringe now. The politics bothered me, the children being urged to lay hands and pray over a cardboard cutout of George W. Bush (the documentary was filmed while he was still President). The unapologetic attempts to break down the separation of church and state. The Islamophobic comments.

But the part that got me the most–the one that left me crying and Evan struggling to find me some tissues–was the scene where the leader of the camp told the children they were sinners, hypocrites, “phonies.” The screen filled with children shaking, weeping, their faces red and tears streaming from their eyes as they admitted that sometimes they doubted God, that they knew that made them bad people, that they wanted to be forgiven. The leaders of the camp whipped these children up into a frenzy of guilt and shame and self-hate.

And I sat there crying. This is the destructive power of religion–and of the idea of sin. Yes, there is evil in the world. I believe that. People do terrible things. But to tell children, so full of potential and hope, that they are–at 5 or 6 or 10–already full of sin and need to repent? To make them collapse into crying over the guilt of sometimes questioning their faith? To fill them with shame and self-doubt at some of the most formative stages of their lives?

That is wrong.

I feel lucky that my time among evangelicals as a child did not leave me scarred with those feelings. I’m glad that I still see the good in myself and in human nature (even though I know there are flaws there, too). But not everyone is so fortunate.

To raise holistic, compassionate, good Christians–or, really, people of any faith–we must teach them the value of love. If we believe the world is flawed and ugly and irredeemable–and that we are flawed and ugly and irredeemable–we are ignoring the light of God in the world. Yes, there are shadows, too. We must teach children to recognize those shadows–violence and hatred and oppression–and that they must resist and deconstruct them. But we cannot let that blind them from the light.

We are children of the light; children are some of those where that light shines brightest, and we cannot let that be extinguished.

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