Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Persecuted Iraqi Christians Pawns in Midterm Elections?

This is going to get me in trouble.

No doubt there is persecution of Iraq's tiny (and quickly getting tinier as many flee) Christian minority. The growth of radical Islam in Iraq, thanks in large part to America's failed attempt to force a western-style democracy there, has insured persecution of Iraqi Christians.

But is it coincidence that only two weeks before the mid-term elections, viewed by many as a referendum on the Iraq War, my wife and I recieved a thick, colorful, and magazine-sized flier emblazoned with this headline? "Persecution Alert: Helping Iraq's Persecuted Church." A smiling boy holds up what appears to be a bible in Arabic, and beneath his picture the caption reads "Hope for the Future."

Inside things quickly get grim. A litany of extremist violence against Christians includes the beheading of a 71 year old nun, the death of a 13 year old boy by car bomb (though it is unclear whether he was targeted, or merely "collateral damage" to the country's overall violence), and a young man's beating by police for daring to ask they stop insulting Christians.

Now how can I complain about such a flier, which appears to be only a plea for monetary help in supporting the ministry of Christian Freedom International (CFI)? After all, commentators liberal and conservative have noted that persecution of Christians in Iraq is absolutely real and likely on the increase.

Well, it is all about timing. Perhaps thinking as cynically as political architect Karl Rove, I couldn't help but wonder if the flier was timed to come out right at a moment when some evangelicals are likely pondering their continuing alliance with the Bush administration and Republican Party, especially as it relates to the Iraq War. The flier to me appeared a "reminder" to the evangelical faithful that "staying the course" is a primary way to save our sisters and brothers from radical Islam. So, being a skeptic even though I am an evangelical, I gingerly poked around.

Why not start with CFI's president, James Jacobson? Jacobson does indeed have a political background, as his CFI bio notes:

Before founding CFI, Mr. Jacobson served as a policy analyst in the Reagan White House, served as political appointee in the administration of George Herbert Walker Bush, and was a senior legislative assistant in the US Senate.
Jacobson has also been (and may still be) a member of the controversial conservative umbrella organization, the Council for National Policy.

Now those facts don't insure what my skeptical mind is suggesting. But they do add a bit more weight to the question. Was the message of this flier and its being sent to a probably large number of evangelicals -- right before the elections -- coincidence? Or was it done in concert with other Christian Right spokespersons? Asking these questions sounds almost sacreligious. How can I do it, when Christians are dying in Iraq?

Maybe I feel that being truly faithful is the opposite of being gullible. "...Test everything; hold fast to what is good" (1 Thess. 5:21, NRSV) seems to me a pretty good rationale for being skeptical these days.

Jacobson's history isn't the only linkage between CFI and the Christian Right / Republican Party. In an aside that was part of a lengthy blog comment to a post on another topic, "Matt O." writes:

As of April 2005, among the list of "directors" for CFI is Robert Reilly, the former director of the Voice of America (VOA), who was criticized for being "too ideological." (The New York Times reported on the ideological bent in October 2001. Subscription required.) After Reilly resigned "abruptly" from the VOA, the April 21, 2003 edition of the Christian Science Monitor, it was reported that he now heads the Pentagon's broadcasting efforts in Iraq.
I have not yet found a larger list of CFI's directors. If I do, or if someone else does, please let me know.

But as to Reilly's background... Whoa. Coincidence? Sure, it really could be. As someone looking for the ministry with greatest integrity to support in efforts to aid the persecuted Church, am I just supposed to uncritically swallow these linkages? Because while it could be coincidence, it also could be cool calculation.

There is no doubt about it that Christians are being persecuted in Iraq and elsewhere by radical Islamic forces. And we should make that fact known. It is very painful for me to recieve such a flier in the mail, then find myself unable to believe the motivations behind it being sent. Here is another illustration of why it is so, so very important for evangelicals to disentangle themselves and their ministries from the Right. Various forces of the Christian Right count on us to salivate every time the bell is rung, not realizing that sooner or later we'll see through the machinations and become skeptical. Even worse, we will be tempted toward inactivity and apathy, leaving our sisters and brothers alone in their struggles.

As I say, I may well get in trouble over this post. But in light of the real connections between CFI and the Right, and in light of the first question I had when I received this mailing, I felt obligated to publish my meager findings. The subject will remain open, of course.

And for now, I will remain sadly skeptical.

A few related links:

Article from Atlantic Monthly in which James Jacobson takes the reporter on a tour through the slavery-ridden areas of Sudan, questioning the idea of "redeeming" slaves with money.

Another article from John Eibner of Christian Solidarity International (from which Jacobson and Christian Freedom International split), questioning Jacobson's positive role in the above article (see footnote 4) and defending the practice of "redeeming" slaves.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Friday, October 20, 2006

"Jesus Camp" movie invokes painful ambiguity

A cardboard President recieves prayers
from the children at "Kids on Fire" camp.
Image from "Jesus Camp" (c) 2006

Most Christian commentators seem highly irritated by the movie "Jesus Camp," calling it "hateful" and propagandist. And at least some secular reviewers have, via the movie, decided that brainwashing children is a common evangelical distinctive.

I found the movie, and its message, somewhere between those extremes.

The movie's subtext is undeniably a political one, set up from the first few moments where we watch cars whiz down a typical American highway and listen to a news blurb that Sandra Day O'Connor has stepped down from the Supreme Court. That is followed up by a radio pastor's voice talking about Christians need to be involved in the "culture wars."

The stage is set.

Perhaps many readers already know the basic storyline of Jesus Camp. "Pastor Becky" Fischer started a bible camp called "Kids on Fire" at Devil's Lake, North Dakota. Movie footage comes from there but also from various kids' families who attended that camp and also another in Missouri. The first half hour or so of the movie sets up a cultural context of the world some of the kids live in by following their family life, their schooling, and their own church life. The latter parts of the movie take us through "Kids on Fire" and follow a few of the kids to Washington where they protest abortion and do some witnessing.

As we travel through their lives, we encounter the evangelical subculture through its own radio, its own textbooks, its own movies and even video games, all laden with scientific, political, and cultural baggage which might or might not be biblical (or scientific). Yet it is a confusing, ambiguous journey for a Christian to watch. For one thing, just because these children are in a religious subculture does not mean their faith, understanding, and experiencing God are not real. Yes, they often parrot their parents and other authority figures. Don't our own children also parrot our political views?

I am not at all sure that the film was meant to be anything more than a skeptical (verging on cynical) take on evangelicalism. But what the film makers meant it to be and what it actually is -- sorry to go post-modern here -- are two different things. I'm not frankly interested all that much in why the movie was made, or with what motivations. What interests me most is that, whether or not the movie had any malevolent or hidden agendas, most of what we get comes direct from the mouth of Christians, some well-known. As an evangelical, I was most saddened by the movie's unblinking focus upon our idolatrous nationalism, an idolatry draped in piety.

There is a pervasive sense throughout that the movie camera does introduce a stiffness and propriety in the kids that might not otherwise be there. But this isn't a sign their reality is not rooted in something beyond what one secular reviewer of the movie called "brain washing." For me, it is part of the pain of this movie that one cannot delineate between the false idols of rightist politics and the true hearts of children who (Lord willing) will continue to hunger after Christ into their adult lives.

What Jesus Camp does do is inflict pain on the viewer -- a pain caused by ambiguity. Where is the border between belief and action, faith and politics, the Bible and culture? And where is the border between Christianity and America? Over and over again, we see the red, white, and blue American flag behind or in front of the cross. We hear various Christian pundits talking about that mythical "return to Christian values," and urging their flocks to fight for those values.

Ambiguity between God and cultural falsity is reflected in such comments as this one by Pastor Becky: "The devil goes after the young...."

I happen to believe that is true, whether the young are being aborted in America or taught to carry an AK-17 in Liberia or Sierra Leone.

But Pastor Becky then takes the whole conversation into a cultural cul-de-sac. "Harry Potter! Warlocks are enemies of God!... had it been in the Old Testament, Harry Potter would have been put to death!" A child's voice goes "Amen." Yet later on, a few kids left alone around a table start joking with one of them that he looks a bit like Harry Potter (which in fact he does). Their knowledge of Harry indicates things are -- again -- more ambiguous for them even as children than we might imagine.

During a time of prayer and repentance, a child prays a prayer my own heart resonated with:

"It's really hard to do this [he kneels]. To believe in God is really hard because you don't see him... you don't really know him much. Sometimes I don't even believe what the Bible says. It makes me a faker. It makes me feel guilty..." Then he raises his hands in silence, and no one speaks.

Was the above a statement for show, part of child's obedient sort of play-acting? Or was it a statement of real doubt? Or was it a statement mixing child-like play-acting with real doubt and real faith? If the latter, which I think it was, I'll take that kid as a representative for myself, and a faith I hope is also childlike in the best sense.

The political dimensions of what the children at Jesus Camp are taught also create ambiguity in me as a viewer. It troubled me to see kids given a hammer and told to break a glass cup called "government"; violence symbolically could cultivate the idea that the way to gain one's political will (in God's name) is to use force and aggression. Are the kids being taught a sort of Christian version of radical Jihad? But of course, like the Muslim concept of Jihad, spiritual warfare to the Christian is usually about the inner war against one's own darkness and woundedness rather than an outer war against other individuals.

That brought up one area worthy of close and thoughtful discussion among Christians. The language of spiritual warfare, especially among charismatic Christians, can lead down some really odd and even scarey paths. The whole business of "binding and loosing" spiritual powers, mixed with politics, seems a mixture guaranteed to lead bad places. Yet even there, I find myself stuck in ambiguity. I do believe there are spiritual powers in high places -- the idea is very biblical, though the first century writers' meaning is not easily grasped or understood by twenty-first century minds. But Rove and company are smart, and have and will continue to use the language of spiritual warfare to push an agenda which deep-down may even be anti-biblical.

I, however, digress from the movie.

I was disappointed with the movie-makers when they introduced Mike Papantonio, who to my mind was a deficient representative for non-Right wing Christianity. Perhaps it is because I grew up within a washed-out version of Christianity, where Christ may or may not have existed, much less have been the God/Man who died for our sins and historically rose on the third day. The movie's great mistake to me was including Papantonio for a counterpoint rather than someone who overtly held evangelical theology dear, but rejected the incursion of Karl Rove and company. Like me. (Snark, snark, snark.)

I think there's another reason Panantino was a bad idea. His predictable quacking gets in the way of the movie's artistic strength: its raw commitment to let the kids and adult Christians speak for themselves. If the movie makers had clung to that vision and not allowed the lense to waver for an instant from their primary subjects... this would have been a far more powerful movie.

In the midst of the shrill goings-on at "Kids on Fire," along with commentary from Papantonio, we are left with the idea that brainwashing may be going on here. Mr. Papantonio complains that evangelicals are pushing non-scientific theories re seven-day creationism. Yet he then pushes an equally non-scientific theory regarding brainwashing, a concept with no scientific basis. Faith, whether true or false or an admixture of reality and rationalizations, is far deeper and more complex than the idiotic cartoon "brainwashing" creates in a viewer's mind.

Again, what gets lost are the deeper issues beyond politics. Are these children's cries, tears, and emotions simply produced by the Christian adults around them? Is there a real God Whom these children may in fact be in contact with? That's where the movie-makers fail, in my opinion. The movie is too much about politics.

But if the movie is about politics, so is evangelical Christianity these days. And that is where the movie-makers are the most believable as they chronicle the admixture of right-wing politics and Christian piety. In one of the more startling moments at her "Kids on Fire" camp, a cardboard cutout of President Bush is produced by Pastor Becky, and all the children gather around it to pray for him. Some lie on the floor at his feet, a rather creepy moment.

In an interview with the film makers, Pastor Becky makes explicit what is heavily implied in the above scene:

"There is a friendlier atmosphere toward Christianity in the past few years than there has been in my lifetime. And a lot of it has to do -- just in the past few years -- with President Bush. He has really brought some credibility to the Christian faith."

I found that idea astonishingly naive. Sure, the Christian Right may feel more empowered. But power is not warmth and acceptance. In fact, many of us "renegade" evangelicals who refuse the Right's overtures find that their use of power has made our task of winning others' interest and friendship toward Christ all the more difficult.

Though Pastor Becky's rather extreme methods with kids are not the evangelical norm, the spiritual warfare motif and its political ramifications certainly are. The movie's penultimate scenes take place at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, a mega-church pastored by Ted Haggard. Pastor Ted is the head of the National Assocation of Evangelicals. And here is what Jesus Camp captures him saying:

"The point I want to get across is that in your home you need to make sure that you have a few core beliefs. And we who are Americans, those of you who are citizens of the United States, need to make sure that our nation has a core belief, and as we settle those philosophies correctly then our freedom is guaranteed."

And he prays:

"Lord let us not waver. Let us not be talked out of it. Let us not be negotiated out of it. It's massive warfare every day. Let the battle begin."

Depending upon what Ted Haggard means by this, those are quite properly frightening statements. I've been frightened and disheartened for a very long time myself. But as I, too, believe in spiritual warfare, the reality of the demonic, the silver-tongued power of the Lord of Lies but the even greater reality of the Lord of Love, Joy, and Suffering, I will continue working and praying both for my own darkness and my Church's darkness. Whatever Jesus Camp means to others, what it means to me is that we have been seduced by the Spirit of the Age, and that Spirit is of Fear, not Love.

Related links:
Ted Haggard's response to Jesus Camp
A thoughtful, if quite negative, pentecostal's response (6,000 Words!) to Jesus Camp

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Monday, October 16, 2006

Moving soon to bluechristian.com?

I've had the URL for bluechristian.com for some time... but it is parked. I'm thinking of moving the blog from here to there, where I can also do audio posting and (who knows?) maybe some video posting as well. I'm also going to be doing some teaching here in Chicago at my home community, Jesus People USA, for the new "Project12" discipleship school JPUSA is sponsoring. So I'm not at all sure of a time table for all this. But do stay tuned. I've also got at least one more prominent Christian feminist on board for an interview, as I promised. She wants it done via phone, so maybe I'll have to bone up on Skype and record the whole thing as an mp3 as well as doing an edited version for readers.

Anyway... where have I been? On vacation. I'll try to get right back in the saddle, honest.

A few topics I hope to cover (which is not a promise):

* The "Jesus Camp" movie.
* N. T. Wright's "Judas and the Gospel of Jesus"
* A book by Henri Nouwen with fairly profound implications for this site's purpose... at least I will post some quotes, but I'd like to do a lot more than that.
* The afore-mentioned Christian feminist interviews.
* My wife and I journeyed through the giant garage sale that is "Spoon River Days" in Central Illinois. We had some amusing adventures with potential implications beyond the silliness.

And more... by God's grace...