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Ray Pride

By Ray Pride

Jesus Camp (2006, ***)

WHO WOULD JESUS KILL? Let me respond from the bottom of my heart: Jesus Camp is terrifying in its portrayal of sadistic things which are deeply oppressive, suffocating in its study of hostility to youth and knowledge, and I hope nothing else the rest of this year on screen, in the press, or in real life makes me feel as hopeless and helpless about the future of America. In their brave, necessary documentary, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (The Boys from Baraka) jesuscamp_701234.jpgfollow three small Missouri children-bright-eyed, mullet-haired pastor-to-be Levi and two girls, Tory and Rachael-and their trip to Pastor Becky Fischer’s annual “Kids on Fire” camp in Devils Lake, North Dakota. The children are freckled, wide-eyed, energetic, innocent, as beautiful as a child can be. Fischer is adamantine yet inarticulate, a middle-aged woman who fashions endlessly bizarre yet always banal metaphors to indoctrinate her charges into “God’s Army.” She sees a “key generation” of children ready to die in the name of Christ. “Are you READY?!” The offhandedness of Ewing and Grady’s frames is telling, without sarcasm: consider the William Eggleston-worthy shot of a girl in pink, her back turned, the image slightly out of focus as dances through raindrops, a flag drooping foreground. (It may be the only beautiful moment in the movie.)
At no point do Ewing and Grady purport to show a movement, only the ministrations of Fischer, who eagerly awaits Rapture from “this sick old world.” Typical words from Fischer, director of Kids in Ministry International, as she sits at her dining room table: “Where should we be putting our focus? jc_149.gifI’ll tell you where our enemies are putting it, they’re putting it on the kids… You go into Palestine, and they’re taking their kids to camps the way we take our kids to bible camps and they’re putting hand grenades in their hands.” (Fischer supports the film, telling last Sunday’s Denver Post: “I have deliberately pushed the envelope because I feel like we are in such a ditch on one side, of not taking our children seriously in their spirituality.”)
We see not a message of love, but of violent separatism, as Fischer and not at all humble home-schooling parents rally the kids to become warriors, even to become martyrs. While a documentary does not capture every moment of a subject’s day, what’s on screen in Jesus Camp is evidence enough of malign hostility to reason and thought and beauty emanating from every action by these Pepsi-drinking, almost without exception white, middle-class suburbanites. Fischer revels in hostility to democracy, with some of her cohorts threatening “extreme liberals” who allegedly comprise the judiciary and who prevent a “righteous government.”

We see the children chant about a return to “righteous” leaders, while, in one of Fischer’s many eccentric rituals, smashing crockery with a claw hammer. Later, they worship a cardboard cutout of George W. Bush, and “lay on hands” to the graven image. (Pastor Becky also says a prayer “in the name of Jesus!” over a PowerPoint presentation.) Children in camouflage face paint make “prophesy” in pageants of warfare. They are encouraged to “speak in tongues.” The contemporary language spoken by the subjects is uninfected by and uninflected with any sort of poetry or philosophy, untainted by insight, mere regurgitations of brutally simple sermons, rife with mixed metaphors and cracked syllogism. The evil of secular kid’s books is addressed: “Harry Potter would have been put to death! Warlocks are the enemy of God!” A girl of 9 is shown in a bowling alley, trembling as she proselytizes in a bowling alley, her “bowling ministry!” she calls it. She dreams of opening a Christian nail-wrap salon “with soothing Christian music. [Then] their walls would be down!” A child using a dollar bill as his Bible bookmark-that would have gotten me slapped as a boy. There is also a creepy, hoarse-voiced man with a creepy mustache with creepy little dolls who coaches a gathering in the necessity of becoming an army of weeping children who will kill to stop abortion, which is cited as the cause of most of the wickedness and sorrow in our time. He tapes their mouths shut with red tape labeled “LIFE.” The children weep and howl copiously. “Alison,” the abortion preacher tells one girl, “You look great with that tape on your mouth!”
I’m far, far from unsympathetic to matters of faith: Without too much personal revelation, I’ll say I grew up in Southern, evangelical, sometimes Pentecostal surroundings, yet I never met a single solitary person who seemed as angry, delusional and fearfully misguided as the uneducated adults in this quiet, punch-to-the-gut documentary. If Jesus Camp is true, this is a picture of civilization, smothered, ravaged, ruined. A few minutes of radio host Mark Papantonio in his studio trying to hold calm conversations with Fischer and others cannot stanch cries like “Stand up and take back the LAND!” [Ray Pride]

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