Saturday, May 29, 2010

Jesus Camp

Recently, at the urging of my daughter I watched the movie Jesus Camp, a 2006 documentary film which follows the lives of several children in fundamentalist, Pentecostal families, and a charismatic children’s pastor named Becky Fisher. The film takes its name from a summer camp for children and their parents that pastor Fisher runs, at which she evangelizes and challenges children from ages about 6-12 to be the generation that brings the United States back to God. The film follows these folks from the summer of 2005 to the January 2006 against the backdrop of President George W. Bush’s appointment of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court seat vacated by Sandra Day O’Connor. While the directors claim that they are not evangelical Christians, they seem to portray the main characters of the film (mostly children and Pastor Fisher) in a fair and favorable light. If the film had an agenda other than to inform, that agenda was not obvious.

As I viewed the film I found many aspects of it very familiar from my involvement and contact with evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity. For instance, the program and dynamics of the summer camp was similar to most Bible camps I have seen, and even the Young Life camps that I helped run in my 20’s. The peer pressure, the intense love for the kids, lots of fun activities, and a clear and simple gospel message portrayed in the film is a powerful formula used by many successful children and youth ministries. While on one hand the leaders of the camp claimed not to have a political agenda (meaning partisan political agenda), there was a clear and open purpose to instill Judeo-Christian values back into government particularly on issues such as homosexuality, abortion and the adoption of creation science curriculums in schools. At one point in the film, the children even prayed over a life size cutout of Pres. Bush, who was seen as the political savior and champion bringing America back to God. I must admit I can’t imagine the camp prayed over an Obama cut out last summer.

In part what was troubling about the film was the co-opting of the word “evangelical” by both the participants and the film makers. The word “evangelical” means “bringer of good news” but in the film the emphasis on bringing government back to God and human sin in all aspects of life seemed heavy and guilt-ridden. In many people’s minds today, the words “fundamentalist” and “evangelical” are synonymous, and yet the modern evangelical movement actually split off from fundamentalism in the 1940’s because of fundamentalism’s unwillingness to meaningfully engage the culture. Early evangelical leaders such as Carl H. Henry and Harold Ockenga sought to bring a balance between clear Christian principles with a meaningful interaction with current social and political issues. However in the 1980’s the rise of the so-called “Christian Right” made “evangelical” a political term often linked with extremely conservative Republican political views especially on homosexuality, abortion, the military, and a reduced welfare state. Today too many so-called evangelicals seem to want to create their own world complete with their own schools, own businesses and now their own form of government. Even the National Association of Evangelicals seems to have embraced this agenda, so that fundamentalist and evangelical for many are inter-changeable. For that reason many years I gave up calling myself evangelical.

The views expressed regarding the Christianizing of government reminded me of the writings of Rousas John Rushdoony, a Calvinist philosopher who is considered the author of the Christian Reconstruction movement. While Rushdoony died in 2001, his message has been most forcefully carried on by TV evangelist Pat Robertson and radio host James Dobson. Rushdoony believed in theonomy, which basically states that Christians should take over the government and institute a governmental system based on the principles of Old Testament and New Testament law. Christian Reconstructionists do not believe in the separation of church and state, but rather work to establish God’s Kingdom on earth in anticipation of Christ’s Second Coming. In their world, homosexuality and abortion would be criminalized, and the welfare system would be dismantled.

The Tea Party movement seems to have largely tapped into this movement, although it would be unclear if all so called Tea Party-ers would fit with their views. A libertarian like Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul would not seem to fit with an idea of a Christian “takeover” of government, but Sarah Palin might. Though Christian Reconstructionists believe in “less government” they would overhaul government as much as they accuse Obama of doing, only in a way that fits their view of the world.

The Christian Right movement portrayed in this film is powerful because it touches on some of the basic values of family and community, but it does so in a polarizing, exclusive and uncompromising way. Its simple “us vs. them” view of the world is both the source of its power and its destructiveness. At the same time while claiming to “counter-cultural” there is an unquestioned allegiance to American style individualism, militarism and capitalism. Like their Puritan forbears these folks seem American as “God’s nation, and they are bound and determined to “bring it back” to that perspective.

The film was produced in 2006 and one wonders what has happened to those kids in the last four years, who today would be in their early to mid teens, and what will happen in the next few years. Will they go the way of Robert Wright, author of the Evolution of God, who grew up in such a home and now considers himself an agnostic? Will they go the way of Shane Claiborne, who also grew up in that environment, but now is a radical Christian anarchist? Will they become like an Andy Stanley, a son of Southern Baptist preacher, who himself is now a Southern Baptist preacher? Or will they be like my former Duke professor who totally renounced his faith after hearing hellfire sermons in his youth but who could not bear the thought of being in heaven while watching his non-believing friends burn in hell? Will they adopt the faith of their elders as Pastor Fisher hopes, or will they be like so many fundamentalist children turned adults who spend years seeking to undo the rigidity, shame and guilt of their fundamentalist background?

One thing the movie makes clear is that the Christian Right has a clear and well crafted message that has been adopted and is being promoted by millions of people in this country. While I don’t subscribe to their brand of Christian faith, I have encountered it enough to realize that the “simple gospel message” has a powerful appeal to many because it helps people make sense of a complex and frightening world. My Christian faith is far more focused on social justice, dialogue, meaningful engagement with the world and inclusiveness, and combating the evils of racism, militarism and economic elitism in our culture. Like the Christian Right, I see our culture in dramatic need of renewal. However, the changes we respectively seek are dramatically and diametrically different. The fact that we both claim to follow the same Jesus makes me wonder if just like the word “evangelical” the word “Christian” has begun to take on an implication I can no longer abide.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Educational Justice

Educational justice has been at the heart of my work over the last 13 years.

In 1997 I left pastoral ministry and turned my interests and talents to education. While I was working in higher education, I did not teach the typical 18-22 year old college student; instead my students were adults who had decided later in life to return to college to get their bachelor’s degree. In many cases they had started out on the traditional track years before, only to be derailed by a lack of finances, family crises, or personal issues; they dropped out, and entered the working world.

The more I got to know these adult students the more I realized three things. First, very often the earlier problems these students faced were related to issues of poor K-12 education, family history, and poverty. Second, I realized that getting a college degree was one of the few legitimate roads available to adults seeking to rise out of poverty. Third, I came to see that adult academic success had generational implications, as often their academic pursuits set an example for their children and grandchildren, who in turn pursued their college degree. I realized we were not just educating individuals, we were changing families and perhaps communities.

Convinced of these insights, I returned to school and earned a doctorate in adult education with a view toward helping craft programs that could serve whole communities beset by poverty and create quality education programs that could transform those communities. I joined the Community Partners of West Philadelphia high school, one of the schools with the lowest test scores in the city. I helped in the formation of the Eastern University Academic Charter School, and I served as a tutor for adults learning to read. Just this month I joined the board of the Philadelphia Mennonite High School.

The most exciting opportunity along these lines was my work with a program called Eastern in the City (EIC). This innovative program was developed by my university to provide a pathway for under-prepared urban high school graduates into college success; unfortunately after only three years the program was discontinued. Nonetheless, two weeks ago, I had the joy of seeing 10 of my former EIC students earn their bachelor’s degree. They ranged in age from early 20’s to mid 60’s (Two of them, Shelita Jackson and Rayna Norris are pictured above), and all of them credit EIC with getting them started on their road to a college degree. A few are even continuing on toward graduate work.

All the demographic data on high school students today, indicate that the college students of tomorrow will look and think a lot differently than the college students of the past. Not only will they be more racially and ethnically diverse, but they will be economically poorer, and academically less prepared. Many of them will not speak English as their first language, and they will have cultural perspectives far different than the Western mindset of our current educational system. Thus, colleges like mine can not continue to do business as usual if they are to effectively educate the next generation.

One response that colleges are making is to work harder to recruit the diminishing numbers those upper middle class kids from private and elite public schools. The other response is to work for educational justice. Everyone from President Obama to the teacher in the classroom to the kid on the street knows that our educational system is broken. Education is one of the strongest antidotes against violence, drug abuse and crime, yet we pour money in to prisons and let the schools fester. Vast inequities exist in per pupil funding between poor rural and urban districts on the one hand, and wealthy suburbs on the other. Exciting experiments like Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children Zone (one of Obama’s favorites) and Big Picture schools provide hope, but the fact is addressing this problem must occur on all levels. Schools must be safe place, parents must support and encourage their students, teachers must be adequately trained, and students need to apply themselves. Colleges need to provide bridges that help under-prepared students succeed at the college level, and must offer their expertise to their communities. Government must abandon the archaic property tax system for funding public education, and make education as much a state and national priority as fighting wars overseas and terrorism at home.

John Dewey, the seminal American educational thinker, contended that education should be the vehicle for shaping the character of students so that they could become responsible and productive citizens. If that is so, then we as a nation, and particular we who as educators, have failed to live up to our calling. Pointing fingers at others for not doing their part is a waste of time; there is enough work and sufficient blame to go around for everyone. The challenge is that we as educators, institutions, community leaders and citizens must step up and create opportunities for all students, young and old, rich and poor, white, black, brown, red and yellow, to gain the skills and the knowledge necessary to live fruitful and productive lives. Until we have done so, there will be no educational justice and our work is not done.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

An Open Letter to Joe Sestak and Pat Toomey

Note: The following letter was set to both candidates and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

For those outside Pennsylvania, Joe Sestak (Democrat)and Pat Toomey (Republican) won their respective primaries and will face off in the November's election for the U.S. Senate now held by Arlen Specter.

Congratulations gentleman, on your respective primary victories. Though I did not vote for either of you, I am now left with the two of you as the principal candidates in this fall’s Senate election. So I have a request: please keep the campaign focused on the issues.

Mr. Sestak, you ran a campaign that basically had the message “I am a Democrat and Arlen Specter isn’t.” You rarely discussed your own positions because despite Specter’s recent change in political party, you were not substantially different than him. So you played misleading ads that highlighted Specter’s Republican connections and implicitly (by virtue of the images you showed) reminded people of Specter’s age and recent battles with cancer. It was a disgusting and disappointing campaign. In your acceptance speech you exclaimed that “Democracy works!” However, your campaign represented the worst of what democracy has become in this country, and it needs to stop.

Mr. Toomey, because you did not have a serious challenger, you did not have use such tactics in your primary campaign. Furthermore, your political strength in the Pennsylvania Republican Party was significant enough to drive Arlen Specter from the party he had served for 30 years. Your pushing him out was the first nail in his political coffin, Sestak’s victory was the second.

Even so, you now represent a party that’s recent claim to fame has been “We are not Democrats.’ Republicans have become the part of “no” – no health care reform, no banking reform, no taxes, no government. Moreover, your party has exploited race and class divisions in a manner Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls “colorblind racism:” (Racism Without Racists, 2009) not speaking of race, but using code words race and class to turn white folks against President Obama and his agenda.

Both of you, prominently display your young children on your websites and your political ads. So here’s a proposal: Conduct yourself in this fall’s campaign in the same way you would expect your children to behave on the playground. No name calling. No dirty tricks. No misleading or dishonest statements.

Instead why not focus on the issues, since there are significant differences between you on a variety of concerns from health care reform to environmental issues to education to the role of government to gay and lesbian concern to women’s issues to immigration, and so on. Talk about those things. Let your ads focus on what you believe and how it is similar or different from your opponent. If your opponent chooses to make misleading, personal attacks, don’t take the bait. Call him out for his bad behavior. We voters are sick of the misleading attack ads; all they do is make us disrespect you more.

At the end of each day until November, before you go to bed, ask yourself this question: In my words, decisions, and behavior today was I living an example I would want my child to follow?

Believe me, if at the end of each day you can answer that question in the affirmative, we will all sleep better.