Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Onward Young Christian Soldiers

A strange and disturbing story out of Lompoc, California, about a "summer camp" for Christian children that reveals a great deal about the direction some fundamentalists take their beliefs:
Christians in combat boots

It's Sunday morning at Trinity Church of the Nazarene and staff member Mark "Gunny" Hestand is on his belly behind a tree, an imitation M-16 in his hands, showing six teen-age boys in fatigues how to ambush an enemy.

Hestand, 43, and a teen-age squad leader have been barking at the "soldiers" who are cranking out pushups and line sprints beside the church.

"You girls are going on a hike tomorrow," shouts squad leader Zach Smith, 15. "How are you girls going to hike tomorrow if you can't do 25 pushups?"

Thirty minutes later, the teens march into the church cafeteria in two single-file lines to the cadent commands of Smith. They gather around a table with Hestand and Bible study leader Tom Gilbert.

"Man has lost his focus on purpose," Gilbert says to the boys, in a lesson taken from the best-selling and controversial Christian book "Wild at Heart," John Eldridge's examination of masculinity.

"Life needs man to be fierce. Aggression is part of the masculine heart," Gilbert says.

The teens are part of "Boot Camp," a youth group that mixes Marine Corps values and combat techniques with Bible study. The concept is the brainchild of Hestand, who started the group in 2001 to encourage youth involvement in the church. As far as he knows, Boot Camp is unique in the Christian world.

One can only hope so. Because these folks practice a peculiarly militaristic brand of Christianity:
Once the 90-minute service commences, the boys gather outside, usually in the church's south parking lot, where for 20 minutes they do physical training like new recruits under the barks and orders of drill sergeants.

"We really get in their face," Hestand said.

The next 20 minutes are dedicated to combat techniques, such as ambushes or guerrilla tactics. The last 45 minutes are spent on Bible study.

Marine recruiter Sgt. Thomas Bustamante swings by once a month - without compensation and on his own time - to instruct the physical training and combat portion of the service. Recruiting isn't part of Bustamante's involvement, Hestand said.

Hestand sees no contradiction in instructing military combat techniques alongside the teachings of Jesus, who often is considered a pacifist because of his doctrine of "turning the other cheek." Neither does it bother Trinity's Pastor Jim Morris, an ex-Marine.

"His turn-the-other-cheek comment was talking about confronting things in life that seem unfair: An opportunity to be gracious rather than combative," Morris said. "Having said that, we're not preparing these guys to go into the military. We're using a military model as a hook."

It would be comforting to think that this worldview is relegated to a small range of fundamentalist thought. And it's true that the camp is unique. It seems, however, that the philosophy behind it actually enjoys broad popularity with many fundamentalists:
This aggressive and combative nature is at the heart of Boot Camp. Hestand and company say that men - particularly Christian men - have become domesticated, boring and divided from their natural instincts of adventure and drive to tackle challenges. The end result is a docile and unhappy man.

The idea that Christian men must be reshaped is straight from Eldridge's "Wild at Heart," which argues that man's wild heart is a mirror of God's and that man's three natural and worthy desires are to: fight a battle, live an adventure and rescue a beauty.

"Wild at Heart" has sold over a million copies since its 2001 release. It has sparked debate, but is used as a manual by many churches and is prominently displayed in Christian bookstores.

Other Christians consider Eldridge a demagogue who shapes God in his own "muscular Christian," outdoorsman image. They say his teachings - which favor movie icons like the character William Wallace of "Braveheart" and bash "Mr. Roger Christians," who hold office jobs and "make decisions at the kitchen table," - are dangerous and heretical concepts.

The Braveheart imagery, incidentally, is also significant. Because the Mel Gibson film (like his most recent release, The Passion), with its gory glorification of violence and self-sacrifice, represents a kind of theme that is appearing more frequently with an aggressively violent brand of Christianity that has many roots in the extremist right.

Max Blumenthal recently had an excellent post exploring this aspect of the Christian right, which he correctly identifies as a "fascist aesthetic." Notably, he cites an instance in which an official from Focus on the Family -- the same folks who have been attacking SpongeBob as a way of undermining the concept of tolerance -- referred to the Braveheart iconography in association with Eldridge's "masculine" form of Christianity:
Jim Chase, an advertising copywriter from La Crescenta, California, has had a replica of the sword actor Mel Gibson used when he played legendary Scottish warrior William Wallace in "Braveheart" hanging above his desk since attending a Wild at Heart retreat with 350 other men last year.

"It is just a reminder that we are in a battle every day. It can be just facing boredom and routine, but it is a battle," Chase said.

"Life isn't just about going to work and sitting in front of a computer and bringing in as much money as you can. We all have a story. God has written a story and we are meant to find out what the story is and live it," Chase said.

Blumenthal correctly points out that Braveheart enjoys icon status with European far-right figures. It also enjoys (I can report from personal experience) an avid audience with the Patriot/militia crowd. See, for instance, the fellow arrested last summer in Erie, Pa., with a massive cache of illegal weapons; the name of the organization he operated locally was the "Braveheart Militia."

Moreover, attacking the "feminization of Christianity" has long been a major theme of the white-supremacist Christian Identity movement. A taped sermon with that title has long been a staple of Peter Peters' Identity catalog. It's also worth noting how Peters views the source of this "feminization":
The Jewish leaders believe they already control America. Recently, one of them stated publicly: "We have castrated Gentile society, through fear and intimidation. It's manhood exists only in combination with a feminine outward appearance. Being so neutered, the populace has become docile and easy to rule. As all geldings are by nature, their thoughts are not concerned with the future, or their posterity, BUT ONLY WITH THE PRESENT and the next meal." What a perfect "word picture of modern American society. It is the attitude of Christians, who don't want to be involved, and allow Jews, to control the school and often the church. We MUST break these fatal bonds, if we are to remain free.

If this trend continues to manifest itself among supposedly mainstream fundamentalists as well, that should be serious cause for concern.

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