February 11, 2011 / Mediation, Uncategorized
In 1991, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to the disturbing psycho thriller, The …
June 4, 2007
Ever since my first summer at church camp, at age fourteen, I can recall an emphasis on a few themes: physical purity, scripture reading, marriage/dating, and the grace by which we are saved. A few years ago, though, I began to wonder: is faith merely a matter of personal piety, and inter-personal boundaries? It felt unconvincing. It felt one-dimensional. It felt radically less dynamic than the work being done by my “secular” peers at university. My friend Sarah was working with (not converting) HIV/AIDS patients in Kenya, attempting to increase their access to registered nurses. Annie was researching water privatization in Bolivia and interning with Riverkeeper, a non-profit that advocates clean-water policy in the United States. Rachel was working for the City of New York, registering people to vote, and stirring dialogues about hunger, homelessness, and the United States’ extraordinarily high rates of incarceration. And what were we talking about at church camp? Abstinence; acceptable roles of women in the public sphere; relationship accountability; spaghetti straps.
Clearly change was needed, and according to Tony Biasell, Associate Director of Calvin Crest, programmatic change is on its way.
Tony and I have been friends since 1997, when I was a high school camper of converted renown—I came wearing booty shorts and attitude, I left spiritually awakened. I returned each summer for weeks at a time. In 2001 I worked on staff as the gardener and again in 2005 as a Lead Counselor. I remember talking with Tony at the beginning of that Orientation Week. We were sitting on a swing overlooking the garden I had maintained four years prior. During that summer, in that very garden, I had blossomed into adulthood. Tony and I were trying to wrap our heads around gendered language for the Divine, narrow visions of gender in general, and the noose I felt around my neck when we spoke of a God who seemed small and too overtly relevant to contemporary life. We have remained in conversation virtually through Tony’s blog: http://reimaginingcamp.blogspot.com/. There he chronicles his ongoing thoughts on what he labels The Revolution and discusses new ways of “doing camp.” Along with his blog Tony is writing policy and designing shirts, spurring conversation, and asking for feedback.
This is my extended feedback.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines revolution as a) a sudden, radical, or complete change; b) a fundamental change in political organization; especially the overthrow or renunciation of one government or ruler and the substitution of another by the governed; c) activity or movement designed to effect fundamental changes in the socioeconomic situation; d) a fundamental change in the way of thinking about or visualizing something; a change of paradigm:
What you don’t see here is alteration, well-meaning adjustment, or even radical negotiation. What Revolution denotes is fundamental change—a structure overthrown, a paradigm inverted. To be a Christian is to recognize that such a change has occurred in the person of Jesus Christ. To quote Tony, “[a revolution] has been going on since Christ was born, crucified, and resurrected.” But how does a Christian summer camp, nestled in the hills of the Yosemite National Forest, with campers from the likes of Fresno and Orange County, talk about Jesus in terms of Revolution? I don’t think they can—not when that word is loaded with romanticism and skepticism, not when Jesus offers us more precise language (His language), and not when campers (sometimes extremely eager and rather vulnerable, as was I at fourteen) come for mere one-week increments. What they can talk about—what I can talk about—what Tony’s talking about—is transformation and a redefining of conversion.
According to Tony, camp should be a place where fourth through sixth graders don’t just play games on the green, but also learn about relief and awareness agencies. High schoolers shouldn’t come and simply be told how to be pure, but rather be given space to reflect on the actions of a man, Jesus, who was, we are told, more than a man. Jesus said and did radical things. He conversed with a Samaritan woman and allowed a prostitute to anoint him; he healed the lame and called for the inclusion of the least of these; and he said he was the Son of God. More than talk, Jesus acted (he healed and dined with, included and defended the untouchables) and in turn asked his followers to behave accordingly.
This is where it’s tricky. Jesus did revolutionary things and we are to reflect on them and then to emulate them. High schoolers (and even kiddos) are not too young to learn of injustice and the beatitudes.
How though do you enable them to internalize the depth of Jesus’ radicalism? I don’t think you do it simply calling Him a Revolutionary or contextualizing him in a Revolution. It seems you have to contextualize Jesus historically, let the realities of Palestine speak for themselves—place him in a world where the poor were poor, the lame excluded, the Pharisees powerful, and He discontented. He came to shift and overturn. Our call isn’t for Revolution but for what Tony calls realignment. Transformation. Conversion, even. These words might not sound as provocative as revolution, but revolution isn’t meant to be a sexy sound-bite. It’s meant to be cataclysmic and often it is bloody. Jesus died on a cross. While some are ready to mirror such devotion, still the use of the word Revolution seems an inappropriate word choice—an appropriation by a spiritually hungry, perhaps even bored populace. The rhetoric is well-meaning, but should be readjusted.
Conversion away from myopic faith—from faith centered on rules and by-laws, gender binaries and dichotomies of good and bad—and towards theologies of deliverance (for us and for our systems of oppression): that is impressive and difficult work. The call has already been made, not by man, but the Son of Man. It’s redundant to talk about starting or even joining the Revolution, when really what we need to do is convert from our misinterpretations. As mentioned, converting sounds less fun than revolting; revolution is Che Guevara, conversion is Billy Graham. Maybe that’s where we’ve had it all wrong. There’s amazing work to be done—life-taking work; we needn’t try to sex up the language in order to paint it a color it already is. Campers and staffers, Christians and otherwise, are daily bombarded with billboards and images, many of which use hyperbolic language to woo us. Why not resist this trap here with words stated simply in the Lord’s prayer?
“God in Heaven, hallowed by thy name,
Thy Kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.”
The Kingdom of God shift paradigms and demands just structures. How do we manifest it on earth? How do you remind people that personal piety is irrevocably linked with just action? How do I do it in New York, on a Tuesday morning? How does Tony do it at camp in Yosemite and not make kids feel guilty for wanting to flume at free-time? How do you get them to integrate without becoming zealots? Burnouts? How should staff model the behavior, instead of simply talking about it? What if they disagree with it? Can they disagree?
Unfortunately, I’m not totally sure how to organize camp activities around all of this. I’ve made a diagram, though, of possible actions to cultivate awareness. Perhaps these beginning steps will help us evolve beyond personal action to strive for structural justice. And not because we’re calling for something revolutionary—but because we’ve aligned ourselves with Jesus, who already has.
Christina DesVaux lives in New York and works at the Presbyterian United Nations Office. She also works as a personal assistant to pay her bills and to get Monday mornings off. She had editing help from her friends Tony, Hilary, and Michael.