Extremism: The Commonality between ISIS, “Jesus Camp,” and “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”

Snow hit New Jersey Thursday, and school was closed for two days. Translation: I was off from work  and afforded the luxury of what to do with my free time. As you may have seen from my previous post, I spent Wednesday night preparing for the storm by watching Jesus Camp, a documentary about a Pentecostal Evangelical children’s summer camp. I spent Thursday reading Writing Ethnographic Field Notes and preparing to write about my observational experience in my campus’ student center. Friday, I decided to do some more research on religion in pop culture. Translation: I spent a lot of time scrolling through Twitter and a lot of time watching Netflix’s newly released original series, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I had no idea this would actually become a productive task.

As I learned in just the first episode, the lead character in the series, unbreakable_kimmy_2701_NAKimmy Schmidt, was kidnapped by a fanatical “religious leader” of a doomsday cult who convinced four women God had brought the apocalypse to Earth and killed everyone but those who lived safely in their underground bunker. The show, then, picks up 15 years later, when Kimmy is rescued by SWAT team members and begins trying to make sense of life above ground by re-evaluating flashback experiences to her time in the bunker.

Three hours, and 6 episodes in, I was wondering why someone who seems so intelligent (for only having an 8th grade education) would believe this ridiculous message. Twitter, surprisingly, was there to answer my question when I received the following tweet in response to one about my blog.

While it was relevant, I hadn’t really tweeted anything about Islam. In fact, my knowledge of Islam is extremely limited to things I’ve heard in the media–things about Islamic extremists. I clicked the link in good faith, thinking I might learn something applicable to my research, even though it seemed more like a spammer trying to get traffic to his page than anything else.  What I found was a link between the facts I’d garnered about ISIS from the media, the documentary I’d watched, and the doomsday cult that captured Kimmy Schmidt.

Yes, I recognize that it may seem extremely unsympathetic of me to make a comparison between a group that is violently and publicly killing Christians and a comedic sitcom about a nonsensical cult, but hear me out. The issues at the heart shine light on some very important concepts in religion. I am not working to justify the actions of any extremist group but merely working to help us understand why the followers of extremist groups might do what they do in the name of God.

In the article “Belief vs.Trust” by Dr. Safdar DushanTappeh, as tweeted to me by @islamrevisited, Dr. DushanTappeh argues that in every religion “there are always some notions, rules, and rituals that cannot be explained rationally and the religious person is expected to blindly swallow them with the added flavor of belief and trust.” This would explain why we, as bystanders, can’t wrap our heads around the actions of self-proclaimed religious groups that seem so blatantly anti-religious. His thesis, then, argues that this blind trust is the same corruption religion was formed to confront. With this argument, religious belief and religious trust are not the same.

DushanTappeh moves to define the following two terms in his writing:

1. Belief: The foundation of religious thought, the unprovable principles around which a religious man or woman will structure his life. 

2. Trust: The reliance a religious man or woman puts on the source of beliefs, whether divine creator, religious text, or religious leader.

The problem with beliefs is that while they are the foundation of religion,they have to come from somewhere. A religious person often looks to his or her religious leaders for guidance in understanding and practicing beliefs. This seems logical and valuable. Religious leaders are trained in interpreting and sharing religious texts. Why shouldn’t they be trusted by their congregations? Well, it is important to remember that interpretation is subjective. And one thing I will always remember from my English professors in college is that some interpretations can be wrong, particularly those that take parts of the works out of context.

ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq andisis-army-700x430 al-Sham), according to Graeme Wood’s article in The Atlanticfollows a “distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior. Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.” ISIS isn’t Islam. ISIS is leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s version of Islam. Islamic State’s chief spokesperson, as cited by Wood, juxtaposes biblical punishments with modern violence by calling Muslims to “smash his head with a rock,” poison him, run him over with a car, or “destroy his crops.”

So, yes, ISIS is attracting psycopaths and adventure seekers, but it’s central messages are derived from coherent and learned interpretations of Islam. The messages are just being skewed by Baghdadi, and the followers are misplacing trust in him.

This is the same way, in my opinion, the children in Jesus Camp, misplaced trust in Becky Fisher who called them soldiers in a war for God. This is the same way Kimmy Schmidt believed Richard Wayne Gary Wayne who declared the world was ending. Believers see an authority who is telling them something terrifying, telling them they have a duty, and. perhaps out of fear of God, they listen, even if it means going against their gut instincts.

Extremism in religion is problem caused by misplaced trust. This insight probably won’t help us solve the problems extremism creates, but it might help us understand why it seems to overtake rational, moral human thought.

Jesus as Commander in Chief: a Look at the Documentary “Jesus Camp”

One nation, under God

As a teacher in an American public school, I stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag with my students every morning. When it’s over, I sit down in my desk chair, and separate church and state. I focus on my curriculum, teaching about reading literature, writing arguments, and learning language. I very rarely consider how America as a nation of Christian principles in its earliest of years.

It’s when my tenth graders read early American literature, including works by the PuritImage courtesy of amyisvip@blogspot.comans and pastors from the Great Awakening, such as Jonathon Edwards, that I am reminded of America’s Christian roots. As we read the “Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God” sermon aloud together, the students are quick to note the fire and brimstone quality od waiting eagerly to drop those who are supposed to be his children to their eternal life amid furious flames? They can’t sof the text. They passionately point out that it sounds scary and intended to make listeners feel guilty. A wrathful God? A Geem to wrap their brains around it. They get the figures of speech, but they don’t get how anyone could have believed it. They don’t get how anyone could have been moved to act on behalf of someone seeking vengeance. I see their point, and then I suggest that we cannot pull this kind of sermon out of its original context and into our time period because our societies, lives, and ways of thinking are so vastly different.

After watching Jesus Camp, directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, I’m not so sure I can make that claim anymore, at least not in good conscience.

I watched Jesus Camp at the recommendation of a classmate, Jess. When she learned I was doing research on religion, she told me it was a must-see. I was so intrigued that I watched it within a day of her lending me the DVD.

The documentary follows a children’s pastor (Becky Fisher) of a Pentecostal Evangelical church and three attendees of her summer camp, Kids on Fire (which has since been shut down). Becky Fisher, however, was not in the first five minutes of the film. Mike Papantonio, of the Ring of Fire radio show, though, was, and to say he left me confused would be a gross understatement. He began talking on air about “these guys” who are following some new brand of religion and generating war in the name of god.

I wondered:I thought this was about Jesus. Why is he talking about jihad?

Turns out, Papantonio wasn’t talking about Islamic radicals; he was speaking of radical Pentecostal Evangelicals who are building an army of Republicans in the United States. What a claim to make. I knew instantly that this was a documentary about extremes. The directors were creating this spectrum straight out of the gate by juxtaposing Papantonio with Fisher, who spoke next, encouraging the children to whom she preached, “This is a sick old world. Get your tools, and fix it.”

What tools, exactly Ms. Fisher? Surely she couldn’t mean the hand grenades and machine guns of 5 year old Islamic soldiers to whom she compared her own congregation by stating a desire to see Christian children being as radical as the young in places like Palestine and Pakistan who are willing to put their life on the line for their God. The war imagery continued when later in the film as Fisher posed questions, including this antagonistic example, “Take these prophecies, and do what the apostle Paul says. Make war with them…This means war. Are you a part of it, or not?”

By thphotoe looks of the camouflage face point on the children dancing and chanting to worship music, they most certainly are. They even recited choreographed battle cries: “V-I-C-T-O-R-Y. That’s the Trojan battle cry.”  This camp seems to be a boot camp, turning out soldiers who will save America and bring the nation closer to God.

Kids. Guns. War. I’m surprised it took me as long as it did to become angry with the film. Kids stood, gaping, at their pastor. Tears streamed down their faces as they were reminded of the dangers of sin, and classic childhood heroes, such as Harry Potter, were condemned as they would have been had their stories been a part of the Old Testament. I was reminded of Edwards’ “Sinners” sermon. I couldn’t stop myself from wondering what good could possibly come from making children cry in church. What good could come from making children fear the God who is supposed to love and forgive them?

Then I remembered. I remembered the extreme spectrum the filmmakers set out to establish at the start of the film. This film was not to speak for a nation. It was not meant to speak for Christians across the U.S. It was meant to reflect the practices of one community–to inform.

While I disagree with many aspects of the teachings portrayed in the film, I think it was valuable to watch, as does Rotten Tomatoeswhich gives the film an 87% fresh rating. The documentary presented radicalism in a non-aggressive, non-threatening way to viewers. We tend to hear about radicalism the most in relation to groups with ties to Islam.  This is not to say that Evangelical Christians are radical terrorists, but, as mentioned above, there are striking parallels in the language used. Rather than fear Evangelical radicals the same way Americans fear radical groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda, we can benefit from recognize the power of doctrine on a young mind.

I think we, as a nation, tend to be scared of what we don’t know. Not every child is given the same choice we might be. Jesus Camp gives us the opportunity to know and understand before we make blanket judgments.