Growing up in Kansas, from about 9 to 12 years old, I went to Christian summer camp down the highway in rural Missouri. I loved it there. We swam in creeks and caught crawfish. I played soccer and made friends. There was a zipline that ran through the woods and one year a counselor had access to a speedboat and took us out tubing, driving figure eights and running us over the waves so we flew high and high until I flew so high my chin smacked the tube coming down and I nearly broke my jaw. I fell off a swing one year and had to get stitches in the back of my head, being tended to at the nearby hospital Branson, marking the only time I’ve ever visited Branson.
There was a singer-songwriter camp counselor named Rusty (real name) who played almost every night at camp events. He sang songs about Jesus, about “I’m Third,” about triumph in truth and community. I remember singing louder and dancing dumber than most kids there. I found joy in his songs and in singing them together. The experience was powerful and empowering.
I read the bible most every day at camp, and later at home, reading it though complete quite a few times by the age of thirteen or so. It was intimidating and demanding, but in the end I found hope, hope that we could transcend manipulation and lie, that dignity and decency are their own rewards, and that triumph comes through caring for others, not through manipulating them.
As I grew as a teenager, I began to see the worst in us hijack the promise of the best. I started to hear Jesus tied to politic, to entitlement (privilege), and to classism. I saw opportunism from folks who saw the bible’s stories as a way to make to make a living without honoring what I understood to be many of its teachings.
It began to occur to me that some of society’s most contrary-to-Jesus actions came from those claiming to be the carriers of his word –
- The first row at the church my family went to was saved for the richest family, no one else sat there. Open and equal seating, except for the richest folks
- The church finance committee led by the guy who takes you out to lunch and whiskey and talks about his guns over occasional racial slurs
- The all-American family father at high school called me faggot
- The Vatican
- The pastor with the private jet and the vanity complex that manifests itself in billboards across the Oklahoma countryside
- The shake down of family members for money, talking old folks in their last years, parked in front of the TV, into buying plaques or certificates
- “Christian” music as a genre, a marketing scheme, that offered perhaps the least imaginative collection of sound and word ever assembled by humans
- Silence over Christian terror
I began to consider that either what I was taught at camp, and feeling, never existed, or that it had been hijacked and manipulated to such a degree that it represented the opposite of what I understood, and felt, it to be.
What Jesus represented to me in my youth — generosity, decency, shared responsibility, talking to truth to power, love, the idea of freedom as triumph — is beautiful. I don’t find that in the church or in organized Christianity any longer.
It is, of course, not good Christians’ fault that Jesus’ teachings have been abused by the power hungry, greedy, and manipulative, but it is all of our faults if we see it and continue to allow it to happen. These fools are imposters.They don’t get to choose what is important in the Christian message and disregard the rest.
That’s what this song “White Jesus” is about. It’s about that picture with all the preachers in the Oval Office “praying” with the “grab them by the xxxx” and “there were very fine people (in the neo-nazi demonstration)” President of the USA, and the militiamen in Charlottesville and the punks that let them get away with it.