Meet Kate and see her film, Kidnapped For Christ at Level Ground's #ChicagoRoadShow on September 13. For more info and to RSVP, visit onlevelground.org/chicago.
Kidnapped For Christ. Even the title of my film is enough to immediately offend some Christians. I can certainly understand why — no reasonable Christian wants his or her belief system associated with violence. The first thing most people then do is to separate those who do evil in the name of God from the rest of the real Christians. I’ve received dozens of messages to this end – people who insist that they represent what a real Christian is, not those portrayed in my film. Unfortunately, no matter how embarrassing or inconvenient, the abuse documented in my film was indeed perpetrated in the name of Christ by people who genuinely thought they were doing God’s will. I think most of us – Christian or not – would be surprised to see how much like ourselves most of these evil people were.
When I first got the idea for my film Kidnapped For Christ I never imagined that would be the title I’d eventually choose to encapsulate the stories I uncovered. I first discovered Escuela Caribe, the “therapeutic Christian boarding school” featured in my film, while I was working with evangelical missionaries in the small town of Jarabacoa, in the Dominican Republic. I certainly wasn’t looking for a story that would make Christians look bad, quite the opposite – I hoped to tell inspirational stories of troubled teens that turned their lives around with the help of the dedicated Christian staff members. I think that was what most of the staff members envisioned as well when they signed up to work at Escuela Caribe. But as they say – the road to hell is often paved with good intentions.
The more time I spent at Escuela Caribe, the more confused and conflicted I became. The evidence was mounting that this program was causing significant harm to the teenagers sent there and even the most reasonable staff members did not appear to question what was going on. Meanwhile, in order to maintain permission to film on campus, I had to stay friendly with the staff and keep my concerns to myself. I often wondered if any of them had doubts about the way they were instructed to treat the students, or if they all truly believed that what they were doing was helping. Even more, I asked myself “if I were a staff member here – would I question what was going on? Would I speak up when I saw students being mistreated?” Of course, I liked to think that I would, but in reality I didn’t know what I would do.
My internal discomfort with the realization of my own potential for evil is one thing that strangely did give me the courage to continue with the project even after I realized that this wouldn’t be the heartwarming inspirational film I original intended. It would have been relatively easy to speak out against blatantly abusive staff members – no one feels bad bringing down a tyrant. It was the staff members that I related to, and had even become friends with, who I was conflicted about making look bad in the film. Even though they had inflicted lasting damage on the students in their care through enforcing an inherently abusive and dehumanizing program. I was conflicted because I knew that it could have been me in their shoes – following instructions and believing that I was helping. This revelation helped me realize that if I didn’t do anything, then I too would be complicit in allowing abuse to continue at Escuela Caribe.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it best when he said:
“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
By recognizing the evil in my own heart I was able to help fight against the evil of others — the taking the plank out of my own eye so to speak.
Now when I hear people say things like “any real Christian would never condone child abuse,” I want to explain to them that of course any reasonable person, Christian or not, would never condone child abuse. However, when the abuse is shrouded in religious language, when you are told that this is in fact helping your victim, and when everyone around you encourages abusive behavior – I think most of us would be surprised what we are capable of.
Our only defense against becoming the evil that we loathe is to be aware of our own potential to harm others. Like a doctor in flu season, we need to know that we’re just as susceptible to the disease as those we try to treat. Jesus does not offer a vaccination against sin – only awareness that we are broken and just as capable of transgression as the person next to us.