Maybe use of fear and violence isn’t the best way to teach about fear and violence.

Ashley Baxstrom:  This headline speaks for itself: “Pennsylvania Church Kidnaps Teens, Holds Them At Gunpoint, For ‘Learning Exercise.’”

It’s pretty much about exactly what you think it is. Officials at the Glad Tidings Assembly of God in Middleton, Pennsylvania, arranged for members of the church youth group to be actually, physically kidnapped from a meeting and transported to Pastor John Lanza’s house.

The 14-year-old girl interviewed by reporters said that two men armed with guns entered the room, put pillowcases over students’ heads, and pushed them into a van.

“They pulled my chair out from underneath me and then they told me to get on the ground,” she said. “And I was the first person to go into the van. I had my hands behind my back, they said, ‘Just do as I say and you won’t be hurt.'”

Apparently the girl wasn’t even a member of the church or group, but had decided to accompany a friend that afternoon because she was told meetings were fun. Just try to watch the video – the poor thing is crying so hard you can barely understand her.

The students were taken to the pastor’s house, where it looked as though he was being attacked – the girl said there was blood around his face.  She had bruises on her knees from being pushed around.

Now, once we finish having this reaction, we can pause and ask why on earth anyone would do such a thing. The church leaders have what they apparently think is a really good reason – to teach the kids “what it’s like to be a persecuted Christian missionary.”

Oh, is that supposed to make it ok? Despite the church’s claim that some, if not all, of the teens were aware that the exercise would take place, it’s obvious that this girl – whose mother reported the incident to police after seeing how traumatized she was, and wouldn’t allow her daughter’s identity to be released by the media – had no idea what was going to happen to her. And there’s the small matter of kidnapping being illegal.

It’s actually quite serious,” First Deputy District Attorney of Dauphin County Fran Chardo told reporters in a separate story. “False imprisonment of a child, someone under the age of 18, is a second-degree felony punishable up to 10 years in prison.”

The incident is currently under investigation, but the church says it will continue to “carry out this lesson,” albeit with parental permission.

I don’t think parental permission is even the biggest issue here. Maybe you should make sure all the children involved are ok with it – though I suppose that would ruin the “surprise.” Wouldn’t really be authentic, would it, if you knew you were going to be tossed in a burlap sack and roughed up. Wouldn’t be true-to-life. But pitting that girl’s sobbing recount against youth pastor Andrew Jordan’s comment–“I’m pretty sure she was laughing at some point and having fun with the other students. I can’t confirm that”–I think it best we err on the side of caution and NOT traumatize our children.

Secondly, something to note is that reportedly, one of the “kidnappers” was an off-duty policeman, carrying a real (unloaded) weapon. There’s probably a serious discussion to be had there about the place of official personnel – paid for with tax-payer money, and meant to protect citizens – in such an event. Exactly what capacity was he acting in? Congregant? Christian? Adult citizen? Policeman? There’s an upsetting blurring of boundaries that needs to be clarified.

And finally, maybe fear and violence isn’t the best way to teach about fear and violence. While the language of persecuted Christianity around the world is troubling for how it’s politicized, and perhaps not always entirely accurate, it is certainly true that people suffer for their beliefs. Many of us are familiar with stories like that of Youcef Nadarkhani (discussed at The Revealer here and here), who has been convicted of “religious crimes” in Iran.  It is questionable whether or not he has been executed. But websites like Persecution.org don’t do anybody any favors by spreading this dramatic kind of fear-mongering and conspiracy theory-style rhetoric.

A serious conversation about religious persecution, if one is to be had, could rather incorporate a multi-faceted discussion on the interplay of religion, culture and politics; it could discuss ideas of interfaith and secularism; it could incorporate Christian missionaries into a broader spectrum of people around the world who are oppressed for all kinds of reasons and include conversation about power structures and political systems; and it positively, definitely should not include kidnapping children at gunpoint and terrorizing them. That’s not going to create empathy or fuel effective activism; that’s only going to put a lot of kids in therapy.