Burning Man and Christianity: Lessons in confession (or the lack of it)

Burning Man is currently going through a bit of a crisis.

The last couple years “Plug and Play Camps”, or what is now being called “Turnkey Camps”, began to come into focus in the event. Apart from the typical rough and tough radical self-reliance, self-expression, and gifting principles – apart from the non-commodification principle, a new culture of high priced camps with high dollar ticket prices run by people who seemed to act like vendors had been emerging. The people who bought these tickets did not seem to participate in the gifting culture, and camps themselves were closed environments similarly not giving back to the event. Otherwise, some of the richest people were giving the least back to the event, if they were giving anything at all. It was almost as if this grand experiment was being choked out by the invisible hand of capitalism and greed.

At the beginning of December, Burning Man wrote a blog post about the controversy. Larry Harvey himself weighed in on the controversy. They acknowledged that formerly devout burners were upset by these developments. They acknowledged that things occurring were not in line with the principles of the event. They acknowledged the tension of running this quickly growing event, which is more of a movement than a single event. They highlighted discussions at headquarters with the leadership. They talked about having discussions with the people running the Plug and Play Camps. They did not, however, say anything like, “Whoops, we kinda blew it, sorry.” Stories from the inside had already gotten out about giving preference to some of these Turnkey Camps despite the fact that it was a contradiction in the stated goals and principles of the event.

Jack Rabbit Speaks is a regular newsletter, which comes from Burning Man. Early December it provided the links to this information. Two newsletters have followed. Is it simply that Christmas is upon us, and BM needs to focus on other things – like donations? or is it that they are studiously working behind the scenes to address these issues? or is it something subtly malignant, which seems to be the problem of the human condition, and particularly corporate culture? The following newsletters did not address the issue, despite the fact that the overwhelming response I saw from those who cared about the issue was negative. People thought BM was just dropping a load of politically correct BS.

Hopefully, this is not just a Mars Hill Church example coming from the secular non-profit world. I cannot, but help to think that it looks like the same thing. Do wrong, get caught, acknowledge that the wrong occurred without taking any responsibility, say that you are working behind the scenes to address the complex issues, and then move forward courageously to new and better things without actually doing anything. That can only work for a short season. Sooner or later it catches up to you, and your biggest supporters are isolated – betrayed – and they move on.

jesus burning manThe scriptural lessons of confession and openness, which were not practiced at Mars Hill are not being practiced at Burning Man – not yet at least. Hopefully Burning Man is acting differently behind the scenes. Jesus certainly is asking what the heck is going on in churches, which behave in such dishonest corporate self-protection, but I think he asks that every time it happens in the world. Even Jesus might be questioning Burning Man right now.

Writing this post is an experience in my personal interior tension. Burning Man has become a part of my life, and many of its ethics are things long engrained within me – even things dear to my Christian ethic. These things find expression at the event. But, this love for the people and the event itself is a bit like my love for the church. If I critique it, it is because I love it.

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