Campolo challenges Lutherans to confront tough issues
American Baptist spoke to students at Luther Seminary in October.
Tony Campolo doesn’t know how to speak softly. His presentations take on the appearance of what Abraham Lincoln once said a good stump preacher should resemble. Said Lincoln, “He should look like he’s fighting bees.”
Campolo is fighting more than bees. He’s taking on the principalities and powers warned about in the New Testament. Speaking to a large and responsive audience at Luther Seminary on October 5, Campolo said, “One of the principalities and powers we have to deal with in the Christian community is, whether we like it or not, commercial television.”
Campolo reported a conversation with an executive at MTV, the cable network that airs music videos for teenagers, many of them sexually suggestive. Asked if he believed his broadcasts “influence young people,” the executive replied, without hesitation, “We don’t influence young people — we own them.”
He called his listeners to get serious about shaping the world for good, rather than handing it over to evil powers. “Evil is strong, there’s no debate about that. But so is good. And, like the invasion of Normandy in World War II, once the Allies secured the beachhead, there was no doubt who would win. That’s the way with God. There’s hell to battle in the short term, but God’s going to win the last battle.”
He bemoaned the way conservative Christians have evidently swallowed the dispensational doctrines of British theologian John Darby, whose views are footnoted in the Schofield Bible, popular with Christian fundamentalists. Said Campolo, Darby’s views have spawned careless and downright dangerous theology such as appears in the wildly popular “Left Behind” series of novels.
“The problem with this brand of end-times thinking,” he said, “is that it leads people to hope the world will fall apart so that Jesus can return. In the meantime, who really cares what happens to the poor and the vulnerable in our midst?”
Campolo also ridiculed the end-times convictions of writer T.S. Eliot, who wrote, “This is the way the world ends — not with a bang, but a whimper.” He said, “No! God will end the world with fireworks!”
Said Campolo, “The church has been declared the primary instrument through which change for good will come. We shouldn’t abandon it.”
He said, “It’s fine to seek a ‘personal relationship’ with Jesus, as many of my conservative church friends do, but that can’t happen without a personal relationship with poor people.” He decried fundamentalist claims, widely heard on religion radio broadcasts and printed in conservative religion publications, that God was somehow punishing New Orleans for the de-praved things that went on there.
“What sense does that make?”, he asked rhetorically. “The French Quarter, where all the misbehaving went on, was completely spared. And the people who suffered were the poor and vulnerable who lived below sea level.” He added, ironically, “If punishing New Orleans for its sins was God’s intent, then God must have lousy aim.”
He said, “I know abortion and homosexuality are hot issues, but have people of faith forgotten about life-and-death issues like starvation, poverty and human justice and dignity?
Campolo said Judgment Day won’t be a time to focus on whether we had our doctrines straight. “If God requires me to believe in the Virgin Birth of Jesus, I’m home free. But if we have to give account for how we dealt with the least of these, Jesus’ brothers and sisters, a lot of us are going to be in really big trouble.”
But responding to suffering people is only part of the believer’s proper response, he argued. “We also need to focus on the systems that created the misery.”
He suggested the U.S. has its priorities skewed, declaring, “We’ve wasted a lot of money in Iraq, and are currently pouring in around $1.5 billion a week. At that rate, we could have enough in about nine months to completely pay for the rebuilding of New Orleans.”
The American Baptist theologian complained that U.S. agricultural subsidies have caused untold misery to farmers in the developing world. “This country,” he said, “has made the third world non-competitive in agricultural markets because the U.S. gives its farmers subsidies. They sell their products abroad at prices so low, farmers in all those countries are going bankrupt and moving off the land.
One would expect a conservative Baptist to hold to a literal reading of Holy Scripture. Campolo affirms a literal Bible, but does so with a twist.
“I believe we should take everything Jesus taught at face value. The idea that we should love our enemies and care for the poor is not to be understood symbolically. It’s to be taken literally.”
Campolo says he was once brought up on heresy charges by religious conservatives. “In the end, I was exonerated, but with a reprimand. The judgment against me was ‘He tends to take Scripture too literally.’ I thought it was a pretty remarkable thing for a conservative church community to say.”
He revealed that he had addressed the national assembly of the Southern Baptist Convention. “I did it [only] one time,” he admitted. “My first sentence to them was, ‘Why are you arguing about whether to interpret the Bible literally? Even if you decide that’s the right way to do it, you won’t listen to what it tells you to do anyway.’ What I meant was, reading the Bible literally forces us to obey it’s difficult commands — such as caring for the least in our midst.”
Campolo spoke harshly about the current U.S. adventure in Iraq. He said, “I truly believe our president thought there were weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq, just as President Clinton did. In fact, a Bush advisor told me, ‘We know there are WMDs there — including anthrax — because we have the receipts for them.’”
But, Campolo continued, “Now our president knows, as we all do, there are no WMDs in Iraq. We were mistaken about that.” He offered a suggestion for the current administration:
“Suppose George W. Bush went to the United Nations and said, ‘A few years ago I stood here and told you we believed there were WMDs in Iraq. It turns out, we were wrong. On behalf of the United States, we now repent to the world.’ Isn’t that what great nations do?” He added, “Suppose we have our troops in Iraq replaced by their counterparts from Jordan, Morocco and Egypt. The Arab League has already proposed this, but our government turned them down.”
In a question period, the outspoken Italian American explained how he ended up in the Baptist Church. “My father was an illegal alien. Our family was befriended by Baptists in Philadelphia. That’s how I ended up going to Baptist seminary.”
He added, “Because of my background, I can never condemn illegal aliens from Mexico moving into Texas, Arizona or California. If I were a hypocrite, I’d complain like many Americans do about our ‘porous borders,’ saying, ‘What right do they have, coming to those states — all of which the U.S. stole from Mexico fair and square’?”
He said conservative and mainline Christians have something in common. Both crave a mystical union with Christ. There are two expressions of it in current American culture — Pentecostalism and Roman Catholic mysticism.
During his Twin Cities visit, Campolo also spoke at First Lutheran Church, St. Paul, and Lake Nokomis Lutheran Church in south Minneapolis.