Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Tony Campolo: Preaching for a Better Nation

There is an article in the August issue of The Progressive magazine titled, "Meet Evangelist Tony Campolo." I almost skipped it because of that E word - evangelist. Yikes. I rarely find anything admirable about pious and righteous types. And there are only a few overtly Christian writers whom I'll read eagerly and enthusiastically (C.S. Lewis, Lewis B. Smedes, Anthony de Mello and John B. Cobb Jr. come to mind). But this being The Progressive - one of the few magazines I read cover to cover every month - I dove in.

Tony Campolo is the associate pastor of the Mount Carmel Baptist Church in West Philadelphia and an emeritus professor of sociology at Eastern University. On the Eastern campus is the Campolo School of Social Change.

Here's how Campolo often begins a speech:

"I have three things I'd like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don't give a shit. [And third] What's worse is that you're more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night."

Well, that ought to get their attention - and yours. This guy is pretty darned unconventional - and in many ways, fearless. Campolo says it's "time to take the gloves off" and openly fight the religious right. Much to the chagrin if not outrage of most any flock I would think, Campolo has said that "to be a Christian in today's world is to be opposed to America."

Here, in his own words, is more from Tony Campolo:

To be a Christian in today's world is to be opposed to America. Why? America believes in capital punishment, and Jesus says 'Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.' America says, 'Blessed are the rich.' Jesus said 'Woe unto you who are rich, blessed are the poor.' American says, 'Blessed are the powerful.' Jesus said, 'Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.'

We have reached a stage of idolatry when, in any given church in America, you're going to run into more trouble if you remove the American flag than if you remove the cross.

If one embraces [the virtues espoused by] Jesus, one has to raise some serious questions about the American way of life, especially its consumerism. Here's a society that has us buying new cars all the time, and has got us caught up in fashion models, and every year, women and men are getting rid of their clothing because somebody in never-never land has decided that these clothes are out of style. What we are discarding in this consumeristic society, because the dictates of custom have decided are out of date, is appalling. People are spending huge amounts of money on cars that are basically status symbols, and it's contrary to the teachings of Jesus. We are wasting so much money in catering to our pleasure, while we allow the basic needs of others to go unmet.

[Advertising promises us that products will] meet our deepest spiritual and psychological needs and create well-being, a sense of joy, give us friends, and make us young and happy. Jesus says, 'Why do you spend your money on that which satisfies you not.'

Jesus refers to the poor over and over. There are over 2,000 verses of Scripture that call upon us to respond to the needs of the poor. And yet, I find that when Christians talked about values in this last election that was not on the agenda, that was not a concern. If you were to get the voter guide of the Christian Coalition, that does not rate. They talk more about tax cuts for people who are wealthy than they do about helping poor people who are in desperate straits.

The major factor influencing the evangelical vote was Christian radio and television. What scares me is that Christianity in America today sees nothing wrong with being allied with political conservatism. Conservatives are people who worship at the graves of dead radicals. Stop to think about that. The people who started this country, George Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, these were not conservatives; these were the radicals of the time. In fact, conservatives always look back on people who they despised and make them into heroes.

When you deal with these issues that are plaguing this country, do you frame them as moral issues or as economic issues? The Democratic Party made a very serious mistake. All the issues were framed in economic terms: How many jobs are we going to create, how much money is it going to cost to do this, that, and the other thing. What they should have been saying is, 'This is what is right, and we're going to do it, because it's right.' When we begin to frame the issues, as liberals, in moral terms, talking about what is right and what is wrong, rather than what is pragmatically efficient, I think the American people, who are looking for moral leadership, will flock to the side of thos who can give it.

It's about time we realized that Christianity is a call not to conservatism but to change. Jesus came to the world not to conserve the system as it was but to change the world into what it ought to be. That's where I am, and that's where I want to be.


In my book (or at least my blog), Tony Campolo is an American hero - and a genuine minister of Christian values, values with which I align myself and to which I myself aspire.

Please consider subscribing to or donating to The Progressive, one of my favorite magazines.


At 8/04/2005 6:09 AM, Anonymous rainlily said...

A friend in grad school (who could be quite the bigot) claimed that the only way to get pass ethnic groups was to intermarry and dilute the bloodlines down.

But it still doesn't address the reality of the human need to associate with a closer-knit group. In a class on utopian ideals we looked at the size of Utopias and one of the conclusions was that humans are able to process the connections/ character of about 500 people. Once you get pass that it starts to splinter into subgroups again.

I see a similar thing even in the groups & classes I work with. Too few and no one participates, too many (even going from 6 to 20) and small chatter groups break out.

I've ponder this over the years as I once lived on a small island with a year-round population of 538 (I was the census taker so i know). In the core group there was a lot of variety in terms of education, ages, jobs but we "got along" on our 35 square miles of rock. But summer brought out the hierarchy of subgroups: native Islanders, residents (often summer residents who made a permanent move but didn't have the blood), summer residents, visitors, and the lowest group, tourists. Summer came and you might mingle, but all bets were off (especially when it came to hard-to-come-by jobs).

We may claim to be a global society due to the internet & cell phones, but we have even less face contact. We know the individual but so rarely their lives or connections (which are often carefully screened for public consumption). Individually, we belong to a wide variety of sub-groups (be it church, civic orgs, social clubs, party affliations, alumni assoc., etc). We hardly know the name of our neighbors.

Our lifestyle may be cosmopolitan but not necessarily our moral values.

And so starvation in Niger becomes a momentary news item that may generate dollar donations, but does it change our lifestyle? It hits us in the brain but not the heart. Yes unfortunately, Campolo is right. And when I think of the populations in modern schools approaching small cities, it's any wonder that we're not bridging the gap. Perhaps we're fostering it even more when you have 800 students in one grade level on one campus with only a few "reigning" adults. Lord of the Flies wasn't about compassion.

In a culture that fosters the individual, how do we embrace of all humanity? At some point, some folks just won't fit in our character definition.

At 8/05/2005 6:12 PM, Blogger Lawrence said...

Rainlily, excellent commentary! Maybe Lord of the Flies was about lack of compassion. Americans are only vaguely "neighborly" and in a very non-committal way. We are becoming a less committal culture all the time.

I would say VERY few humans rank as "cosmopolitan." I know only a very few, and I know some worldly people.

We remain deeply tribal.

What tool would best overcome this calamity of parochial and provencial exclusion and competition?

Thanks again for your comments, Lawrence


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