26 October 2012
Tony Campolo, professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern University, and the founder and president of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education, spoke to Chine Mbubaegbu shortly after his appearance at this year’s Greenbelt festival.
I have just spent 20 minutes chatting to Tony Campolo. And in those 20 minutes he has made me take a long, hard look at my life and whether it truly reflects the radical teachings of Jesus Christ. I live a fairly comfortable Christian life, but is Jesus calling us to a life of comfort? Or did he urge us to live out the upside-down nature of the kingdom of God?
“The red letters of the Bible make discipleship the most important thing. It’s about the call of Jesus to a lifestyle that should make us more like Franciscan monks than tele-evangelists,” he says. Re-reading the Sermon on the Mount has reminded me of Jesus’ challenge to us to live a life that is often contrary to our nature as human beings, and is at odds with the societies in which we live. It goes against our need to be comfortable, to seek justice and revenge.
And it’s this radical lifestyle which can sometimes get lost in our obsession with theology and doctrine.
“Theology is of ultimate importance. Without a sound theology, we have no basis upon which to move forward as Christians. Good doctrine gets us saved,” Dr Campolo says. “But becoming a disciple is more than about just being good believers. We have become pretty good at developing a sound biblical theology, but we haven’t paid much attention to the lifestyle of Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount is very challenging. It asks us to give our coats away, to seek first the kingdom; it tells us we can’t serve two masters.
“Most of us are believers. This is what we must be to come under the salvation cloak. But Jesus says to those of us who are believers, are you willing to follow me? Good doctrine tells us who Jesus is and it explains to us how we can become spiritually imbued with his presence. Without that we wouldn’t be able to live the life that he’s called us to.”
So why so often do we not take Jesus’s words seriously? “It’s because they’re difficult to hear. We are told that tithing is not enough. We’re told to turn the other cheek. We’re told to always press for the elevation of other people. But in reality, we’re ego-centred people.
“I’m fascinated with how often people in church move from the Jesus in the New Testament to the Old Testament. If you look at the Old Testament, it’s easy to make a strong case for prosperity.
“But Luke 6 says blessed are those who become poor. The image we get of the lifestyle of Jesus is not a prosperity theology. None of the disciples ever prospered.”
I ask him, therefore, whether a billionaire can be a disciple of Christ. “I’m not going to make that judgment,” Dr Campolo says. “I’m going to let Jesus make that judgment. If you’re a billionaire, I just wonder what you’re going to do with all that money. Read 1 John 3:17. I don’t need to answer that question.”
The founder and president of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education, Dr Campolo pulls no punches. The straight-talking commentator on religious, social and political affairs has featured on Larry King Live, CNN and hosts Across the Pond, a weekly programme on the Premier Christian Radio Network.
With more than 350 speaking engagements a year, he is a big fan of travelling around the world to preach God’s word and challenge the Church.
As a regular visitor to the UK, he has observed that the UK Church has got something right.
“In the US the evangelical community has married the right wing of the Republican Party. That’s where they think Christ is leading us. The politicising of American Christianity has become so intense that evangelicals have made it clear that if you don’t vote Republican, you are not a Christian,” he said. “But when I meet an evangelical in the UK, I don’t know where he or she is going to be politically. You folks have got it right. To identify Christ with any political party is idolatry.”
Dr Campolo’s talk at this summer’s Greenbelt Festival focused on the idea of power. He thinks it is a corrupting influence, especially on the Church. “Very often, I hear a triumphalistic spirit in the Church: that we’re gong to take over and rule. In reality, all power should belong to Jesus.
“Max Weber said that power always carries with it a capacity to coerce. The Jesus I found in scripture is in no way coercive. We should live so sacrificially that we should earn authority. We have authority if people want to obey us. The Church has not lived lovingly and sacrificially enough to have authority.
“We need to stand apart from politics. We should stand outside the political system in the sense that we speak as a Church to those in power and as people having authority. That’s what Jesus did.”