Tony Campolo: Did Jesus Mean What He Said?
One of America's most controversial Evangelical authors and speakers says it's time we read the "red letters" of the Bible -- the words of Jesus. Then the mysteries of living finally become clear.
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What if Christ really meant everything that He said?
That’s the challenge bestselling author Tony Campolo is leveling at traditional Christianity. He says we have gotten away from the simple, practical life teachings of Jesus.
“I think that when Jesus said love your enemies, He meant just that,” says the controversial campus speaker and author of scores of books. “When He said we should love our enemies, He probably meant we shouldn’t kill them. I think it’s pretty hard to read through the Sermon on the Mount and come up with any other conclusion.
“In that same sermon, Jesus said ‘Blessed are the merciful for they shall have mercy,’ Believe me, He meant it. So, how can we go on believing in capital punishment? Especially when He goes on in to say it’s no longer an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth?”
Campolo cites Christ’s intervention in the street execution of a woman caught in adultery. The law of the day was clear – she was to be put to death. “She’s about to be stoned to death,” says Campolo. “Jesus comes upon them and forgives her of the sin, tells her to sin more and then sends her on her way.”
Campolo proposes in his new book Red Letter Revolution: What if Jesus Really Meant What He Said? written with Shane Claiborne, that it’s time to focus not on the teachings of Paul in the New Testament’s epistles nor the words of David and Solomon in the Pslams or Proverbs of the Old Testament, but on the actual words of Jesus, those printed in many Bibles in red ink.
A different Christianity emerges, he says – one committed to social justice and peace. However, this isn’t the liberation theology of Marxist Christians in the past. Campolo says “Red-Letter Christians” affirm the Bible as an infallible guide for faith and practice. However, they believe that the rest of the Bible can only be understood when read it from Christ’s perspective.
“It calls for a radical commitment,” says Campolo. “Don’t we have to embrace the things that Jesus told us to do – if we are going to call ourselves His disciples?”
As a result, for example, we should have Christ’s same concern for the poor. We have no other option, says Campolo, because “On the day of judgment, the Lord will not ask theological questions. He will ask if we fulfilled His commands.”
It should be no surprise that Campolo isn’t exactly embraced by conservative Christians, particularly those whose politics lean to the right. The bulk of his book deals with what Campolo says is a biblical approach to politics -- particularly that Jesus founded a new way of living practiced by transformed people living in a revolutionized society.
To fulfill this, the church’s focus should be to usher in such a Christ-like society, writes Campolo, “by commissioning its members to serve in each and every social institution … and, like leaven and salt, to permeate these institutions with Kingdom values. Being in all the world, living out the love of God, working for justice whenever opportunities arise, and talking about how God is impacting their lives are the activities that make ordinary Christians into effective change agents, and together living the fullness of the presence of God.”
In public appearances and throughout his book, Campolo does not shy away from what Jesus would do about the environment, war, the Palestinian dilemma, the AIDS epidemic, homosexuality, gun control, education, abortion, immigration, crime, the federal budget, minimum wage, the national debt, political lobbyists or campaign finance. Instead, Campolo challenges us to rise to the challenges with a mindset of “what did Jesus tell us to do?”
The church as a whole isn’t doing that today, he says.
“What we are doing right now,” he says, “is acting as though God loves Israelis, but not Palestinians. But Jesus loves all of his people, so that’s the first thing I think Jesus would say. The same UN mandate that created the land that belongs to the State of Israel also at the same time gave land to the Palestinian people.
“Jewish Zionism would say the entire Holy Land belongs to the Jews — and the Palestinians need to leave. But most Jewish people see these are two states. The solution is not just taking land away from Palestinians and building new Jewish settlements there every week -- but that’s what’s happening.
“I think what Jesus would want justice from both nations with safe and secure borders. They should stop what they are doing – and both sides are doing terrible things. He would also call on the Israelis to stop overreacting so that they kill 150 Palestinians for every Israeli killed.
“Every life is precious, so I’m not saying they are not.
“But the disproportionate actions are scary for me. I think that what He would say is ‘There’s got to be peace.’ The physical walls that separate the West Bank from Israel need to be dealt with. We can’t have the Palestinian people in prison like this. Jesus said, ‘I have come
to set the prisoners free.’
“I think that He would have a lot to say about the Palestinians who have responded with violence and terrorism and sending rockets over the wall,” says Campolo. “You know, innocent people and terrorism.
“You know, terrorism in which a child gets on a school bus in the morning unsure they will have a home when they return – and in which their parents aren’t sure the children are even going to get to school, it’s that kind of thing that Jesus would react to. Above all else, He would be a peacemaker, saying “Come on, how can we come up with a fair and just solution to this?”
Jesus would have a lot to say to the United States, says Campolo. “We provide billions of dollars to the state of Israel and simultaneously finance the Palestinian government.
“The fact that we finance both gives us the leverage to make peace talks happen. The good thing Jesus would say is, ‘I love both people. I wish that someone would remind them that the Jews are the children of Abraham but so are the Arabs. We need to reestablish a brotherhood that’s gotten lost somewhere along the line.
“I think Jesus would come reminding them of their heritage and calling them to be a single family.”
Palestinian Christians have endured terrible hardships,” says Campolo. “On the one hand, they fear themselves being persecuted by the Israeli government. On the other hand, they have all kinds of negative pressures exerted from the Muslims in the Holy Land.
“Bethlehem was once 85 percent Christian, but is now down to 15 percent. Christians have fled the area.
“If there’s one thing that’s come out of the Arab Spring, it is this – that we have suddenly become aware that there are all kinds of Christian people in places like Iran, Iraq and Egypt where they are enduring terrible persecution.
“We need to stand up for our Christian Arab brothers and sisters.”
But that’s certainly not the only issue Jesus would address – and which He does address if we look at the “red letters” of the Bible, says Campolo.
Jesus has much to say about abortion, shrinking church membership in liberal congregations, and even America’s national debt. For example, take abortion:
“Jesus is pro-life,” says Campolo, “and that means that life should be protected from the womb to the tomb.
“But being pro-life is not simply protecting the life of the unborn, but protecting the life of the born as well. One liberal congressman said to me sarcastically, ‘You evangelicals, do you think that protecting life ends at birth?’
“I knew exactly what he meant – that we see the unborn as precious, but once these kids are born, they’re on their own. I think I stated in the book that 72 percent of all abortions in America are economically driven. That is to say a woman who works 35 hours a week because her company doesn’t want to give her 40 hours -- since they’d have to provide her with healthcare – faces terrible choices.
“She works 35 hours a week and she’s making a minimum wage. She’s just about able to survive on that – it provides for rent and food but she gets pregnant and what does she face? She takes off for a couple of weeks to have the baby and she’ll probably lose her job.
“It’s a fact she wants to have the baby, but who’s going to pay the hospital bill – thousands of dollars?
“Most evangelicals voted in the last election for the political party that said ‘We want to end Obamacare before it even gets off the ground.’ That’s scary to me. If you don’t like Obamacare, what are you going to do for this woman who is pregnant?
“Are you going to provide prenatal care, postnatal care and pay the hospital bill? Are you going to raise her minimum wage?
“The same people who yell ‘Pro-life, pro-life, pro-life!’ are the same people in Congress who vote against raising the minimum wage. Check it out. And so here is this woman who is living below the poverty level and you are not going to raise the minimum wage even though the buying power of the minimum wage is 25 percent less than it was 20 years ago?
“What are we doing here? We call ourselves pro-life when all we are interested in is taking care of the unborn.
“We could cut the rate of abortions dramatically if we could provide the economic support system to sustain pregnant women, prenatal and postnatal – and if we would provide day care for the child. In short, if we are going to be pro-life and I am very pro-life, I think we have to be pro-life all the way.
“I think the Democrats are wrong in not being a pro-life party. I think Republicans are wrong in pretending to be a pro-life party. If you are pro-life, you have to be against capital punishment. You have to be for the medical care for the poor. You have to sustain poor people.”
Politicians need to be honest, says Campolo. “We put billions of dollars in their hands and they took that money which should have been used to take care of us in our old age and they’ve used it for everything else, building roads, building infrastructure and about 40 percent of it being used to sustain the military.
“Here’s the money that elderly people trusted to Congress, which instead spent it in ways that they felt would serve special interest
“groups. Now they are coming back and saying ‘You know, Social Security and Medicare are a handout and a gift to you and we just can’t afford to give it you.’
“Elderly people want what is theirs. They are not asking a favor or a handout. They are simply saying “We trusted you with our money” – thousands of dollars every year for 50 to 60 years. But Congress stole it from us.
“Congress owes us. So, Congress, don’t act as though you are giving us a gift. You owe us. You stole from us.”
Campolo is known for making the occasional controversial statement. Among the things he has said in the past is that he is not convinced that Jesus only lives in Christians. Does Campolo still believe that?
“I believe what it says in the first chapter of John,” he answers. “It says very clearly that a person is a Christian when he or she surrenders to Christ.
“It’s not when we say the words ‘I accept Jesus into my life.’ Let me tell you this. You wouldn’t be able to accept Jesus into your life unless Christ was already in you. Jesus said that: I think not that you have chosen me, I have chosen you. I always tell my students when you go to the lost, you are not taking Jesus to where He is not. You are where He already is. Your goal is to get people to surrender their lives to Jesus.
“We have in the church today believers who have not surrendered themselves. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. Nobody comes to the Father except through Him. That’s what I preach. Having said that with I say ‘My job is to declare that message.’ It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict and to judge.
“I think that when we get into judging business and saying who’s in and who’s out, of God’s will, we make a big mistake. We do have the right to say this is what gets you in – and this is what takes you out. But I think judgment is not our prerogative.
“We expect gay and lesbian to change their behavioral patterns and come to Christ. You’ve got to come to Christ and then He will work in you to change you.”
What would Jesus say to the mainstream denominations across America that are shrinking in membership? The Episcopal church is in trouble. Presbyterian and Methodist churches are closing nationwide. What’s gone wrong?
“If I had to reduce it to one thing, it’s this,” says Campolo. “Evangelicals such as Southern Baptists know how to give an altar call and call people to commitment.
“But liberal churches very often preach a pretty good message – but at the end of the service, they never say – now if you are ready to make a decision to commit yourself to Christ, come down to the altar. If you want to start living out what we’ve been talking about today, come forward for prayer. Then we can ask God to be our partner in this great task.
“Evangelicals are great in calling people to commitment, but liberal churches have forgotten how to do it. One of the top Presbyterians in this country invited me to do a weekend retreat with that church’s clergy and I said ‘Fine, I’d like to do that. What do you want me to do?’
“He answered, ‘Would you please explain to the Presbyterian clergy how to call people to a commitment to give their lives to Christ?”
“I thought to myself, ‘What do they teach you in seminary?’ If they don’t know how to call people down the aisle and say, “Give your life to Jesus.
“Come forward, make a commitment!
“And that’s what all of us must do, liberal and conservative! Come forward. Take Jesus at His word. Make a commitment!”