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.