October 12, 2015 / Perspective
Stephen Long’s Saving Karl Barth demonstrates how theological friendship might begin to heal a five-hundred-year division in the church.
October 10, 2004
The Other Journal (TOJ): I once heard a person say that they didn’t understand how someone could be a Christian and a Democrat at the same time. Do you think the current political divide in the country has hindered the unity in the Church?
Tony Campolo (TC): I think the Church has contributed to dividing the country by talking just like that. By saying, “If you’re a democrat, then you can’t be a Christian.” The reality is that if Jesus was among us, he would be angry with both parties. I think he would come down hard on the Democrats—in my own opinion; this is my own opinion—on the abortion issue. But I think he would come down hard on the Republicans because they are not committed to justice for the Palestinians, they are so pro-Israel that they forget that there are Palestinian people who are getting their teeth kicked in. I think that they have in fact made patriotism into something that is idolatrous. I really raise questions about the militarism. I really feel that the Evangelical community is overwhelmingly in favor of Capital Punishment, and the Republican Party is there. I believe in a Jesus that says, “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.”
I think that the Evangelical Community does not ask enough questions about war, and I’m not talking about whether we should have gone to war or shouldn’t have gone to war with Iraq, primarily because I think the time has come to raise questions about whether or not a just war is even possible. I mean, I’m not even talking about whether this was a just war, that’s for the politicians to argue over. That’s not the issue. Can there be a just war if a just war means that innocent people don’t die, only combatants die?
The Republicans have this new budget which gave an incredible tax cut to the rich. In order to bring about that new budget, 500,000 boys and girls in inner city tutoring programs lost their tutoring slots. I would think that every Evangelical Christian would be irate. How can they support a party that does such terrible things to the poor?
There’s enough to be angry about on both sides, and I can see why some Christians say: I’m not gonna vote. Either way I vote, I’m voting for something I don’t approve of. If I’m voting for the Democrats, I’m voting for something I don’t approve of. If I vote for the Republicans, I vote for something I don’t approve of. I’m choosing between the lesser of two evils, given the present political situation. But, you’ve got to vote, because you have to in fact vote for what you think is the best option.
On environmental issues, this administration has been abominable, and I’m asking a very serious question: how can Christians support a party that is reducing all the regulations on the environment to such a degree that we have to worry about our future? So, when I look at the political elections, I see the Republicans over here, holding up personal morality, and I think they’re doing a good job with it. I see the Democrats over here, holding up social justice issues, and I think they’re doing a good job with it. We need the best of both, and we need to eliminate the worst of each.
TOJ: Do you think, then, that part of the problem is that a lot of Americans confuse patriotism and the U.S. with the Kingdom of God?
TC: Yes, I think that one of the real fears that we have after 9/11 when our love for America became so intense, is that we tend to forget that our ultimate obligation is not to the United States of America, but to Jesus Christ and to the Kingdom of God. The Bible is quite clear. As Christians, we are sojourners here. We are called in the Bible “ambassadors from God.” That is to say that we are in this world, but not of it. And when in fact our patriotism takes precedence over our spiritual commitments, we have to take a good look at ourselves and ask whether or not we have become idolatrous. I think we are on the verge of that in this country.
There’s a big argument right now as to whether American Flags should be in churches. Brethren churches and Mennonite churches historically have not had American Flags in the church because they sense the tendency to idolatry that is in patriotism. Now I find that there are Brethren churches that are beginning to put flags in churches. I don’t have any problem if you put the flag of every nation in the world in the church, but to single out one nation is to say that this Jesus that we worship calls us to loyalty to one nation above all others? Because I’ve got to tell you, I am committed to justice for all people, not just for Americans. And I am committed to all of humanity, not just to Americans. I think that Jesus calls us beyond our identity as nationalists and calls us to be internationalists.
TOJ: How well do you think Evangelicals rose to meet the new responsibilities that came with 9/11?
TC: Well, I think that religious radio and religious television has tendency to be more American than Christian, and there has been an uncritical support of national policies. Please don’t get me wrong, I think that in times of crisis we should support our nation, but to do so uncritically, and to not raise questions, and to be totally uninformed is not right for Christians.
Most Christians, studies have indicated, believe that Iraq was involved in 9/11, and this becomes justification for going to war. More than 50% of American Christians believe that we actually discovered weapons of mass destruction. When Christians are that ill-informed and are making judgments and voting without knowing the facts, I think they are guilty of being poor citizens, so far as being Christian citizens are concerned.
TOJ: How are we as Christians to responsibly enter into the current debate over homosexuality in the Church?
TC: It’s a very interesting thing, and here is my response to it. I don’t believe that the government should be involved in establishing marriages for gay and lesbian people. Let me just say, I don’t think they ought to be establishing marriages for heterosexual people. All relationships established by the state should be civil unions. In Europe, you get married twice. You go down to the city hall, and you have a civil union in the court. That’s the government’s responsibility. Then if you’re a Christian you go down to the church and have it blessed and have the spiritual ceremony. That’s a marriage, and what you do in the city hall is a civil union. All marriages should be civil unions. Marriages should only take place in churches.
The reality is that when I perform a wedding, I have to end it, according to law, with these words, listen to the words: “By the authority invested in me by the state of Pennsylvania, I declare you husband and wife.” What right does a minister have to give up the authority of God and the authority of the church and become a civil servant at such a sacred event? Marriage is a sacred event, and I believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman, but it should take place in a church and the government should only establish civil unions for both homosexuals and heterosexuals so that homosexuals and heterosexuals have the identical rights. I don’t know that there are many Evangelicals who are denying gay couples their basic human rights, but they don’t want the word “marriage” tied to it, and I agree with that. I don’t think the government should be giving the title “marriage” to unions. That is the responsibility of the church. Let the government perform civil unions for both homosexual couples and heterosexual couples, and let the church perform marriages, and we’ll get out of this bind that we’re in.
TOJ: So do you think that President Bush is doing the wrong thing by trying to amend the constitution?
TC: Well, I think that what he called the “Defense of Marriage Act” is ridiculous because I’ve got news for you—it’s not the gays that are getting divorced, it’s the heterosexuals. If you want a defense of marriage bill, you will begin to put some restrictions on who can get divorces and how they get divorces. The problem with American families right now is not that the homosexuals want to get married, it’s that the heterosexuals are getting divorced. It’s about time that we faced up to the facts. It’s a superficial, pious hypocrisy when the heterosexual divorced people in churches stand up and say, “We don’t want gays to get married.” I don’t want them to get married either, but I’ve got to tell you, the Bible doesn’t say anything about homosexual marriages…well, I shouldn’t say that. Jesus doesn’t say anything about homosexual marriages. He does say some very specific things about people that are divorced and who get remarried. I want to know why we can be so hard on people who are coming into relationships that Jesus never even mentions and so kind to people that are in marital relationships that Jesus specifically condemns.
Let me just say, if you want to put together a defense of marriage act, then let it be a defense of marriage act. But you’re not defending marriage by going after 1% of the population, which is what the homosexual community consists of. You defend marriage by going after the 50% of marriages that take place in this country that end in divorce. What are we doing to protect the institution of marriage? Answer: nothing. And to say that this bill is going to protect marriage is the ultimate hypocrisy. Why don’t you call it what it is? Say, “We want a bill that puts homosexuals into a box.” Say a “confining homosexual bill.” Don’t call it defense of marriage; that’s a euphemism because if we were defending marriage, we would go after divorce and separation.
TOJ: Our last issue was about human sexual trafficking and prostitution around the world, and as we would talk to people and tell them what the issue was about, we would get some raised eyebrows and strange looks. Do you think that there’s a large problem in just getting awareness of issues out to the Evangelical community?
TC: Of course there is. Evangelical Christianity has become very self-centered. Let’s just take a good look at the new worship music, which pervades every growing church that I know of. How many of the songs are about justice?
TOJ: Somewhere around none.
TC: You know, everybody’s loving Jesus in the abstract, and my question is—well, Jesus raised the question—how can you love a God that you can’t see if you can’t love your brother that you can see? When we have a worship service that is totally focused on adoring God, but doesn’t speak to the justice issues that concern God, we are not honoring God at all.
TOJ: You once said that the war in Iraq is going to set back the missions field 1000 years. What do you think is going on over there that is so damaging?
TC: Well, every mission’s conference I go to talks about the 10/40 window. The 10/40 window is 98% Muslim. What we don’t understand is that the Muslim world has total unity, unlike the Christian world. They are divided into denominations: Sunni, Shiite, Suphi, I could go on with a list. But regardless of what group of Muslims you belong to, five times a day, regardless of the sectarian identification, gets down on his knees and bows toward Mecca. Think of the social, psychological unity of a billion people at a given time, five times a day, turning towards one spot on the earth, reciting exactly the same words.
The unity in the Arab community is immense. When we attacked Iraq, it was not perceived that we were simply attacking a tyrant. And what’s more is that the Arab community didn’t believe that that was the issue anyway. If we were out after tyrants, there are a lot of other tyrants in the world that we completely ignore. You say, “But we were getting rid of weapons of mass destruction.” We didn’t find any weapons of mass destruction, and furthermore, the UN said there were no weapons of mass destruction. We know that Korea has weapons of mass destruction, and what’s more is they’ve even threatened to use the weapons on us. So why aren’t we invading them? So, the Muslim community is saying, “This guise of WMD’s (weapons of mass destruction), this guise of getting rid of tyrants is all a lot of rhetoric. In the end, they are out to, in fact, destroy the Muslim world.”
Our one-sided support of Israel against the Palestinians, the war in Iraq, has been interpreted, and whether we like it or not and whether it’s true or not is immaterial—there is no one that’s going to question this. But, the Muslim world has interpreted the war in Iraq as a war of the Christian west against the Muslim community. It’s being interpreted that way. Whether they’re right or wrong is immaterial. The fact that it is being interpreted this way is what really matters.
As sociologists say, if things are real in the imagination, they are real in their consequences. Even if the Arab world imagines that this is the case, and it’s not real, it doesn’t make any difference. The consequences are there. Already our missionaries are getting persecuted because of what is happening in Iraq. And when Evangelical leaders stand up and make statements like “Islam is an evil religion,” when they make statements like, “Mohamed was a pedophile,” they do not understand how this plays out in the Muslim world and what is happening to Christian missionaries under the impact of this kind of rhetoric.
TOJ: So, do you think that while the Arab world perceives Iraq this way, Evangelicals almost subconsciously perceive it this way, as indicated in the rise of anti-Islamic sentiment?
TC: I think that they do. I think that, in fact, what we have done is taken the worst aspects of Islam and generalized from that what all Islam is about. So, we make statements like, “Islam is an evil religion.” Our most prominent Evangelical leaders are making these statements. And you say, “Well, I can show you verses in the Koran where it says to kill infidels.” I agree with you. I can go to our Bible and show you where out God calls for genocide of everybody that lives in the holy land. Does he not?
TC: Could not a Muslim pick up our Bible and say, “This is what they want to do to us. They want to kill every man, woman, and child. Look at the book of Judges. Look at the book of Deuteronomy. Read the history of this Judeo-Christian religion. They’re out to kill us.” I don’t want Christianity judged on the basis of what is in the book of Judges about the genocide that is practiced there.
I don’t want Christianity judged in our day by the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan nations, which are both extremists. Moderate Muslims don’t want Islam judged by the Al Qaeda. You say, “Well, why don’t they stand up and speak out?” They are. All around the world they’re speaking, but the American press refuses to give any space to the outcries of moderate Muslim leaders who are calling people to turn away from terrorism.
TOJ: Right now we have a President who is very vocal about his faith. This is something that some would say we haven’t seen to this degree until now. How do you think this is a pro and a con?
TC: Well, I think it’s a pro. But, when you say it hasn’t shown till this time; please understand that this President does not go to church. The Democrat did every Sunday with his Bible under his arm, and he got condemned for it. This one doesn’t go to church and we don’t say a word.
I believe that this man is a committed Christian. I believe that the last President was a committed Christian. You say, “But, he sinned.” (laughs) Come now. And are you telling me that committed Christians do not sin and sin horribly? I mean, what about David? He sinned horribly. Worse than Clinton.
And Jimmy Carter! What about Jimmy Carter who lived a pure life, who was a decent man, and the Evangelical community came down on him. The truth is, the Evangelical community too often is more committed to Republicanism than it is to their brothers and sisters in Jesus.
TOJ: I’ve always been surprised when you hear people attack Jimmy Carter when he’s doing Habitat for Humanity and things like that, and I would always wonder, “Why is this happening?”
TC: Yeah. Please understand that when Jimmy Carter was President, he established the only period in modern times when we had a moral foreign policy. Under Jimmy Carter, no foreign aid was given to any country that practiced totalitarianism. Reagan changed all of that, and he said, “We will give financial support to any country if they are willing to support us in our policies in the UN.” That kind of pragmatism over Jimmy Carter’s idealism ought to raise some very serious questions.
TOJ: You’re very big on unifying the Church. Do you see that we’re moving away from unity? And if so, how do you think we can possibly get back together when there are, for example, Methodist churches with Lesbian ministers, and on the other side, you’ve got these churches saying God hates homosexuals?
TC: First of all, I think that denominationalism has lost its significance. When somebody tells me he’s a Methodist, Baptist, or Presbyterian, it doesn’t mean a thing. I want to know whether this person has a personal relationship with Jesus, whether he believes in the doctrines of the Apostles’ Creed and whether he takes the scriptures seriously. These are the things that make a person a committed Evangelical.
However, I do believe that in the issues that we’re facing, like homosexuality is a good case in point, what we really need is to do away with hierarchical denominational systems where people in councils and Presbyteries and general assemblies and bishop’s councils can make decisions and impose them on local churches. I think that each local church should be given the right to make up its own mind as to what its’ practices and what its’ behavioral patterns will be. I think that if a given church chooses to say that homosexuality is not an acceptable mode of behavior, than no Presbytery, no general assembly, no national denomination has the right to say, “I’m sorry, but your attitudes toward homosexuality are too narrow and too confining and must be obliterated.” Local congregations should be able to make the decisions that determine the destiny for their own people. In short, I think the only resolution is localism in Church politics.
TOJ: What do you think is the biggest spiritual blind spot for Christians in the U.S.? You know, issues of economic equality—
TC: That’s the issue. We are a totally consumerist society. We are 6% of the world’s population, we are 42% of the world’s resources. I am a conservative on the homosexual issue. I’ve said this. I’ve seen that same-gender eroticism is condemned in the first chapter of Romans. But, don’t call it sodomy. Because if you go to Ezekiel 16:49, it says this, “This is the sin of your sister Sodom, that she lived in luxury while ignoring the poor, that she overate while other people starved, and that she was a prideful and haughty nation.” If that’s that it means to be into the sin of sodomy, then all of America is committing sodomy, and I think that that’s our great sin. That we are, in fact, largely indifferent to the needs of the poor.
As I said today in this talk, among the industrialized nations, on a per capita basis, we are dead last in giving to the poor of the world, and that is frightening. That’s our sin. We have to face the fact that we all—and here’s where President Bush is doing the best that he can, and I think we need to love him and respect him because we have put him in a bind. We want him to stop outsourcing jobs. Kerry is going to jump all over him on this, and he’s already doing it. And poor Bush, he doesn’t want to outsource jobs. He wants to keep jobs here in the United States, but the jobs are being outsourced because we selfish Americans think it’s more important to get a cheap pair of sneakers at K-mart than it is to protect children who have become slave laborers in third world countries. We have bargains in our stores because the products are produced by slave labor in third world countries. As long as we want bargains without asking, “How are these bargains created?” we are an immoral people. That’s what we’re doing. We want our bargains, and we refuse to ask, “Why is it we can get everything so inexpensively?” The answer is: because it’s produced in third world countries. Then we turn around and criticize President Bush because the jobs are going overseas and the companies are saying, “The people want bargains, and the only way we can give them bargains is to take our industries overseas and get slave labor to produce the products. Then and then alone can we give people the bargains that they demand.”
I contend it’s the selfishness and the materialism and the consumerist attitudes of the American people that are our greatest shortcoming.
TOJ: So, do you think that the main way we can help to promote positive change would be through economic avenues rather than political?
TC: We have to, and that’s a whole other story. You’ve been dealing with politics here, but politics and economics are so interwoven that we have to raise- and the church has not raised – economic issues on the macro level here in the United States. In the United Kingdom, they have raised those issues. In the United Kingdom, the Jubilee 2000 crusade was something that every church from Pentecostalism to the Roman Catholics actually articulated. But we paid very little attention to it.
How much attention is being paid to the unfair trade relations that are driving thousands and thousands of third world farmers out of business everyday? None. Christians refuse to face up to these things, and we have a clergy that is so anxious to give people what they want to hear that they refuse to teach them what is really going on in this world. The clergy bears a great responsibility in all of this.
TOJ: I know that you’re late. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us.