19 Nov 2018
After surveying America, the brilliant French journalist, Alexis de Tocqueville declared: “America is great because America is good; and if America ever ceases to be good, it will cease to be great!” Now the question must be asked, “Is America good?”
Having just returned from a speaking tour in Europe, I got the impression from most of the people I met over there that America is not generally viewed as being good, and I wondered if that means we have been loosing our greatness. In the nations that I visited, no one questioned that we are the wealthiest of nations or that we have the strongest military on the planet, but nowhere did I find that we were viewed as an especially good nation.
I don’t want to disparage my country, because there are many good things about us. Statistics will prove that we are the most charitable people in the world. Whenever there is a need anywhere in the world, the American people can be counted on to give generously to meet that need. Whether it’s responding to the suffering of an earthquake in Haiti or the catastrophic effects of a tsunami in Indonesia, we Americans are on the scene with volunteer help and financial aid.
When it comes to charitable work we’re number one, and when it comes to missionary service, agricultural programs, or health care and job creation in developing countries, we again come out on top.
Our problem of image, it seems, stems from the policies of our government. I am not singling out particular policies of the Trump Administration, although of late it has contributed much to our negative image overseas. Our problem of image goes back over several decades and administrations. The lack of moral justification for our involvement in the Vietnam War lingers on in the minds of many. There seems to be a consensus abroad that millions of people suffered and untold hundreds died unnecessarily in a futile effort by some of our leaders to avoid the embarrassment of having to admit that we were in a war that America could not win. We watched with tears in our eyes as body bags carrying the bodies of brave soldiers were brought home for burial, and dealt with feelings in the pits of our stomachs that they may have died in vain.
It didn’t help when there was bipartisan support for an Iraq War that created millions of refugees with untold hardships and devastation for millions of others.
Today, we continue to ignore the pain of Palestinian people on the West Bank who have had their land taken from them illegally to make room to build Israeli settlements when our government could have stopped it.
As of late, America’s treatment of refugees — especially the separation of children from their parents who illegally crossed our southern borders — has appeared inhumane to many people around the world. The words of Ezra Lazarus inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty now mocks our onetime good intentions as a safe haven for immigrants as it reads:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Moving to the domestic scene, we now have a government that appears ready to take away health and education benefits from the poor while giving huge tax benefits to the upper five percent of our citizens, and then there’s the dismantling of regulations that had been established to protect the environment. People in Europe, where I recently visited, are aware of these policies.
Also, there’s the exposure of the latent racism that we Americans tried to pretend was part of the past. The events at Charlottesville in which neo-Nazis conducted a torchlight march through the campus of the University of Virginia and a president who failed to categorically condemn them, further marred our identity. The Black Lives Matter movement dispelled any remaining illusion that we had moved into a post-racist era.
We once were noted around the world for being a champion for human rights. This, in spite of our willingness to tolerate slavery for so many years, and our denial of the social and political rights for women. Our oppression of Native Americans has been another blot on our human rights record. Yet, in spite of these many shortcomings, there have been people everywhere who once regarded Americans as a shining light for human rights advocacy.
Now we are facing a test of the validity of America’s human rights claims. When Jamal Khashoggi, the American-based journalist who once contributed articles to the Washington Post, recently disappeared and was probably murdered after entering the Saudi Arabia consulate in Turkey, our president was reluctant to declare any significant outrage. What was worse is that a leading evangelical leader, Pat Robertson, host of the Christian 700 Club television show, commented that we shouldn’t make a fuss over this matter since, according to President Donald Trump, Saudi Arabia is about to spend 100 billion dollars buying U.S. arms. Such statements do not bode well for the reputation of a nation and its evangelical citizens that claims high moral values, especially on human rights.
All of this leads me to wonder what Alexis de Tocqueville would have to say about America’s goodness and greatness these days. If he was writing his famous book, Democracy in America today, I wonder what he would say.
The Bible declares that it is “righteousness that exalts a nation” (Proverbs 14:34). If our president really wants to lift up our nation in the eyes of the world, I wonder if he considers this when he chants, “Let’s make America Great again!”
Among those who would make America great again, there needs to be soul searching.
One of the most remarkable sermons I ever heard was delivered by Norman Vincent Peale, at the Ocean City Tabernacle in Ocean City, New Jersey. At the age of 98, he stood fully energized before a packed-out house and declared, “I am going to preach a sermon on a topic I know more about than anyone else here tonight! I am going to preach on the topic, ‘Getting Ready to Die.’”
As this venerable dean of American Preaching made his claim there was no one present who was ready to challenge him by claiming to be older. Instead there must have been many who envied him because he seemed to possess a confidence in the face of dying that most people wished they had.
The old man in the pulpit spoke with authority. It was the authority of someone who had come to look death in the face without blinking and had challenged the despair that it can impose on those it comes to claim. He held the congregation in the palm of his hand because we all knew that he knew of what he spoke and that what he said could help those of us who had not yet faced death in a realistic fashion.
Facing death, say both the philosophers and the psychologists, is the most important and difficult task in life, so it is no wonder that so few of us never seem willing to deal with it, yet, dealing with it is something none of us can avoid. Every once in a while we hear of someone who died while sleeping so that he or she never had to think about dying. When we hear of such case, there is a strange kind of envy that we feel. A friend of mine unexpectedly died of an aneurism. At the prime of her life she went to bed with her husband. In the middle of the night, she woke, got out of bed, and started towards the bathroom. She never made it! After a few steps she suddenly slumped to the floor and was gone. While we mourned her death, I sensed a kind unspoken hope among those of us at her funeral that death might always come that way; at the end of a long and fulfilling life, without having to think about it. “There was no pain! She must have never known what hit her! She must have never realized what was happening!” were some of the comments that could have been heard. She closed her eyes, and when she opened them again the first thing she saw was the face of Jesus.
For most of us death comes in ways that are somewhat difficult to handle. The anxieties that are experienced as death comes rushing toward us can dampen our appreciation for life for some of us, so that we end up psychologically dead long before we actually do die.
Howard Becker, whom many consider to be the most brilliant modern interpreter of Sigmund Freud, contends that the repression of death from the consciousness is a pre-requisite to living a happy life. Becker, in his book, Denial of Death, argues that when the defense mechanism that are constructed to ward off the awareness that death is encroaching on our lives begin to break down that the inevitable results is a sense of angst or despair. Becker claims that this is the reason that we participate in an array of socially created illusions designed to erase the reality of the impeding end of life, as we know it.
Soren Kierkegaard picks up this same theme as he described our futile efforts to escape from thinking about death. He said that each of us is like a smooth stone that we toss over the surface of a pond. Like that stone, each of us dances along the surface of life until each runs out of momentum and then each of us sinks into “a 100,000 fathoms of nothingness.”
Some of us are threatened not only with the pain of leaving this life but also with our fears of what might lie on the other side of the grave. Nowhere are such fears given more dramatic attention in English Literature then in Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, “To be, or not to be.”
“To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
the heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
that Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there’s the rub,
for in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
when we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
must give us pause…”
“…the dread of something after death,
the undiscovered country, from whose bourn
no traveller returns, puzzles the will,
and makes us rather bear those ills we have,
than fly to others that we know not of.”
We Christians know that the fear of death can be overcome if we only believe as Christ called us to believe in Him. We know on the cognitive level that Jesus is the resurrection and the life and that whoever believes in Him through he or she dies, yet shall that person live (John 11:25). But when faced with the reality of death existentially, most of us have a tendency to pray that prayer which a desperate father once prayed to Jesus, “Lord I believe! Help my unbelief,” (Mark 9:24). Yet, most Christians do work through their sense of dread about death and, if handled with honesty and prayer, often come out of their struggles with a confidence enabling them to be capable of facing death with their fears and anxieties under control. No one I know was more able to do this more than my own father-in-law. In the later years of his life, the Reverend Robert Davidson suffered from the hardening of the arteries. As the years passed, he seemed to become increasingly detached from everyday life. We sensed that we were losing him. One morning at about 5:00 am he suddenly sat up in bed and, according to his wife, said with a sense of triumph as he addressed an unseen presence, “Oh death! Where is your sting? Oh grave! Where is your victory. Praise be to God who gives me victory!” Then he laid back in his bed- and died! When I heard this story I could only say to myself, “what a way to go!”
But how do people like Norman Vincent Peale and my father-in-law get to that point wherein they are ready to die as true Christians are expected to die? How do they learn to resign themselves to dying with all the evidence of being victors over fear and anxiety? Nobody can answer for sure, but having been with several people as they worked through the reality of their own mortality there are a few things that I have discovered from those who were able to gain peace, and even joy, in the face of death.
When first confronted with the knowledge that the end of life is at hand, the first reaction, as might be expected, is denial. Most of us hang on to the thought that it is other people who die and do our best to make our own impending deaths unreal. On an intellectual level everybody knows that he or she is going to die, but it is more than hard to grasp subjectively what is an all too obvious truth when it comes to one’s own death. To feel the reality of one’s mortality is far different than thinking about it abstractly as an inevitable fact of life. It’s one thing to affirm with one’s mind that one is part of the human race, every member of which eventually dies, and coming to that subjective awareness that can trouble you as you go to sleep at night. As you put your head on the pillow, you might imagine a voice out of nowhere whispering in your heart and mind, “You are one day closer – and there aren’t many days left!”
It takes awhile before a person can emotionally deal with the reality of his or her temporality and acknowledge that for him or her personally time is running out. It is so hard that most people do everything they can to avoid it by becoming preoccupied with other things. But sooner or later all of the distractions that might keep us from thinking about death are likely to break down, no matter how useful these escape mechanisms might seem to be for a while. As Kierkegaard once said, “There comes that moment when even Beethoven is not enough!” Sooner or later those psychological mechanisms that keep us from facing the reality that death is closing in fail and we come to realize that dying is real and actually happening and that there is no escape from death’s nearing inevitability. It is a hard depressing truth, but if we wait long enough it drives away all our denials and we then move into the next stage which is bargaining.
We tell God that if divine intervention just will deliver us, we will be different, and we promise to do some incredible acts of service for Christ and His kingdom if we can just have a little more time. We begin a long litany of imploring petitions which begin with the words, “If only…You spare me I promise that …” The bargaining with God is all part of the dying process. In most cases, however, it does not work, and we realize that God is probably not going to cut a special deal that will temporally save us from death. It is then that we become ready to accept the inevitable. Acceptance, and the peace that it brings, comes as a welcome relief from the painful struggles that accompany denial and bargaining. But coming to this final stage of acceptance is not for Christians simply a matter of some necessary psychological adjustments that we make on our way to the grave. Instead, it is a process through which we are led by the Lord Himself. In the 23rd Psalm, we are given the promise that though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death that God will be with us every step of the way. In our passage to resigning ourselves in death into God’s loving hands, we may discover that God provides comfort and strength. These too are promised in the 23rd Psalm.
The comfort and help that God gives comes in a variety of ways but the most important gift in the face of death is the assurance of his radical grace. In the face of death, each of us, like the apostle Paul, may become convinced that we are the worst sinners in the world and deserving only of condemnation. Certainly Paul had this sense about himself when he was given to reflection on his character (see 1 Timothy 1:15). Like Paul, we can conclude that regardless of any religion we might have had, or any good works we might have done, that our just due is condemnation from God. But if we have time to really get into the Bible, we will get the message that God loves us anyway, even in spite of our being terribly flawed. If we stop living in fear over how sinful we really are and learn to trust in the Good News that Jesus did everything necessary to guarantee us forgiveness and cleansing, and promises of eternal life. Grace (that word that appears over and over again in the New Testament) means that we get what we never earned and don’t deserve. We are told in Romans 5:20 that “where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.” The verses that drive home that truth better than any other I know is Ephesians 2:8-9 – “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast,” (New International Version).
What many people think is that God, like the Statue of Justice, has a scale of some sorts and that on that day of judgement God weighs out all the good that we have done against all the sins in our lives. Then, if the good outweighs the sin, God lets us into heaven. The spoofs on judgment day in the movies certainly reinforce this kind of thinking, and those of us who are caught up in those images are led to believe that God will let us through the pearly gates only if we are good enough.
Well it doesn’t work like that! Sin is more like poison. It only takes one little drop in a glass of clear water to kill you. The Bible says that everybody has taken more than enough of this poison to warrant the eternal spiritual death we call Hell. The Bible says: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23 NIV). That puts every man and woman in deep trouble. Nobody has what it takes, according to the Bible, to escape the condemnation that is his or her just due. Every single person who has ever lived, but one, has inherited the moral character of Adam, the founder of the human race, which include an inborn tendency to sin. However, over and against the bad news is the Good News! And here it is: Romans 5:17-18 says, “For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ! Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.”
In case you didn’t get what the Bible tells us, it is that we had nothing to do with becoming oriented to being sinful. It’s part of being in that long line of Homo Sapiens that traces its lineage all the way back to the Biblical couple that got humanity going in the first place. What is of crucial importance, however, is to realize that the flip side to that bad news that the Bible is telling us is that there is nothing we have to do to become acceptable to God! What needed to be done was done for us on the cross and in the resurrection by Jesus.
Please don’t ask me to explain how all of this works but this is what you are asked to believe: When Jesus died on the cross all the sin in your life was absorbed into His personhood and you are freed of sin and its consequences because of that! You don’t deserve what He did for you, and, in all probability, you haven’t shown sufficient gratitude for what He did for you since you found out about it. But it’s a done deal! The Bible says in 2 Corinthians 5:21? “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
You need to stop and reflect on all of this in the face of death. Objectively you ought to just keep telling yourself over and over again, “I don’t have anything to worry about. Jesus took care of everything that would have made me unacceptable to God and would have barred me from eternal life.” Romans 8:1 – “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” (Roman 8:1). Subjectively, you ought to be allowing Jesus, who is an invisible presence where you are right now, to penetrate your mind, heart and soul. In the face of death it is time to shut out the world and thinking about dying and to yield to an invasion by His spirit. As that happens, you will sense to the extent that His loving spirit flows in that the depressing fears that generally come with dying will gradually be driven out. 1 John 4:18 – “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t sin enough to lose God’s love. You can’t do enough good to earn God’s love. It’s a gift.
You need to take time to think about what He did for you on the cross, but you also must take time to let His spirit do something to you in the “now.” Go off by yourself. Shut the door of your room (Matthew 6:6). Sit still and ask God to help you feel Jesus penetrating your psyche. In the words of that old gospel hymn, “take time to be holy.” Let Jesus happen to you in the stillness! In all of this His spirit will work on your state of consciousness and give you the assurance you long for in the face of death.
There is something else that has to be settled in the face of death if you are going to be able to accept it with what the Saints have called, “the peace that passes understanding.” You have to face the burden that goes with remembering the ways your sins have hurt others. You know that even if you are able to sense a freedom from guilt and the assurance that you really are a child of God bound for glory, you cannot help but be deeply troubled by all the hurt and trouble your sin has brought into the lives of others.
Perhaps you’re a woman, who in loneliness and neglect, found affection in the arms of another man other than your husband, and you think it might have had numerous effects not only your husband’s life, and in the lives of your children, but also in the lives of other people.
Or maybe, you’re a man who left your wife and children to go off with another woman and the wounds that you inflicted on them are still open and will mean a lifetime of suffering for them.
It could be that in some way you have lived a lie. You got where you are because people do not know the truth about you, and you fear that in the next life those you deceived will know the truth.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the rhyme of The Ancient Mariner declared that a deed in time is irreversible. He tells us that once an evil thing has been done, its effects cannot be undone, and that the guilt that comes with the evil done goes on forever. Coleridge was wrong!
There are two reasons to reject the despair defined by Coleridge. The first is the good news that God somewhat can undo the consequences of the sin that any of us have done. Consider the often abused verse, Romans 8:28. Romans 8:28 – “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” The verse does not tell us that God causes everything that happens. God certainly is not the author of the sins we commit (James 1:14). What the verse does mean is that in the midst of all the good and the evil that goes on in our lives and in the lives of those with whom we are involved, God is at work figuring out how to make things turn out good for those who trust Him with their lives. What that means is that you can turn over to God the messes that you’re made for others. You can call upon Him to step in and miraculously bring about some good for everyone involved. This does not absolve you from the need for confession and doing all you can to ease the pain of those you have hurt. You need to do both of these things.
Thousands of years ago, there was a young man we read about in the Bible named Joseph. We read that Joseph’s brothers did him dirty in a horrible way. At first, they threw him into a deep pit and had planned to leave him there to die. When they saw a caravan passing by on its way to Egypt, however, they figured that they could make some money by selling off their brother to be a slave to the owners of the caravan. The woes of Joseph that followed are well known to those who know the Bible, but so are the triumphs of Joseph. Against seemingly insurmountable odds, Joseph overcame his adversities while in Egypt and rose to be the king’s prime minister.
Years later Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt because a famine had brought them to the verge of starvation. They had heard of the wise prime minister of Egypt who had made sure to it that ample food supplies had been stored in the king’s silos to meet just such an emergency as might be caused by a famine. So they went to Egypt to ask the prime minister to spare some food for their family, not knowing that the wise and now famous prime minister was none other than the brother that they had wronged.
After some painful theatrics Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers, who in turn shuddered at their possible fate at Joseph’s hands. But Joseph comforted his brothers by offering hope, as God does to all of us who repent of sin. In Genesis 50:20 we read that Joseph said to his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives,” (NIV). It didn’t undo the sin but it evidenced that God could bring something good out of it.
At Eastern University, where I have taught for many years, I would sometimes ask my students what was the greatest sin ever committed in history. They always say, “The Crucifixion of Jesus.” Then if I ask what was the greatest blessing ever bestowed in history, the usually say, “The crucifixion!” That proves my point.
Leslie Weatherhead, in a brilliant little essay entitled, “The Will of God,” helps put what I am trying to say here into some kind of logical form. He contends that there is God’s Initial Will. That means that before the world began God meant for there to be no evil at all in the world. He wanted for goodness to reign and for love, joy and peace to be evident everywhere and in everything. But humanity rejected what God planned for us and came up with its own plans for life, and those plans were disastrous. The good news is that God didn’t give up on us, even when God had every right to give up on us and give us what we deserved. Instead, God established what Weatherhead called the Circumstantial Will of God.
By the Circumstantial Will of God, Weatherhead meant that God went to work in the midst of the messes that we created. God derived plans wherein God took the evil actions and the sinful circumstances that we have generated and weaves them into an outcome that turns out for good for all involved. I am not sure about any of the details as to how all of this works, but by faith I leave the messes I created in God’s hands. I have to believe that God will not only undo the consequences of the evil for which I am responsible, but that He will be able to turn the evil into accomplishing some good. The death and resurrection of Christ is all the evidence I need to believe that He can. After all, were there ever such evil plans and actions that compare to what they carried out against our Lord on that tragic Friday when they nailed him to the cross? Yet God took the evils of Judas, the high priests of the Temple, Herod, Pilate and the blood thirsty mob, and turned all of that into the greatest blessing of all time. There is just no telling of what God can do when He takes the evil that we committed and decides to use it to do some good.
Weatherhead completes his little essay by telling us about the Ultimate Will of God. This is his way to declare that at the end of history evil will not have the final word. The most miraculous reality is that ultimately God will make everything new (Revelation 21:5) and right. In the end, as Julian of Norwich said, “All will be well! All manner of things shall be well!”
Finally, as we face death we should find comfort in the declaration that God by His grace not only forgives and delivers us from that which would ban us from the joys of heaven; He not only undoes the consequences of the evil that has marked our lives; but He also forgets that we ever sinned in the first place (Isaiah 43:25). Who would want their sins remembered? So thorough is God’s work in our lives that on that great day when we are presented to the heavenly hosts we will be introduced as persons who are faultless. The book of Jude affirms this truth. Jude1: 24 states: “To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy.”
I can just imagine Jesus saying, “Father! I want you to meet my friend Tony … The Perfect One!” And that is what he will do for everyone who trusts in Christ when we meet Him on the other side of the great divide.
In light of all this good news about how those who understand and live out the gospel can face “the last enemy,” which the Bible calls death, we can deal with the fact of death. We can more fully understand why Jesus said what he did in John 14:1-4, in what many consider to be one of the comforting passages of scripture in the face of death: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”
With that truth undergirding us, let us listen to our Savior, who tells us in the face of death, “Fear not!”
This is an extended edition of the August 16, 2018 article featured on the Red Letter Christians blog.
24 Aug 2018
Every Monday night at 10:30 p.m., more than 150 young people squeeze into a backroom theatre connected to a bar in Brooklyn, New York. They would never call their gathering a church but if you ever joined them, you wouldn’t know what else to call it. For an hour and a half, they stand while a band led by a piano playing singer who they call “Reverend Vince” engages them with his music. The songs, mostly written by him, are often overtly Christian but his raspy voice and the beat of his music sound more like Woody Guthrie.
Reverend Vince started his program by singing a song he wrote entitled “Get Outta My Way,” with members of his band chiming in. The song picks up on Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees whom He considered to be barriers that kept people from experiencing God or embracing the lifestyle of the eschatological society He called “The kingdom of God.” “Get Outta My Way” points out the judgemantalism and legalism that far too often represent Christianity in today’s world. Reverend Vince notes the hypocrisy that is so easily visible in many of us who pose as leaders of the church. Over and over again he sings what Jesus might say to such contemporary Pharisees – “Get Out of My Way!”
In another of his songs, Reverend Vince sings about the ways that most Evangelical churches treat LGBTQ people, and speaks to a White House that not-too-subtly supports racism, misogyny, and the rich at the expense of the poor. He ends each verse with a refrain sung in blustering tones, “I Don’t Think Jesus Done it that Way!”
With a beat and a style that was somewhere between rock and rap, this very talented musician also sings some more traditional religious songs like, “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” and “This Little Light of Mine.”
What impressed me most was when Reverend Vince came off the only slightly raised stage, mingled among those in the packed out audience and had them join him in singing, “Don’t Give Up! We Need You Now.” Moving among the enthralled “congregation” he hugged people and it didn’t take long before everybody in the place started hugging and singing to each other “Don’t Give Up! We Need You Now.” As I watched this “happening” I wondered how many of those gathered there really needed the message of that song. I had to find out more about this amazing man, so I asked him for his story.
Reverend Vince came east from California to attend Union Theological Seminary in New York City and prepare for a preaching ministry. He was a musician on the side, to pay the bills and because he loved doing it. Then, one Sunday morning at the great Riverside Church, Vince Anderson heard a sermon preached by its pastor, Dr. James Forbes. “I felt like he was preaching right at me,“ Rev. Vince recalls now, “That sermon was about how each of us is charged with discovering what God has gifted us to do.” Reverend Vince realized that his gift was to write and sing music, so that’s what he does. That the music he was writing and performing fit better into a bar than a sanctuary, did not deter Rev. Vince from following the call he heard of Riverside Church that Sunday morning.
The rest is history.
A lot goes on in New York but you’d have a very hard time finding a better show than the one at the Union Pool Bar in Brooklyn at 10:30 p.m. on Monday nights and repeated for a second crowd at midnight. That’s where Reverend Vince Anderson and his amazingly talented band have church, and hold forth with music and messages that are truly “good news” to a “secular” audience that gets together every week in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. There’s no cover charge or admission fee, but Reverend Vince does pass his hat (literally) at the end of the show.
“We didn’t charge you to come in here.” he says, “That’s because we wanted you to come even if you can’t pay. If you can give something, put in a little more for somebody who can’t afford to be here.” I was generous, but still I’ve paid a lot more for shows that weren’t half as good. What’s more, the feast I had at the Union Pool Bar moved me as much as any church service I’ve ever attended.
At the end of the show that was so much more than a show, I could almost hear a voice from on high saying, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”
09 Jul 2018
The Catholics are beginning to beat Evangelicals at their own game. They are getting into door-to-door evangelism big time. In an outreach ministry called “The Way” started in Spain in 1964, there are now more than a million adherents in 6,000 parishes worldwide serving Christ in this way.
Jose and Maribel Martin, who moved from their birthplace in Madrid to South Philadelphia just to do this work of God, say that they didn’t come to Philly to proselytize but simply to share the “good news” about how God has changed their lives. They are immersed in a small group with other members of The Way that nurtures their spiritual development and encourages their zeal for evangelism. Like other participants in this movement, the Martins are not shy about their faith commitments and sometimes even go to public parks and sing as they witness for Christ.
The movement started 54 years ago because a painter and musician, Francisco “Kiko” Arguello, stepped in to help an abused mother of nine, endeavoring to protect her from her sometimes violent husband. In that troubled wife, Francisco says that he found “the crucified Christ.” Later, he joined up with a theologian, Carmen Hernandez, and together they formed a small Christian community that concentrated on ministering to the poor in Madrid’s slums. From that small group the movement has grown and today has spread around the world.
The members of The Way go through an eight-week course of study to prepare them for their ministry. They then attend study sessions every Wednesday and attend Mass in small groups on Saturdays. Their evangelistic zeal often irritates more staid Catholics in the traditional congregates in parishes where they worship. In 2008, however, Pope Benedict XVI provided “The Way” with the Vatican’s imprimatur. This gave them important legitimacy.
“The Way” has created controversy within Catholicism. In Japan, the Catholic Conference of Bishops issued a statement that the movement had created “confusion” and attempted to stop its activities – contending that The Way failed to respect Japanese Catholic culture. The movement also has caused controversy in the Philippines, the United Kingdom, and Italy. This is no surprise to any who have read the book of Acts in the New Testament. As you read Acts, you will find that wherever the early Christians carried the “good news” about Jesus that they (in the words of scripture) “turned the world upside down” (Acts 12:6).
Those who are in the movement testify that their involvement has been transformative, deepening their faith and giving them a sense of Christ as a living presence in their lives like never before.
In the midst of all the bad news about what is happening to Catholic churches it is great to hear what God is doing through ordinary Catholic lay workers who are committed to evangelism in extra ordinary ways. If Red Letter Christians take the words of Jesus seriously and act on them we might imitate the people of The Way. Check out Mark 6:7-12 and then ask, “Is this what we are supposed to be doing?”
Many progressive Evangelical leaders have become increasingly upset with the image (often unfairly) of all Evangelicals as being homophobic, anti-feminist, anti-environmentalist, anti-immigrant, and unabashed supporters of the Alt-Right Republican policies. Thirty of them responded to an invitation issued by Jim Wallis, the editor of Sojourners magazine, to come together in Washington in order to consider adopting a new identity since the label “Evangelical” has taken on so much negative baggage. After much discussion, there emerged a consensus to henceforth designate themselves as Red Letter Christians. They came up with that name because in many Bibles the words of Jesus are highlighted with red letters.
These Red Letter Christians are ready to take the radical teachings of Jesus and endeavor to live them out. They contend that St. Paul, in his Epistles, gave Christians a theology, but in the red letters in many Bibles, Jesus prescribed a counter-cultural lifestyle, and the latter is what Red Letter Christians are all about. They by no means minimize the theology of Paul, but try to overcome the seaming neglect of the call to the radical countercultural lifestyle prescribed by Jesus.
Red Letter Christians generally hold to the orthodox Christian doctrines; believe the writers of scripture to have been led by God’s spirit in what they wrote, and call Christians to surrender to a transformative relationship with the spirit of the resurrected Jesus. While these beliefs could label them as religiously conservative by some, Red Letter Christians break from many fellow conservative Christians by embracing a progressive political agenda that includes environmentalism, an end to write privilege, Christian feminism, and justice for LGBT people. They certainly do not go along with those Evangelicals who declare Donald Trump as their “Dream President.”
81% of white Evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, and since his election, have continued to support him with enthusiasm. They have done so even though there are many who argue that his policies are diametrically opposed to the teachings of Jesus. For instance, Jesus said blessed are the poor (Luke 6:20) while Donald Trump blesses the rich with a tax bill that will make the rich even richer. Whereas Jesus was into a ministry of reconciliation, this president has been into nurturing divisiveness and polarization. The Jesus revealed in scripture called upon his followers to welcome aliens but President Trump has been closing the door to needy persecuted immigrants. While Jesus called his disciples to be meek there has seldom been anyone in American politics who can match Trump’s egoism. Jesus requires repentance from those who sin, but America’s President has declared that he has never seen the need for repentance. The list of contrasts between what followers of Jesus are expected to be and do and what we find in Donald Trump seem blatant and long. Yet several of America’s most prominent Evangelical leaders refer to to him as the kind of president for whom they had been hoping.
The support for President Trump that has been shared by most white Evangelicals is in stark contrast to who many African-American, Hispanic, Asian, Native-American, and leading progressive Evangelicals had hoped would occupy the White House. Not surprisingly, it was only a matter of time before these Trump opponents would find one another and coalesce into an emerging movement. That movement, which had been brewing for more than a half dozen years via the internet, became visible on April 6th and 7th in Lynchburg, Virginia. That is when and where the first Red Letter Revival meetings were held. Bringing together some 350 attendees these meetings featured an array of speakers who took turns challenging white privilege, “American exceptionalism,” sexism, excessive military spending, homophobia, the oppression of African-Americans, the treatment of Native-Americans, and the Trump administration’s immigration policies. Committed to gender diversity, men and women were equally represented as speakers. There was also diversity with speakers from a variety of ethnic groups.
Lynchburg was chosen as the site for these revival meetings because it is the location of the ministries of Jerry Falwell Jr. and Jonathan Falwell, two of the most notable leaders of the political right-wing of Evangelicalism. Representing political positions at times diametrically opposed to the Falwells is Shane Claiborne, the president of the Red Letter Christians movement. There were plans for Shane to go onto the campus of Liberty University, the school founded by Jerry Falwell, Sr. and hold a prayer vigil there on the shooting range where Liberty students practice with guns that Jerry Falwell encouraged them to carry. Unfortunately, this leader of Red Letter Christians was barred from the campus by Falwell’s threats of arrest and a $2,500 fine.
The two days of meetings culminated with a call to discipleship wherein the attendees were asked to commit themselves to the radical teachings of Jesus in contrast to the “cultural religion” they believed was being propagated by too many politically alt-right Evangelicals. Up until these Red Letter Revival meetings in Lynchburg, which received wide media coverage, including a fall page article in The New York Times on May 29, 2018, the movement was largely propagated via the Red Letter Christians website. Now, however, the movement is picking up momentum and is planning additional RLC revival meetings.
It is likely that the next RLC revival in the United States will be held in Dallas, Texas, the buckle of the Bible Belt, with a special goal of challenging Rev. Robert Jeffress, the politically powerful pastor of the First Baptist Church, who has served as a primary promoter of Donald Trump’s presidency, even giving introductory speeches at many of Trump’s political rallies.
When asked how Jeffress and other “Family Values” Evangelicals could lend such unqualified support to Donald Trump in light of the alleged sexually immoral behavior of the president, Tony Perkins, of the Family Research Council answered, “We Evangelicals believe in God’s grace and forgiveness.” To this, Red Letter Christian and a New York Times best-selling author, Frank Schaeffer, retorted, “This president has never repented and forgiveness without repentance is what the German martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer called, ‘cheap grace.’”
Red Letter Christians has a powerful ally who call themselves “The Elders.” These are Christian leaders who, from the 60’s up to the present, have been prominent activists, championing civil rights, speaking out against environmental degradation, opposing the war in Vietnam, standing up for the rights of women and gays, along with other hot button issues that have troubled the nation.
In May, Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners Magazine, and Bishop Curry, made world famous from his homily at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. “The Elders” – held a rally attended by more than 2,000 pastors and lay leaders at the National Christian Church in Washington to initiate their movement which they called “Reclaiming Jesus” (see www.reclaimingjesus.org). Following the rally there was a silent candlelight march to the White House where there were declarations of their calls for justice for the poor and oppressed.
Red Letter Christians is linked with The Elders and together we are becoming a formidable force for an alternative to the alt-right politics often propagated by segments of the Evangelical community. The movement has even gone international! In early May, Tony Campolo, a founder of RLC, and Shane Claiborne, the president of RLC, met with Steve Chalke and Ash Barker, two prominent progressive Christian leaders, in order to plan launching the movement in the United Kingdom, and even in Australia. Don Golden, the executive director of RLC, has been lying the groundwork for the movement in Peru. Don was able to use the Spanish translation of The Red Letter Revolution, written by Shane and Tony, to promote RLC among Peru’s Christian leaders.
Those who have been waiting for a countervailing movement among those progressive Christians and refuse to identify Jesus with either the Republican or Democratic parties should take heart and sign up with the Red Letter Christians at their web site and show up at their upcoming revival meetings. To do so, supporters should go to the RLC website, and then blog with them in the months that lie ahead (www.redletterchristians.org).
03 Mar 2018
Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son in law and one of his top advisors, lost his top security clearance because of his complex business arrangements and debts in foreign countries. To date, the United Arab Emirates, China, Israel and Mexico are cited as countries with which Kushner has had dealings and conversations, none of which were coordinated or reported through the National Security Council.
Whenever Trump’s administration is questioned about such things the president claims, It’s a “witch hunt” by politically motivated Democrats. In this case, however, it was Trump’s own National Security advisor, H.R. McMaster, who called out Kushner on his very questionable business arrangements. There were fears that Kushner’s financial entanglements with foreign nations might be used as leverage when he is trying to negotiate on such matters as trade deals with China, or when negotiating for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Conflicts of interest seem evident given Kushner’s investments and loans in those countries.
The question also must be asked, at this juncture, about whether or not Trump himself could pass a test for top security clearance, given his complex financial arrangements in such places and governments as Russia and China. We know he has huge hotel investments in those two countries.
Trump is the first president in recent years who has not put his business holdings in a blind trust while serving in the White House. As we all are aware, he, unlike other modern day presidents, has refused to release his income tax returns so that the American people might know where he is financially invested, and what leverage other governments might have with him when he deals with them about foreign affairs.
These questions I am raising will never be answered as long as we have a Republican Congress, so how can the American people themselves be sure that their president himself is not a security risk, vulnerable to manipulation by foreign governments? These are only questions. In I Corinthians 4:5 we are told to not rush to judgements, but that God will bring to light what might now be hidden. It is a good thing for us to affirm the Bible’s directive.
20 Sep 2017
I am confused about what the Bible says about the rapture. In I Thessalonians 4:13-18 and in I Corinthains 15:51-54 the Apostle Paul talks about the end of history being marked by a heavenly trumpet sounding and those who are “in Christ,” (meaning “the saved”) will immediately vanish and are “caught up in the air” to meet with Christ.
Having been raised on the theology of the Scofield Reference Bible I was taught that those who had not entered into a “saving relationship with Christ” would be left behind while true Christians would be raptured. It seemed clear cut to me that godly folks would be taken up to meet with Christ in the sky, and then taken to heaven, while the ungodly would be left behind to endure seven years of suffering times called “The Great Tribulation.” After that would come the final Judgment Day!
But then, as a Red Letter Christians, I read about another rapture which Jesus Himself talked about. Check it out in Matthew 13:41-42 and then in Matthew 24:40-41 and you will find that it’s just the opposite of what my Scofield Bible told me would happen when the end of times is heralded. In Matthew it’s not the godly people who are raptured, but evil people who will be raptured and then thrown into “a furnace of fire” where there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.”
Fortunately, there are Biblical scholars who can explain away these apparently contradictory raptures, and I’m glad for that. What I am trying to say is that things are not as clear-cut as these Scofield Reference Bibles told me they were. You need to read up on all of this, and there are books like Left Behind? by LeAnn Snow Flesher and The Rapture Exposed by Barbara R. Rossing that you might find especially useful. In the meantime, get on with doing God’s work in this world and let “the end” come, “whenever”!
15 Sep 2017
I usually turn off the T.V. whenever I come across those Bible Prophecy preachers. Their interpretations of scripture usually makes them into prophets of doom. They generally use the Bible to predict days of war and strife laying ahead of us, usually in the immediate future.
The other day, however, while reading the nineteenth chapter of Isaiah, verses twenty-three through twenty-five caught my attention.
“23 In that day shall there be a highway out of Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian shall come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians shall serve with the Assyrians.
24 In that day shall Israel be the third with Egypt and with Assyria, even a blessing in the midst of the land:
25 Whom the Lord of hosts shall bless, saying, Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel mine inheritance.”
A day is coming, according to this passage, when Israel will be a blessing to Assyria (present day Iran) and to Egypt, with a highway running through Israel connecting these three countries. If we are to take the prophet Isaiah seriously (and I do) the future holds the promise of peace and harmony in the Middle East. That is real good news for those of us concerned about geo-politics.
13 Jul 2017
This past Sunday, while sharing The Lord’s Supper with fellow worshippers, I was challenged to repent of my sins. Before eating the bread that symbolized Christ’s broken body or drinking the wine that served as a reminder of His blood shed because of my sins, I did a lot of repenting. I did so, not so much to escape condemnation from God on judgment day, but in deep remorse for all the hurts my sins had inflicted on others. I remembered those who may have thought less of Christ because of having noticed things that I had said or done.
I am an old man now but when I reflect on my past I realize that there have been in my attitudes and behavior over the years expressions of the sexism that I now condemn. I know that there have been times when, in the face of racism and homophobia, I remained silent and did nothing – and that silence was sin. And there have been occasions when I have been disingenuous and compromised my testimony for Christ. It would be easy for me to go into specifics but I don’t know what good that would do. Deeds done in time are irrevocable.
All I can hope for is that on that day when each of us will have to give account of our sins that those who I have offended will have taken on something of the grace and forgiveness of Christ, so that they might respond to me as I know He will.
At this communion service this past Sunday, as I ate the bread and drank the wine, and most of all remembered how my sins have caused Jesus agonizing pain. Upon reflection I realized that none of the nails that the Roman soldiers drilled through His hands and feet hurt Him more than my own personal ugly sins…and, at this communion service, I repented – big time, and I inwardly wept.
26 May 2017
On June 18th I will be speaking at the Ocean City Tabernacle located at 550 Wesley Avenue in Ocean City, NJ at both the 8:30 and 10:30 am services. Your presence could be a great encouragement for me, and it will please me more than I can say to see you there. My topic will be, “Keeping the Faith in a Secular World.”
You may know that my son Bart, after years of serving along side of me in a variety of missionary ventures, confronted me with the news that he no longer believed in God. This stunned me and pained me. I will be sharing in my morning messages what I believe may have caused his de-conversion, as well as how I have responded to him.
I am by no means alone as a parent who tried to raise a child in the Christian faith, only to discover that his or her precious child has turned away from God. The Pew Foundation having studied this matter in depth has given evidence that young people who once had religious convictions and have been turning away from being people of faith at an alarming rate. That is why I am convinced that discussion on why children leave the faith of their parents, and what can be done to bring them back, is of ultimate importance. We all need to be open about the fears and concerns we have when those who are dear to us stray from a relationship with Christ.
This sermon will be hard for me to deliver, and I need sympathetic listeners to encourage me. Perhaps some in the congregation will learn something that will enable them to help others to deal with such a crisis. I need your help!
By Tony Campolo
Older white working class men have been hurt and are angry—and for good reason. They have suffered three-quarters of the eight million job losses caused by the 2008 financial crisis. The male-dominated industries of construction and manufacturing were the hardest hits by that recession and the effects are still being felt. Close to 20% of working class men in their prime working years were not employed by 2016. Sociologist will tell you that financial stresses are the major causes of marital disruption and there were many divorces and other family difficulties as a result of husbands being unemployed.
Progressive social justice preachers, like myself, have championed causes for every other oppressed group except for these older white working class men, whom we have often cast as “the enemy” in accord with the prejudices of some of our human rights groups. Perhaps this is one of the reasons they have drifted out of our churches.
We social activists have preached against global warning, which we believe has been caused in part by carbon emissions, and we have lobbied the government to put restraints on those factories that were guilty of such emissions. This, of course, caused many industrialists to take their factories and the jobs that go with them, and move them to other countries like Mexico and China, where restrictions on carbon emissions were not as strict as they are here in the United States. So when Donald Trump told them that he would financially punish those industrialists who try to take their factories out of our country, working class white men cheered.
Trump told them that they had been left behind by the social movements that the liberals in the Democratic party have espoused over the past half century, so it should not surprise us that they found in Donald Trump someone who expressed what they felt.
In the past, the Democratic party has claimed to be the party of the working class, but these older working class white men tended to see it as a party made up of an educated, latte drinking, haughty, and condescending elite with whom they could not identify, and that did not seem concerned with their plight. The Democrats assumed that because they were members of the working class they could take their votes for granted as they had before.
The possibility of winning working class people back to the Democratic party has not been helped by those party professionals who declared them to be people who stupidly voted against their own political and social interest. Nor did the Democratic party do itself any good when some of their “sour grapes” losers accused these neglected citizens of being Islamophobes, homophobes, xenophobes, and sexists. Many of the rest of us also may have harbored such unfair prejudices but have learned sophisticated, politically correct, ways of concealing them, knowing that these attitudes would be unacceptable in the circles in which we travel. Not surprisingly, there are an array of these working class older white men who really know this and mock our hypocrisy.
It is time for all of us to remember that Jesus did not find His followers among the elite of His day. As a matter of fact it was the religious and political elite who deemed Him a threat to their privileged status. They were the ones who eventually crucified Him. It was the working class folks, on the other hand, who heard Him and from whom he chose His disciples.
A prime concern of mine right now is that President Trump, along with his new cabinet members and his other appointees, could betray these older white working class men who have cheered their new president at his many rallies. There is growing evidence that they are introducing policies that could harm them. My hope is that he will respond to their hurts and frustrations in ways that will give them—and the rest of us—hope. Given the Wall Street bankers and financiers that Donald Trump has appointed to high offices so far, and, on the other side of the political aisle, the Wall Street billionaire operative who is now the Democratic minority leader in the Congress, I wonder if the concerns of these older white working class men on Main Street will continue to be ignored. I fear that could happen. Let’s pray for better things.
05 Aug 2016
On Tuesday evening, July 26th, at the Democratic National Convention, I was given the opportunity to deliver the benediction. It was at the end of the day’s program during which the convention delegates voted to make Hillary Clinton their candidate for the Presidency of the United States. I thought that the prayer should be as non-partisan as possible, while at the same time holding up Mrs. Clinton before the Lord. Also, I wanted to do my best to cite the social concerns that are of note in the discussions of Red Letter Christians.
Many of you listened to the prayer as C-SPAN broadcast me delivering it, and have responded by sending me emails and letters. Perhaps you would like to give me your thoughts on the contents of the prayer.
We are a nation that needs healing. Break down the barriers of race and ethnicity that separate us. Cure the sexism and homophobia that denies the dignity of so many of our fellow Americans. Help us to overcome our fears of refugees and show us how to love our enemies and overcome evil with good. Imbue our religious leaders with your love so that they will teach us how to transcend our differences and become one people.
Teach us how to beat our swords into plowshares and learn war no more.
We pray that the next president of our country will sense the obligation to reach out with our vast resources to minister to those who You called, “the least of these,” not only here in America but to needy people around the world.
May all of our political leaders be committed to making America into a people that strive to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, provide care for all the sick, speak justice on behalf of the oppressed, and make room for refugees, remembering Your own Son who was once a refugee in the land of Egypt.
On this memorable night, we pray for Hillary Clinton. May her candidacy send a message to women everywhere that the glass ceiling that has held so many of them down is being broken, and that a new day is dawning not only for women but for all people everywhere.
We ask all these things in Your holy name.
10 Jun 2016
by Tony Campolo
Red Letter Christians should try to be at the Ocean City Tabernacle (550 Wesley Ave., Ocean City, NJ 08226) on June 26th at 7:00 pm. Along with Mark Lowry (of T.V. fame) I will try to explain the unique spirituality preached by Jesus, as highlighted in the red letters in many bibles.
Jesus was quite specific about what we should do to prepare for intimacy with God; how we should pray, and what to expect to happen because of our prayers.
Here are some things I will address:
- When Jesus told us that when we pray we should, “go into a closet and shut the door,” He was telling us that prayer should be a time and place when we shut out the extraneous things in the world and be totally focused on Him.
- That prayer should be a time of surrendering to Him, and in stillness allowing His spirit to invade our hearts and minds.
- That prayer should be a time of “cleansing.” This happens when we name those dark things in our lives and allow Him to reach across time and space to connect with us and absorb those dark things into Himself.
- That prayer should be preparation for action. We should come away from praying empowered to do His work in the world. Prayer should motivate us to share the gospel with others and to work to end sexism, militarism, homophobia, racism, and economic injustice. When Jesus prayed it resulted in action, and it should do the same for us.
Mark Lowry, who regularly appears on television in Bill Gaither’s “Homecoming” concerts, will be joining me, and singing from his repertoire a variety of gospel songs related to what I have to say about prayer.
I hope you come to the gathering on June 26th. Red Letter Christians very much need the kind of deep spirituality that prayer can give us if we are to engage the world with Christ’s radical calling all Christians.
26 Feb 2016
By Tony Campolo – founder of the Red Letter Christians Movement
When Larycia Hawkins, a Professor at Wheaton College claimed that Christians and Muslims worshiped the same God, a major controversy broke out. Consequently, I was asked if I agreed with her. My response was to ask a question in return: “Do any two of us worship the same God?”
Each of us grew up in a different social environment. We were raised by different fathers and mothers who conditioned our various understandings of God by what they said and what they did. Also, the various economic classes from which each of us came, also gave each of us differing concepts of the nature of God.
Then there is the reality that our church and denominational affiliations highly influenced our understanding of what God is like. Who can deny that a person enmeshed in a fundamentalist church, with a strong emphasis on the penal-substitutionary doctrine of the cross, will have a very different concept of God then does someone raised in a liberal church which teaches that the cross is primarily an expression of God’s sacrificial love? Furthermore, we even must ask if males and females have differing images of what God is like.
Some of the words we use to help us understand the nature of God only serve to confuse us. Words like omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient have great poetic value but are beyond the comprehension of our empirically grounded minds. Can anybody really understand what these words mean? Is it safe to say that the knowledge and power of God is beyond comprehension?
Here is where Red Letter Christianity comes into play. All that we Red Letter Christians know about God is what we find in Jesus. For us, who God was and is, is discovered in God’s son.” In Jesus, the fullness of God is revealed.” (Col. 2:9) As we read those red letters of scripture, along with the divinely inspired black letters that describe the life of Jesus, we get a good look into the character of God.
There is still another way in which we can come to know God, and that is to surrender to the transforming impact that God can have in our lives through the power of the Holy Spirit. The more we are in a mystical communion with God that allows God’s indwelling presence to transform us into Christ’s likeness, the more we will understand God and the more the world will get some glimpses of what God is like. We are called to reflect God’s likeness to a confused world, and to the extent we do that there will be fewer questions about God’s nature and character, such as those that were raised about Professor Hawkins’s controversial statements.
10 Feb 2016
By Tony Campolo
Eric Hoffer in his seminal book The True Believer declared that a movement can exist without a god! Many movements have. The Nazi movement existed without a god, and Marxist/Leninist Communism was a movement that existed without a god. What Eric Hoffer goes on to say, however, is that no movement can exist without a devil. Certainly Hitler knew this, so he made the Jewish people to be the devil, and as such, had to be destroyed. He told the German people that all their problems, including their defeat in World War I, were because of the conniving of the Jews. We all know the horrors the Jewish people suffered because of this kind of evil propaganda that defined them as the devil. After World War II we Americans made the communists the devil, and we evangelicals preach sermons against the communist who we felt we’re everywhere to be found. I remember when the preacher in my home church called communism the greatest enemy that the church ever had to face, and that communism likewise had to be destroyed.
When the Berlin Wall came down Christians were left in a quandary. We Evangelicals needed a new devil to energize and grow our movement. We needed a devil that we said had to be destroyed, and with communism gone we established that devil to be in the gay community. To listen to some of our Evangelical brothers and sisters these days this becomes very clear. So many of them see gays as an enemy that must be stopped at all cost. In far too many cases Evangelicals have demonized gays and lesbians and have acted as though these homosexual people “are out to destroy the basis of Western civilization – the family”.
If you read the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) you will find that the ancient Jewish Prophets did something very different. They too believed that there was a devil that had to be destroyed, but they found that devil within themselves and their community. Whenever Israel was threatened, as they were by the armies of Sennacherib, the Prophets did not view their primary problem to be in the enemies of Israel, but to be what was in the hearts and minds of the people of Israel themselves. The Prophets, in the face of adversity, always called upon the people of their nation to examine themselves, to repent of their sins and to get right with God. They called upon the children of Israel to root out the demonic that was within their own lives. If they could do that and become yielded to God, then all would be well. It was not a devil outside of Israel that was viewed as their nations problems, so far as the Hebrew Prophets were concerned, rather it was the devil that was within the hearts and minds of their own people who were living in opposition to the will of God that was the problem.
We need prophets in this day and age who will stand against those who call gays and lesbians people who are demonically possessed. Homosexuals are not the devil who are the primary problem for American family life. Instead we need a strong call to righteousness within the heterosexual community. There is no question that family life in the Western world is falling apart. The divorce rate is high and the incidence of marital infidelity is scandalous. The number of maladjusted children coming out of dysfunctional families grows daily. In the face of these realities, we should realize, however, that families are in danger these days, for the most part, because of heterosexuals, not homosexuals. Heterosexuals are the ones getting divorces while the gays are asking if they can get married. If you can’t see the irony in that, then you have no sense or humor whatsoever.
When a friend of mine who is gay was told by a judgmental Christian, “I love the sinner but I hate his sin,” my gay friend responded, “That’s just the opposite of what Jesus said. Jesus did not say that we should love the sinner and hate his sin. Instead he told us to love the sinner and hate our own sin – and only then, when you are purged of your own sins, can you begin to talk about the sin we might find in the gays and the lesbians of the land”. Before heterosexual Christians look for the devil in the gay community, the should focus on the signs of demonic traits within themselves. When asking what is threatening family life in America it would be best if we first got rid of the beams in our own eyes before trying to ferret out the splinters in the eyes of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.
Think about these things. This brief set of comments is not anything more than to say to my Evangelical brothers and sisters, we need more self examination and less condemnation.
25 Jan 2016
By Tony Campolo
Donald Trump has revealed something about we the American people. It is not just Republicans who are marching to his drum beat. If he becomes the Republican nominee for the presidency we will learn very quickly that he has very strong support among Democrats as well. Mr. Trump is a populist candidate who understands the intensity of the discontent and fears of a host of Americans. In the face of his challenges we must ask if we have become a people who have forgotten what we once claimed to be. At the base of the statue of liberty we read these words, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door! “
Do we still believe those words or do we resonate with Mr. Trumps desire to build a wall across the Mexican border? Are we ready to join him in stereotyping those undocumented immigrants who he described as rapists, murderers, drug pushers and thieves – while going on to say, in a condescending fashion, that “some of them might be decent people”. His willingness to discriminate against groups of people because of their religious beliefs – as he indicated he wants to do temporarily towards Muslims who want to enter America – is not only unconstitutional, but to many of us, it is immoral. He has suggested that thousands of these Muslim people danced in Jersey City on 9-11 without giving one iota of evidence. This ended up only feeding the anger and animosity towards Muslim people.
Mr. Trump’s sexist attitudes towards woman are well known and need no elaboration here. The more outrageous his declarations the higher his polling numbers go up. If you do not believe that Mr. Trump can win the presidency, than you underestimate his appeal to a huge sector of people in both parties.
There are some liberal clergy who have spoken out but the vast majority of the Evangelical clergy are remained silent on these matters. That Mr. Trump is opposed to gay marriage and abortion is enough for many to define him as an Evangelical and far too many of the rest of us think that that makes him okay for the presidency.
Evangelicals readily ignore our Lord who called upon us to welcome aliens and told us in Matthew 25 that if we fail to make room for the “stranger” we are rejecting Him.
The respect that Jesus showed towards woman flies in the face of those Evangelicals who ignore the degrading comments that Mr. Trump has made about woman, in opposition to the kind of respect that Jesus showed towards them.
Trump’s shocking statements about prisoners of war and especially about the heroic John McCain who could’ve been set free from his Viet Cong captors, but refused to leave behind his fellow prisoners, deserved some rebukes from Evangelical televangelists, but none have been forthcoming.
Some fellow Republican candidates (bless their hearts) have spoken boldly against Mr. Trump’s values and have tried to distance themselves from him. But I am still looking for notable Evangelical spokespersons or publications, like Christianity Today, to do the same.
The question I am raising is not about the character of Donald Trump, it’s about who we are as Americans, and more specifically, who Evangelicals are who follow after him. If he wins the Republican nomination, and the pundits increasingly believe that he will, I fear that my fellow Evangelical brothers and sisters for the most part will vote for him. This is why so many of us are calling ourselves Red Letter Christians instead of Evangelicals. Unless Evangelical leaders who sense that there is something radically wrong with Mr. Trumps social values and speak against them, there may be a new generation that may choose to call themselves Red Letter Christians because the word “Evangelical” will be carrying the baggage that the Trump campaign is presently carrying.
By Tony Campolo
Someone has said that Pope Francis is really a Protestant. He is, if Protestant is defined as someone who protests. His recent encyclical Laudato si’ is a protest against the often irresponsible industries as they pollute the environment.
The Pope especially protests the ways in which coal is burnt in the production of electricity. He is right to protest. What comes out of the smoke stacks of coal-fed electric power plants is linked to 50,000 deaths a year, according to Physicians for Social Responsibility. Because children and the elderly among the poor are the most vulnerable, the Pope, following his namesake, St. Francis, has a special concern for those that Jesus calls “the least of these.”
This encyclical is not just a plea for curtailing the pollution of God’s planet; the Pope is also calling for a change in our cultural values. In this encyclical, he protests the heightened individualism of our modern world that is concerned only with personal comfort and pleasure and, instead, he calls for an ethic that highlights a commitment to “the common good.” For Red Letter Christians that means that we must ask ourselves, before we do things that impact the environment, what Jesus would do if Jesus was in our place. There is no doubt that all that Jesus did and calls us to do puts the welfare of others above materialistic self-interest.
Like Jacque Ellul, the 20th century French sociologist, and the British economist, B.F. Shoemaker, this pope protests the technocratic society which is not only using up the earth’s non-renewable resources, but has created means of production that has been destroying meaningful work, creating unemployment, and generating low paying jobs among the poor.
In case you think that Pope Francis is some kind of Luddite, rejecting all forms of technological advances, you really should read Laudato si’. If you do, you will find that he very much encourages the kind of technology that will reap great benefits for the poor of the world. He singles out the invention and the deployment of solar panels as an example of good technology. This particular means for generating electricity could and should be made available to poor families, not only in America, but also in villages and hamlets in the third world.
Most of us have been unaware that the cost of solar panels has dropped 75% in the last six years, and there are indications that the costs soon will drop dramatically further. In light of that fact, Pope Francis proposes that as part of foreign aid packages, countries like the United States should require that receiving nations–as a condition for receiving fund– make solar panels available for poor citizens, rather than using their grant money primarily for the benefit of the rich.
Of course, this sets up the pope as an ideological enemy of the likes of the Koch brothers who are willing to spend 500 million dollars in the 2016 election to ensure that a Republican candidate becomes president, who is committed to stopping government endorsement and support for forms of energy that do not use fossil fuels. Their reason is that they have become billionaires through their investments in the coal and oil industries.
As influential as Pope Francis has become, I seriously doubt whether his Biblically based efforts to save the environment will succeed, given the opposition from those special interest groups that are focused on maximizing profits–even at the expense of the rest of us, and especially at the expense of the poor. But then, God’s prophets are seldom taken seriously during their lifetime. Let’s pray that Pope Francis is an exception. With God, all things are possible.
10 Aug 2015
By Tony Campolo
I want to be a non-violent resister because as a Red Letter Christian I am committed to taking seriously what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. There’s no way to read through chapters five through seven in Matthew without recognizing that Jesus called his followers to reject violence, “turn the other cheek,” and do good to those who would do us evil. Jesus told us that we are to love our enemies, and that probably means we shouldn’t kill them.
As I remind my fellow Red Letter Christians to be peacemakers, even as Jesus proposed in Matthew 5:9, I do so with some ambivalence. Realizing that the freedom to be a pacifist, or in my case a non-violent resister, was earned for me and for other likeminded Red Letter Christians by brave men and women who both fought and, in many instances, died in order to provide that freedom. In short, I have a sense of gratitude that there have been and still are men and women in uniform who did what needed to be done so that I could live out my commitment to being a conscientious objector and not serve in the military.
It is far too easy for me, living in the security of the United States, to say that “war is not the answer” because I live thousands of miles from those places where ISIS is about to take over villages and cities–where I know its hooded terrorists will rape, murder, and kidnap innocent victims.
I wonder how many others like myself, who declare themselves to be non-violent resisters in a cavalier manner such as mine, would remain non-violent in response to ISIS threats if ISIS was knocking on the doors of the places where we live.
Yes! I am still committed to non-violent resistance in the face of those who, as the scriptures say, would persecute me in spite of my innocence or “for righteousness sake.”
So it is that I stand for non-violent resistance with a troubled heart and mind, and I hope you can understand why.
By Tony Campolo
Shane Claiborne, one of the co-directors of the Red Letter Christians movement, has made abolishing the death penalty a major commitment. He not only has drawn up petitions to be signed by likeminded believers who want to declare opposition to capital punishment, but he has done his best to confront those government officials who order executions for capital crimes.
Shane’s fellow graduate of Eastern University, Bryan Stevenson, joined this effort as one of the nation’s top lawyers working to abolish the death penalty. Following his graduation from Harvard Law School (which recently awarded him an honorary doctorate for his leadership as Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative) he established himself as a lawyer who would seek to get men and women off of death row.
To date, Bryan has gotten more than 350 of such convicts delivered from execution and even has gotten some of them freed after proving them to have been unjustly condemned to die.
Bryan tells me that those who he has helped in the face of the death penalty have had one thing in common. They were all poor! Poor people, in all likelihood have had nobody who was really good to speak for them when they have their day in court–“Except,” says Bryan, “in Montgomery, Alabama! Because in Montgomery, Alabama,” he says, “I speak for the poor, and I’m good!”
Both Shane and Bryan were students of mine during the 50 years I taught sociology at Eastern University. They are two young leaders who grasp the meaning of those red letters in the Bible that highlight the words of Jesus, who said, “Blessed are the merciful for they should obtain mercy (Matt. 5:7).
Certain religious leaders contend that the Old Testament legitimates capital punishment–and they are right! But we Red Letter Christians declare that the teachings of Jesus transcend and take precedence over the teachings of Moses and the Laws of the Hebrew Bibles. Consider how many times in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus declares concepts of justice as “an eye for an eye” with what he called His “new commandments.”
Jesus was about mercy and grace, and Red Letter Christians know that they should be about the same practices.
“You are my disciples,” He said, “If you do whatsoever I command you.” That’s what Bryan Stevenson and Shane Claiborne are trying to do! We thank God for them!
By Tony Campolo
President Obama negotiated a deal with leaders of Iran in the hopes of curtailing for a decade their development of an atomic bomb. It is by no means a perfect agreement. It is important to note that this agreement curtails, during a ten year period, the development of enriched uranium, requires the destruction of most of centrifuges (essential for the creating of nuclear weapons), and, with some limitations, the inspection of sites where atomic research could be conducted.
The prime minister of Israel was outraged over the agreement, and his extensive influence over the U.S. Congress has generated significant opposition to these proposals on Capitol Hill. Don’t think the prime minister is unreasonable. If you were in Benjamin Netanyahu’s shoes, you probably would react the same way. He, along with the rest of the world, has watched on television as tens of thousands of Iranians gather in front of their Iranian parliament building and chant for hours, “Death to Israel!” There is further upset when the key religious leaders of Iran declare that they will settle for nothing less than the annihilation of Jews from the Holy Land.
Iran’s benefit from the deal that was negotiated by Secretary of State John Kerry, on the one hand, is the lifting of the embargo that has crippled the Iranian economy and brought hardships to the poor of Iran. The Israelis, on the other hand, worry that when that economic embargo is lifted that Iran will be able to sell once again its vast oil reserves to amass significant financial resources which can be used to buy conventional weapons. And while there is a supposed eight-year embargo on purchasing arms, there are few who doubt that the Iranians soon would use these financial resources to purchase conventional weapons from Russia. If you can imagine living in Israel, that prospect would make you more than a little nervous. The Jewish people are asking if such weapons would be used to further equip Hezbollah and Hamas, whose soldiers are constantly threatening Israel at Israel’s borders.
The question that we have to answer is how we should react to this negotiated agreement. When we read in our Bibles those words of Jesus which are highlighted with red letters we ask ourselves, how literally are we to take them? All of us know that He called us to be peacemakers (Matt. 5:9), and, more specifically, that He called upon us to do all that is possible to evade war through negotiations (Luke 14:31-32). On the other hand, Jesus warned us that when we enter into negotiations with those who have declared themselves to be our enemies, we are to be very careful. He said: “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” There is little doubt that in those talks that were conducted in Vienna, John Kerry did his best to represent America as a nation seeking peace (i.e. doves), but the question that Israel is now asking is whether or not Secretary Kerry was as wise as serpents.
Secretary Kerry may not have come away from Vienna with the best agreement possible, nor did he come away with absolute assurances that the Iranians would fulfill their obligations. He did, however, make it clear that if Iran endeavors to subvert any part of this agreement that the former sanctions, with all their devastating economic effects, would “snap back” into place. That seems to me to be a wise amendment to the agreement.
The alternative to this agreement which hopefully would stop their atomic development plans would be to bomb Iran’s research facilities. This likely would result in another war, and most of us are of the opinion that war is not the answer.
Is the Bible unrealistic when it teaches us: “If thine enemy hungers, feed him; if he thirst give him to drink; for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:20-21).” Shouldn’t we as Red Letter Christians try Biblical ways to deal with Iran to be implemented? Could helping the poor and hungry citizens of Iran to overcome their privations thaw their hard feelings towards us and Israel? Could doing things the Jesus way change everything?
Secretary Kerry didn’t get out of his negotiations with the Iranians everything he wanted for the U.S. and for Israel, but he did get a lot. Shouldn’t we support him and give this Vienna agreement a chance?
There is much to fear when dealing with the Iranians, but let us ask God for the grace to love our enemies, realizing that perfect love casteth out fear (1 John 4:18). That would give us the capacity to negotiate without fear, whether it be in Vienna with the Iranians, or wherever God may lead us.
21 Jul 2015
Next summer, August 24-28, 2016, I will be participating in what is called the Inaugural Global Congress on Sports and Christianity, to be held at York St. John University in the United Kingdom. Other speakers include Dr. Michael Novak from the American Enterprise, one of America’s foremost media commentators on the social issues that dominate the headlines of newspapers and television talk shows; Joe Ehrman, an All-American football player, writer of several books including the New York Times best seller Inside Out Coaching featured in Parade Magazine as “The Most Important Coach in America;” and Stanley Hauerwas, professor at Duke Divinity School, and considered by many as the most influential theologian in North America. These are only a few of what must be considered a star-studded list of speakers who will address this congress.
There is little doubt that sports have become such an overwhelming presence in the lives of vast numbers of people around the world that sports must be dealt with as a crucial matter for the church. Among those questions that must be answered by Christian leaders are:
- Have sports taken on idolatrous characteristics, becoming for many their “ultimate concern” (using Paul Tillich’s definition of religion)?
- What does a positive theology of sports look like?
- How has the urgency for winning altered moral principles, especially in light of the recent scandals that have plagued the Olympics, American football, soccer, and tennis?
- What are the implications of steroids and other drugs being used by athletes for young people who are being nudged to success at any cost?
- What are the positive effects that a winning team can have on a community?
- How have the inflated salaries of some athletes influenced the value orientations of young people, as well the devaluation of work within such fields as human services?
- In what ways can sports contribute to the development of Christian character?
- What does the Bible and the early Church have to say about sports?
- How have sports contributed to the social solidarity of communities and nations?
- How do economic matters alter the role of sports in society?
- What are the sexual implications of the ways sports’ celebrities behave?
- How are women treated in sports?
The subject of sports as a Christian vocation has been largely ignored, but this congress could be the beginning of a great and ongoing discussion concerning this issue. Sports are far too important to be left solely to media commentators to define for their roles in society. It is time for church leaders to join the discussion.
For information about how to register for this conference long on to:
Hope to see you there!
13 Jul 2015
I’m retired. That means that I don’t teach there anymore, but I still think that Eastern University is a really GREAT school.
The faculty is tops. Everywhere you turn in this academic community you will run into PhD’s. While most of them are outstanding authors, those on the faculty at Eastern are primarily committed to teaching. They enjoy the small class size that marks Eastern as special, as well as the opportunity to get to know students personally, and to be able to provide for them the kind of counsel that students need to optimize their potential.
Eastern is in the mainstream of Evangelicalism. Added to that is its well established commitment to social justice within its community. There is a variety of opinions on social policies, and there is room for divergent viewpoints on the social issues that confront our contemporary world. One graduate remarked to me, “my friends at some other schools are told what to think. At Eastern I was taught how to think!” One thing that Eastern’s students and faculty members hold in common, is a commitment to the values of the Kingdom of God. They take it seriously when they pray in the Lord’s prayer, “Thy Kingdom come; Thy will be done; on earth as it is in Heaven.” That means that Eastern is endeavoring to raise up a generation of Christians who will invade every sector of society in order to be change agents for Christ. Eastern wants its graduates to be what Jesus called, “the leaven” – that means, to be people who permeate societal institutions in order to move them towards being all that God wants them to be.
Of course Eastern has just about everything else that a good school should have these days. Its campus has been voted by US News and World Report, as one of the most beautiful in America. It’s full range of student activities, including an outstanding athletic program, is such, that unlike massive state universities, creates the possibilities for all students to participate.
Because of Eastern’s evangelical roots and emphasis (go to Eastern’s website and check out the school’s doctrinal statement at: http://www.eastern.edu/about/our-faith) many students have come to study here who are oriented to full time church vocations. The school has one of the highest rated programs for youth ministry. Preparing students for missionary work both in third world countries and here in urban America is another one of the school’s specialties.
This university is seeking out committed Christians who are socially progressive in their thinking, and is, even now raising special funding for students who are heading into church vocations (http://campolocenter.org). I’m an old man now, but I look back on the days I spent as an undergrad at Eastern as some of the most fruitful and joy-filled days of my life. So when thinking about higher education, think Eastern!
I want to make a pitch to post high school young people for Mission Year. This is a program that recruits young people to spend a year as urban missionaries in some of the most “at risk” cities in America. These young people live in what is now being called “intentional Christian community”. Teams of ten to fifteen Mission Year volunteers live together in rented houses located in various “under served” neighborhoods where they go to work getting to know their neighbors, and sharing God’s love with them.
Every Mission Year worker gets involved in some community service program. It may be tutoring boys and girls, working with the homeless, talking to teenagers about what’s going on in their lives, helping a local Young Life club or being part of a neighborhood Bible study group. You certainly will be connected to a local church.
Each week there will be a meeting of all the team workers where high energy singing and good fellowship will nurture your soul. You will be given the opportunity to learn about urban ministry from experts in the field. You can even get college or masters credit for what you learn, experience and for your required reading. Every effort will be made to nurture your spiritual life so that at the end of your year of service you will be “on fire” with your commitment to Christ.
Here’s the web site: http://missionyear.org/ check it out, and sign up. You are needed!
Read Tony’s Article “The Perils of Well-Meaning but Short-Sighted Generosity” on Sojourner’s God’s Politics blog.
09 Mar 2009
Read Tony’s blog on Huffington Post, “Will Faith-Based Programs Go Sour on Obama?”
From the blog: “From the beginning, there have been some religious leaders who greeted the funding of faith-based social services by government with ambivalence. On the one hand, they believed that these religiously grounded programs needed extra funding and were pleased that the White House wanted to help. On the other hand, they had deep concerns about how government dollars would change the character of those faith-based ministries receiving this aid.”