September 12, 2012

Tony Campolo’s Power Delusion

Tony Campolo at Greenbelt 2012

By Nathaniel Torrey

Carl Jung once wrote that, “Where love rules, there is no will to power; and where power predominates, there love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other.” This was the central theme of a talk by Tony Campolo entitled “The Power Delusion at the recent Greenbelt Music Festival, an annual Christian art, music, and social justice pow wow in the UK. An evangelical pastor and author of over 30 books, Campolo told the audience on the first night: “The problem with the Church is that it has been too committed to trying to change the world through power while it lacks authority.”

Citing Max Weber, Campolo defined power as the ability to coerce. He gave as an example of a police officer pulling over a speeder, who knows the cop has a gun. The police officer, by Campolo’s definition, has power. It is implicit in Campolo’s definition that the ability to coerce, i.e. having power means that one is able to use force, even violent force, if the image of the police officer illustrates his point. The police officer doesn’t have to use his power, but the fact that he has it is enough. The great example of this is Christ, he says. Christ, a person of the Trinity, creator of the universe, and the uncreated Logos, has all the power one could imagine.

A Thomist or classical theologian would say that God is Power; all things that we say are powerful are participating with or owe their meaning to Him. What is important is that Christ, descending into the world as a man and allowing Himself to die on the Cross, gave up His power. This is illustrated well in a few lines from an antiphon chanted on Holy Thursday in the Eastern Orthodox Church: “Today is hung upon the Tree, He Who did hang the land in the midst of the waters. A Crown of thorns crowns Him who is King of Angels. He is wrapped about with the purple of mockery who wrapped the Heavens with clouds.” Right there is the tension of the all-powerful Creator willingly lowering Himself out of love for mankind.

This is the essential truth of Christianity, Campolo said. Citing sociologist Willard Waller, he declared, “The more you love, the more power you give up. Love makes you vulnerable.” If a Christian’s salvation is brought about by imitating Christ, then power must be given up to love just as Christ gave up infinite power but loved infinitely. So far, Campolo had said nothing contrary to tradition or scripture. In fact, the message of sacrifice and obedience is often over looked by many Christians. Christians should always be working out their salvation with humility, always looking to the good of others, and to reach out to the world in a spirit of love. The means of worldly powers and principalities should not be the main tools of a Christian working out his salvation.

Unfortunately, Campolo steered off track when he talked about specific social issues. He criticized the efforts of evangelical Christians in California in 2008 to ratify Proposition 8, which defined marriage as man and woman. “It was a brilliant example of the Church exercising its power to impose its well on the population,” Campolo said. “When it thought it won, it really lost.” This necessarily follows from Campolo’s definition of power and the inverse relationship between love and power. Campolo’s reasoning is something like this: If the Church used power to ratify Proposition 8, then it was not acting out of love. Since Christians must act out love, the political activism used by Christians to ratify the legislation was actually contrary to the spirit of the faith, and was therefore unwise. Campolo pointed to the reaction of various LGBT groups taking to the streets in protest as a sign of loss, that no one was brought to Christ that day because of the choice of evangelical activists to use power over love.

Though I’m sympathetic to the view that working to pass legislation based in Christian values is not on par with working out ones salvation with fear and trembling, it isn’t as if Campolo is calling for Christians to be Quietists. He cares deeply about social justice issues. I believe that Campolo would say that it is his understanding of Christianity that informs his belief that those particular issues are important. Why should Christians use political power on those issues, typically Left-leaning ones I notice, but not on issues about the family?

To participate in politics is necessarily to use power, or as Jean Rasczask says so bluntly in the film version of “Starship Troopers”, “When you vote, you’re exercising political authority. You’re using force. And force, my friends, is violence.” Though I would not go so far as Raszcask (He cites violence is the supreme authority, when Christians know God is the sole authority.), he has a good point. Even if you remove activism, going door-to door, and spending money on television ads, one man still has his one vote, his one monad of power. Being in a fallen world, Christians, if they wish to bring Christ in to their lives as citizens, are still complicit in a “power game.” Christians may not be of this world, but they are in it. Christians are citizens and they obligated as Christians to act, which includes voting, according to their consciences. No Christian should think that his political activism is the most important part of his salvation, and any Christian thinking that the Kingdom of God should be legislated into existence in this world is treading in dangerous territory. That doesn’t bar him from voting all together.

I don’t see Christians voting their conscience as a problem, but in parts of this speech you would think Campolo does. But again, Campolo is disingenuous; he doesn’t see a problem with it either and is fine with power as long as it lines up with the issues he thinks are important. He is fine with organizing politically for issues he cares about (at the beginning of the talk he even plugs SPEAK, a Christian organization dedicated to social justice issues). It is unfair to say “Jesus isn’t a Democrat or Republican” to diffuse conservative activism, but then encourage progressive activism. While Campolo is dead-on about love, sacrifice, and obedience as some of the most important Christian virtues, his conclusions about political activism and the relevant issues miss the mark.


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  • Sara Anderson

    So, the Christians who were campaigning against Prop. 8 and calling those who supported it “hateful,” were actually doing the “loving” thing?

  • Ben Welliver

    I read your article twice and still can’t grasp Campolo’s strained (to put it mildly) interpretation of Christians’ role in Prop 8. It was an exercise of “power,” so it can’t also be “loving”? Why not? Would it be loving to vote for a law requiring bicyclists to wear helmets? (I’m guessing he’d say yes.) His whole speech sounds like something that would dazzle a roomful of hormone-addled college sophomores, but since I’m several decades beyond that, I can only say that had I lived in California, I would have voted to ratify Prop 8, and I would’ve considered that a loving and Christian thing to do. I doubt “power” would’ve crossed my mind, and I hardly think that protecting an institution that is centuries older than Christianity qualifies as an effort to “impose its will on the population.” It’s obvious the LGBT activists have no qualms about “imposing their will” on the public. If Campolo was upset that they were upset, well, neither Jesus nor the apostles promised us that our every move would make us friends in the world – quite the opposite, in fact. I think it’s a bit cruel to regard evangelicals who vote their consciences as power-hungry.

    Emergent-morphing-into-true-blue-liberal Brian McLaren’s latest book refers to Campolo as a “mentor.” Campolo may take that as a compliment, but I sure wouldn’t. I fear both guys enjoy the attention they get by cozying up to the political left. I think they both need a long session with John’s Gospel, where the disciples are warned about “the world” and its hostility to the Father.

  • cynthia curran

    Well, I usually don’t agree with Tony’s poltics but one thing is Tony is one of the few on the left that supported Robert Schuller in the decline of his ministry even understanding that GG is no longer mainly white but a lot of Asians and Hispanics and so forth. And mentioning about Schuller’s involvement with the Hispanics in a service for them and getting involved int the local school.

  • http://www.paynehollow.blogspot.com Dan Trabue

    This is a critical question and one that I don’t think many on the Right “get…”

    Why should Christians use political power on those issues, typically Left-leaning ones I notice, but not on issues about the family?

    We get involved politically when there is the potential for harm, oppression or gross injustice, NOT merely to force people to adhere to our particular religious hunches.

    Gay folk marrying one another causes no one no harm. There is no rational reason to ban such marriages and the only real reason to do so is to legislate personal religious opinions. I’ve yet to see ONE rational reason other than religious bias brought to support this injustice.

    On the other hand, people polluting water streams with dangerous coal mining procedures, for instance, THAT has great potential for actual harm and injustice, so we can rightly oppose that, even when we might oppose it for religious reasons, as well.

    Someone smoking pot or drinking beer does not cause harm to others (in and of themselves – of course, impaired driving does). So we have no rational reason to create a blanket ban on such behaviors, but we DO have rational reasons to legislate rules to limit impaired behavior that MIGHT cause harm to others.

    For the most part, the Religious Left intervenes in areas where there is the potential for harm or oppression to others – not merely to legislate personal religious whims. This is not so for the Religious Right.

    I’ll give one exception for the Religious Right: If you think a fetus is a person fully deserving of all the rights a person is due, then being concerned about legislation that might save lives… abortion might be an area of legitimate legislative concern for the Right – with “legitimate” meaning they’re not merely trying to legislate personal religious whims, but that they’re trying to prevent harm.

    Otherwise, the Right tends too often to simply want to legislate personal religious opinions, and that is not rational, it seems to me.

  • Ben Welliver

    It’s a “whim” to believe that marriage consists of one man and one woman? I think marriage has been around a long long time, way too long to be the “whim” or “religious hunch” or “personal opinion” of meddlesome Christians. You talk as if morality was a matter of choice, like having a favorite flavor of ice cream. That would qualify as a “whim” or “personal opinion” if we wanted to outlaw all other flavors. But we don’t concern ourselves with those matters of personal choice. We leave that to liberals, who have taken to monitoring what parents pack in their children’s lunch bags. If taking over people’s children isn’t “imposing your morality,” what is?

    The “whim” is on the liberal side – treating something as important as marriage as it it were something trivial like upgrading your Windows software. “Oooh, I just downloaded Marriage 2.5 – now too guys can marry – isn’t that cool? Maybe Marriage 3.0 will let me marry my sister.”

  • Dan

    “If a Christian’s salvation is brought about by imitating Christ…” If it is, all of us are doomed to eternal damnation. To paraphrase from the Lutheran prayer of confession, “we are all justly deserving of God’s punishment in this present life and eternally” absent his grace that saves us. Campolo’s assertion is bad theology, just like I used to get from the pulpit in many a social(ist) justice sermon perpetrated by theologically and biblically illiterate UMC pastors.

    • http://juicyecumenism.com Nathaniel Torrey

      I should have been more clear. I just mean that the Christian strives to imitate Christ. Because of our fallen nature, we fall short, and grace is of course necessary for our salvation.

  • http://www.paynehollow.blogspot.com Dan Trabue

    Ben said…

    It’s a “whim” to believe that marriage consists of one man and one woman? I think marriage has been around a long long time, way too long to be the “whim” or “religious hunch” or “personal opinion” of meddlesome Christians. You talk as if morality was a matter of choice, like having a favorite flavor of ice cream.

    Let me assure you then, I do not think morality is a matter of choice. Things either are or aren’t moral. In the case of marriage equity for gay and straight folk, I think the conservative position is the obviously immoral position and I encourage you all strongly to prayerfully reconsider and repent in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ (assuming you are a Christian).

    But here is my point, Ben: You and I hold opinions about various religious ideas. And that’s fine, that happens. The thing is, we simply ought not be in the business of trying to implement our each and every religious hunch. I believe in honoring the Sabbath and having a day of rest and worship. I don’t believe that it’s necessarily on Saturday (ie, the literal Sabbath). Regardless, it is a religious opinion, a hunch. I have no reason to try to legislate that.

    We ought to stick to legislating only those things where harm or oppression is in danger of occurring. Thus, we can reasonably outlaw drunk/impaired driving. We ought not, though, legislate, “God doesn’t want us to drink,” or even, “don’t drink alcohol or smoke pot…” we just have no solid reason to do so.

    Similarly, we ought not legislate which willing adults can and can’t marry one another. If the gov’t and society is going to provide benefits and responsibilities to one group (heterosexuals), then they ought to extend those same benefits and responsibilities to other groups (homosexuals).

    Can we agree that legislation, at least as a general rule, ought to be limited to dealing with that which causes harm, and NOT “my religious opinion about this behavior is that it’s bad, therefore, it’s illegal…”?

    • Sam

      It’s not simply a religious belief, but a belief that marriage is one of the foundations of our society and that messing around with it will have long-term negative effects on our society.

      • http://paynehollow.blogspot.com Dan Trabue

        And that is fine. Prove that – ASIDE from religious prejudices – there are actual real world negative effects and then you might have a case. IF you can do so.

        I have yet see any one offer the first real world evidence for that claim, though.

        So, do we agree that we can reasonably legislate rules that coincide with our religious beliefs WHEN there are actual harmful results from that behavior, AND when there are NOT, we ought not try to legislate those beliefs for which there is no real evidence of harm beyond our personal hunches/opinions?

        Can we agree “harm” is a reasonable line to draw, rather than “I think God doesn’t like this…”?

  • J S Lang

    Get liberals and conservatives to agree on the meaning of “harmful”? Good luck with that. The First Lady thinks the greatest atrocity in America is a parent packing a Twinkie in a kid’s lunchbox.

  • dan trabue

    while there is some truth in what you suggest, for the most part, I am speaking about hard, measurable facts, not feelings or hunches. If someone dumps oil in the waterways, there is measurable harm done to our common water and we can reasonably ban or regulate it. but, there is no comparable measurable harm in gay folk committing in a loving marriage relationship, thus there is no cause for big govt interference.

    does that mean you don’t think harm is a reasonable measure? if not, what do you suggest instead?

  • Ben Welliver

    Dan, for what it’s worth: Your side is going to win. There will be gay marriage, nationally, in America, and clergy will be forced to marry same-sex couples, whatever their scruples. In ten years, probably less, it will be illegal (as in Britain, Canada, Australia, etc) to say anything negative about gays. Probably Bibles will be printed without the “offensive” passages. Already Amazon is getting nasty reviews of any books that even hint of “anti-gay animus.” Thanks to the a culture that honors the almighty Oprah and her feeling-based ethos, we now base our dsocial policy on hurt feelings. Let any group whine and nag enough and they will get whatever they want. Go on Oprah, get misty-eyed, moan about “equality” and “rights,” and watch those cowardly politicians cave in – and clergy too, Tony Campolo being the example near at hand. This man that so many Christians once admired has let the secular world twist him around like a Gumby doll.

    Same-sex marriage is inevitable. However, I choose to be on the right side even though I know it will lose. Whittaker Chambers, when he fled Communism and became a Christian, said he knew he was swapping the winning side for the losing side – but his conscience compelled him. Our side cannot stop our culture from destroying itself. We can slow it down a little, that’s all. Doubtless you and your friends will be popping champagne corks when people like Jerry Sandusky are no longer arrested for sex crimes. Those of us on the losing side can at least look back nostalgically on a better world where people understood that morals were important.

    Frankly, I feel very sorry for people under 30, as they have no memory of that world. They will never know a world where what mattered was you, the individual. They have been indoctrinated to see the world as tribes, or herds – the evil tribe (white heterosexual males) and the good tribes (everyone else, victims of the white males – women, blacks, Latinos, gays, etc etc). These younger people will never interview for a job with the hope that what will really decide who is hired is the person’s qualifications. They will not grasp the idea of an individual standing or falling by his own efforts. They won’t have a clue what morality is.

    I could easily get depressed over the situation, but that is where faith steps in and reminds me there is an existence beyond this, where those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” find a home, having exited this world where to even utter the word “righteousness” would make you a laughingstock.

    • http://www.paynehollow.blogspot.com Dan Trabue

      As to this…

      Thanks to the a culture that honors the almighty Oprah and her feeling-based ethos, we now base our dsocial policy on hurt feelings.

      That’s rather ironic, don’t you think, since I’m/we’re the ones proposing keeping laws based on facts and measurable harm, not mere feelings and hunches about what God does and doesn’t like.

      Ben, are you saying that we should limit our legislation to only that which causes harm, rather than subjective opinions about religious hunches about what God may or may not approve?

      For my part, I’m not saying, “We should allow marriage equity for gay folk because I THINK God would approve it…” (even though that is my hunch), but rather, “We ought not discriminate against gay folk in this manner because there is no real world evidence that such marriage would cause harm, rather, it appears rather obvious that it would only promote moral good and societal improvement.”

      If the entire argument against marriage for gay folk is religious hunches and NOT harm (and that’s all I’ve seen), you will lose/have lost this argument.

  • http://www.paynehollow.blogspot.com Dan Trabue

    A few things, Ben…

    1. Don’t be a jerk. Suggesting that we who support the obviously moral notion of people committing to love and respect one another in a monogamous marriage relationship would not support pedophilia (your denigrating and asinine Sandusky comment). These sorts of offensive suggestions make it seem that you all ARE bigots with a political axe to wield and are not even worth engaging. Comments like that are why you all are losing this argument so badly. Don’t go there if you truly want to engage in respectful comments like an adult. People will generally just begin (increasingly) to ignore you and you will become (as your sort are becoming) irrelevant and delegated to the trashbin of history.

    2. Yes, you are correct. We are winning/have won this debate. But for your sake, it would help you all to understand why you’ve lost. One of the big reasons is the manner in which you conduct conversations like this and your demonization of those who disagree with you. If you hope your vision of the Church to not become totally irrelevant and ignored (and really, how well can you evangelize if people consider you immoral, irrational and part of an unhealthy past – someone to be ignored like those opposed to “miscegenation…”?), you’ve got to learn to have more respectful conversations with those with whom you disagree.

    3. No one will force clergy to wed folk they don’t want to wed. No one legally forces racist clergy to wed black folk – no matter how offensive such racism is – no one will force clergy to wed gay folk. Why not? Because we highly value personal liberty – even if it’s liberty to be an offensive bigot. It’s a liberal trademark and we just won’t go there.

    4. No one will go to jail for saying something offensive about gay folk. Again, folk are free to be jerks about other groups today – no one goes to jail for being racist, for instance – they won’t jail folk for being offensive jerks down the road. Such goofy hand-wringing has contributed to your losing this argument.

    5. Will we want fair, moral laws that prevent discrimination? Sure, but that doesn’t mean we’ll force churches legally to perform marriages they don’t want to. Will we be wary of hate speeches that might inspire violence? Sure, just like we do for those who might invoke violence against different races – or religions – today.

    Remember, the progressives (led by baptists and anabaptists like my tribe, historically) are defenders of religious liberty and free speech.

    We too hunger and thirst for righteousness. It’s why we oppose your position, which we believe to be the unjust and immoral one. We just disagree. It happens. Accept that and treat conversations such as this one as between respectful Christian equals, and you will begin to become less irrelevant and save yourself from being grouped with the anti-miscegenationists. Don’t accept it and you will just increasingly be ignored (ignored, not jailed).

  • J S Lang

    My my …

  • Ben Welliver

    Yeah, I know. It’s sad. Manipulation by hissy-fit. They know that tactic works with college administrators and politicians, so they try it on everyone. We have a government and an educational establishment that kowtow to whatever mob screeches the loudest.

    My nephew teaches at UVA, he has some good stories about the way the NOW cows and their gelding accomplices on campus shout people down. It’s everything George Orwell foretold and worse. Who would’ve guessed a culture would create its own barbarian invaders?

    • http://paynehollow.blogspot.com Dan Trabue

      “NOW cows…”? Is it any wonder why you all have lost this debate and will continue to lose debates?

      People want civil, adult conversations. We want laws based on reason and evidence, not personal hunches and religious bigotry.

      The irony here is, here I am, proposing legislation based on EVIDENCE, not feelings, not hunches about what God does or doesn’t approve, but based upon observable, rational harm.

      Will you agree that it’s most rational to talk about civil policy based on evidence and that we can only (at least most often) reasonably ban those behaviors which cause (or reasonably potentially cause) observable, documentable harm?

      Will you agree that basing laws based upon one group or anothers personal opinions and feelings about what God does or does not want is not a good model?

      Or, if you want to legislate SOME laws based upon what SOME people think God’s opinion is, WHICH religious rules would you suggest we implement and WHOSE opinions about God’s opinion shall we use?

      That is, is there any credible, consistent criteria you would endorse for creating religion-based laws? Only the opinions of the Catholic church? Only the opinions of you and those who agree with you? On what rational bases would we implement religion-based laws?

    • J S Lang

      Ben, is your nephew at UVa part of the “clone army” or is he an independent thinker?

  • Ben Welliver

    He is an EX-liberal. Being around all those PC people changed him, and I think the major issue was free speech. From what I hear, some places are even worse than UVA. I’m thankful I went to college back when you could speak your mind.

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