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.