An Interview with Tony Campolo by Shane Claiborne

Tony Campolo is an ordained minister in the American Baptist Church and professor emeritus of Sociology at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. Shane Claiborne is a founder of the Simple Way Community in Philadelphia and a prominent Christian activist.

Introductory Remarks (Shane Claiborne)

I grew up around people who looked like me and thought like me, insulated from anyone that made me uncomfortable or challenged my assumptions. I cannot remember meeting anyone Jewish or Muslim growing up, and distinctly remember (much to my chagrin) being swayed from dating a lovely Catholic girl because she prayed to Mary. And then I went to Eastern College. I studied sociology with Tony. I met Jesus on the streets of Philadelphia, in his most distressing disguises. I was surrounded by people who stretched my vision of what it means to be Christian. In one of the evening sociology classes (which, as usual, flowed over until nearly midnight), I can remember hearing Tony say, "Being a Christian is about choosing Jesus and doing something incredibly daring with your life." Since then the Christian adventure has taken me to the extremes of wealth and poverty, from a ten-week stint in Calcutta working alongside Mother Teresa to a year spent in the verdant Chicago suburbs at the evangelical mega-church, Willow Creek. Most recently, I was led to Iraq as part of an interfaith peace team during the war. So I hold Tony responsible for much of this, as the Lover he has introduced me to and the Gospel he has taught me have wrecked my life and gotten me in a lot of trouble.

When a devout Muslim brother asked Tony and I to have this cross-generational dialogue about interreligious cooperation for an interfaith publication, we jumped on it. In an age when religious extremists of all faiths have perverted the conceptions of what our traditions teach, there seems to be another thing stirring. Many of us are refusing to allow the media and twisted images of our faith to define us. And though words like "evangelical" are up for grabs, we still consider it an important adjective to reclaim and an important community to restructure. Tony tackles many of these issues in more detail in his newest book Speaking My Mind.

Before we get started it seems critical to note that the word "evangelion" from which we derive our words "evangelical" and "evangelism" are ancient words that predated Jesus. They were words Jesus takes from the imperial lexicon and spins on their head. For instance, in 6 BC there was a saying inscribed around the Roman Empire that read: "Augustus has been sent to us as Savior. . . the birthday of the god Augustus has been for the whole world the beginning of the gospel" ("evangelion"). The early evangelists were announcing another Gospel, proclaiming an allegiance to another Emperor and another Kingdom. When people ask me if I am an evangelical, I must make sure we have a proper understanding of the word. If by evangelical we mean one who spreads the Good News that there is another Kingdom and another Emperor, another economy and peace than Rome's, another Savior than Caesar . . . then, yes I am an evangelical." So here we sit down together and have a cross-generational conversation on inter-religious cooperation, as evangelical Christians.

Shane Claiborne: Well, we've been asked to consider the possibility of evangelical Christians cooperating with people of different faiths. The place to begin seems to properly define what we mean by "evangelical." I offered my definition above. What's yours?

Tony Campolo: An evangelical is someone who believes the doctrines of the Apostle's Creed. That outlines exactly what we believe in detail. Secondly, an evangelical has a very high view of scripture though not necessarily inerrancy. And the third thing—we believe that salvation comes by being personally involved with a living resurrected Jesus. So I've defined evangelical in those three terms. There is a doctrinal statement, so that there is some content to what we believe. There is a source of truth, Scripture. And there is a personal relationship with Jesus.

SC: There are many evangelicals who find themselves lost amidst the current political climate. They find themselves outside the narrow issues that define conservatives and estranged from the shallow spirituality that marks liberals. Many seem to be thirsty for Christian social justice and peacemaking but cannot find a Christian community that is consistently pro-life, or that looks at war and injustice as spiritual issues.

TC: As we think about all of this we have to be aware of what has happened in this last election. Evangelicalism getting wedded to the any political party is like ice cream mixing with horse manure. It's not going to hurt the horse manure (i.e. the republican party, and I would say the Democrat Party is also horse manure so don't get the wrong idea), but it sure will mess up the ice cream.

SC: President Bush uses political and spiritual language interchangeably, referring to the ideals of America as the Light of the world that the darkness cannot overcome. He invokes God's blessing on a nation that has stepped far from the things that God blesses in the Beatitudes. I've met many evangelicals, particularly military families, who find their national and spiritual allegiance in conflict. I have met parents who lost their kids speak their anger that their children died thinking this was God's will. I have met soldiers who have knelt at the altar to ask forgiveness for what they did in Iraq. Recently I was talking to a woman who was very upset as I spoke about Iraq. She said she just wanted Muslim people to come to know the grace and love of Jesus. I told her I want the same thing. The question is how does that happen, and are we getting closer to that? What can we learn from the blood-stained pages of history—Constantine, the crusades, the Inquisition, the martyrs. Do you see evangelicals getting closer or further from interfaith dialogue?

TC: Evangelicalism is heading for a split. I think that the last election aggravated a significant minority of the evangelical community, believing that they did not want to come across as anti-gay, anti-women, anti-environment, pro war, pro capital punishment, and anti-Islam. There is going to be one segment of evangelicalism, just like there is one segment in Islam that is not going to be interested in dialogue. But there are other evangelicals who will want to talk and establish a common commitment to a goodness with Islamic people and Jewish people particularly.

SC: When I was in Iraq, I heard folks call our leaders "Christian extremists", mirroring the language we hear of "Muslim extremists". One woman said, "Everyone is declaring war in the name of God and asking God's blessing. What kind of God is this?" What became clear, is that what is at stake here is not just the reputation of America, but the reputation and identity of Christians, and that is dangerous.

TC: What has happened now is that evangelicals have emerged from this election with an incredible triumphalism in the life of the Christian evangelical community. They think they have a right to control America. God won. They won and they are now going to make this into the Christian nation they think it was supposed to be. Then you get Jerry Falwell making that statement about 'The only answer is to bomb all the terrorists off the face of the earth in the name of the Lord.'

It's scary. Because if this is defined as a Christian nation, than the Muslims have every right to assume that what is happening in Iraq is Christian, and this is a regeneration of the crusades. And it's being broadcast that way by Al Jazeera and media networks in other parts of the world. That's why I am saying that evangelicalism has to be challenged. That triumphalism has to be challenged, we cannot allow that to go unchecked. And right now they own the microphone. They have the radio stations. They have the television stations. They are in fact saying this is the agenda. And we have to fight against that.

SC: Both Muslims and Christians are very evangelical in the sense of desiring others to come to faith in their God. When we talk about inter-religious cooperation, does that mean that we need to stop trying to convert each other?

TC: We don't have to give up trying to convert each other. What we have to do is show respect to one another. And to speak to each other with a sense that even if people don't convert, they are God's people, God loves them, and we do not make the judgment of who is going to heaven and who is going to hell.

I think that what we all have to do is leave judgment up to God. The Muslim community is very evangelistic, however what Muslims will not do is condemn Jews and Christians to Hell if in fact they do not accept Islam.

SC: That seems like a healthy distinction—between converting and condemning. One of the barriers seems to be the assumption that we have the truth and folks who experience things differently will all go to Hell. How do we unashamedly maintain a healthy desire for others to experience the love of God as we have experienced it without condemning others who experience God differently?

TC: Islam is much more gracious towards evangelical Christians who are faithful to the New Testament, than Christians are towards Islamic people who are faithful to the Koran. The Islamic faith will ask, "Are you faithful to the book that you have?" Mohammad was very understanding that there was great truth in Christianity. He differed with us in that he felt he had a more complete truth, and Islam would hold to that, but Mohammad contended that we would ultimately be judged in terms of the truth that we had at our disposal.

I think there are Muslim brothers and sisters who are willing to say, "You live up to the truth as you understand it. I will live up to the truth as I understand it, and we will leave it up to God on judgment day."

There is much in Christianity that would suggest exactly the same thing, particularly Romans the 2nd chapter, where the apostle Paul says "What do we say of those who do not accept the law of God," and I would add "as we understand it," "and are faithful to all the things that God calls us to do—will God not have to make room for them?" He asks that as a rhetorical question, leaving the reader with the obvious sense—"but of course." So I think that the apostle Paul would be a lot more generous towards Islamic people than most of my evangelical brothers and sisters are. If both sides are willing to live up to the truth as they perceive it and if both sides are willing to say we are not going to compromise what we believe but we are convinced that in the end the other side will have a chance to respond in a positive manner to what we believe. I think we can live together in peace and without attacking each other and without condemning each other.

Catholicism would say that at the moment of death every person is confronted in that split moment with Christ and is given the opportunity of saying yes or no. To say otherwise is to say God has got to be a pretty unfair deity, to condemn three quarters of the human race to hell without them ever having a chance.

I've got to believe that Jesus is the only Savior but being a Christian is not the only way to be saved. A student at Princeton once asked Protestant theologian Karl Barth, "Do you think that other religions can be valid avenues to God and His salvation?" Barth answered, "No! No religion can provide a valid avenue to God and His salvation. Not even the Christian religion. Only Jesus Christ can serve as mediator to God."

SC: When it comes to living out the Biblical vision of justice and peace, there are times when I feel like I have more in common with folks of other religions than I do with some other evangelicals. I have often found that while we may not agree theologically, we have a similar vision for how God calls us to live. Can we work together in service and action, even though we disagree theologically?

TC: I used to do this television show "Hashing It Out" with Steve Brown. One day a friend in his seminary said, "How can you be friends with people like the Campolos, especially Peggy, when you know what she believes about homosexuality?" Steve's answer was, "Peggy is wrong in the head but right in the heart. You on the other hand are right in the head and wrong in the heart. And if I have to make a choice I would much rather prefer someone who is right in the heart and wrong in the head."

That's a powerful statement but I think that's where most of us would go. Now Muslims do not believe that Jesus died on the cross. So we have a difference there. We kid ourselves if we pretend that we all believe the same thing. What we have to do is say that we believe different things. But there is so much goodness in the Islamic community, it cannot be ignored. Those who write off Islamic people are making a serious mistake. And vice-versa, Islamic people who write off Christians are making a serious mistake. But I would have to say they are less inclined to do that than we are to write them off.

SC: When I was in India working in Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying, there was a young man who had been there volunteering for quite some time. He rarely talked, just went from bed to bed caring for the dying men. One day on the train ride home he gently said to me that he wanted to share a confession. He went on to explain that he was not a Christian, and often had a tendency to question the mixed motives of evangelical Christians who came to volunteer. He said he was never sure why they were there, if it was because they truly loved the dying, or because they were commanded to, or because they wanted to convert the dying . . . Then he asked me, "When you care for the dying is it because you love them, or because you love God?" A good question. I thought for a while, and then I replied, “Yes, both. In fact, they are indistinguishable to me. I cannot tell where the one begins and the other ends. As I love the dying I am loving Christ, and how I love God is by loving my neighbor." He smiled. As I thought afterward, I wondered about the difference between how this atheist so gently touches and cares for the dying, and the way I cared for them. Could he be caring for Christ without knowing it? Dorothy Day said, "The only true atheist is the one who denies God's image in the face of the poor." Were both our hands the hands of God?

TC: When it comes to what is ultimately important, the Muslim community's sense of commitment to the poor is exactly in tune with where Jesus is in the 25th chapter of Matthew. That is the description of judgment day. And if that is the description of judgment day what can I say to an Islamic brother who has fed the hungry, and clothed the naked? You say, "But he hasn't a personal relationship with Christ." I would argue with that. And I would say from a Christian perspective, in as much as you did it to the least of these you did it unto Christ. You did have a personal relationship with Christ, you just didn't know it. And Jesus himself says: "On that day there will be many people who will say, when did we have this wonderful relationship with you, we don't even know who you are. . . " "Well, you didn't know it was me, but when you did it to the least of these it was doing it to me."

SC: The Scriptures are filled with God choosing the most unlikely places to dwell. God uses the brothel owner Rahab, the pagan nation of Assyria, the adulteress king David, the zealots and tax collectors, even old Balaam's donkey as instruments of the Kingdom. It seems that Jesus is constantly extending the boundaries of grace and enlarging our vision of the Family of God, telling stories where Samaritan heretics and Syro-phoenician outsiders are invited into the Kingdom. We can see this in Peter's second conversion when he realized that God's grace is even extended to the Gentiles. Jesus' own image of the eternal banquet says that the guests the King invited are all preoccupied with the concerns of this world, and commands the servant to go into the alleys and margins to bring in whoever will come. How do we leave room for the surprises that could await us in the afterlife, without compromising our beliefs?

TC: I don't think you have to compromise as a Christian the belief that Jesus is the only Savior but what I do think we have to say is that the grace of God extends way beyond the limitations of my religious group. And I think that the Muslims have to say, as they do say, that the grace of Allah extends beyond the Islamic community. The community is supposed to be faithful to its beliefs and convictions or else it has no core. On the other hand it has got to be more loving towards those who are outside.

Our Muslim brothers and sisters can say Islam is the only true faith but we are not convinced that only Muslims enjoy salvation. I contend that there is no salvation apart from Jesus Christ, but I am not convinced that the grace of God does not go further than the Christian community.

SC: There is a discomfort when I hear Gandhi's whisper that the religions are one tree with many branches, and I can appreciate the fact that our faiths trace their roots back to the same dysfunctional family of Abraham and Sarah. But in many interreligious gatherings I have experienced the feeling that we are forced to walk on eggshells in a shallow murky spirituality that does not honor the distinctiveness of each tradition. This universalism, in its attempt to honor every tradition I often merely creates a culture where their beauty and distinctiveness are lost.

TC: I think we have to maintain our theological differences. We don't have any integrity if we don't. We end up with this mishmash in which we say, 'Well, in the end, we all believe in the same God'. Maybe we do, but we don't define God in the same way. We don't come to God in the same manner. And each of us makes exclusivist claims, and we have to recognize that. We cannot allow our theologies to separate us, and we cannot allow our theologies to get watered down lest we lose our integrity.

SC: Can you share a recent example of where we have seen inter-religious cooperation at its best, with evangelicals at the table?

TC: Jimmy Carter, who is certainly evangelical, wrote a book called The Seed of Abraham, pointing out that Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all trace back to Abraham and have a certain commonality between them. I look at how Anwar Sadat, Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin were able to cross the line. You should know that what led up to the Camp David accord was that fact that Jimmy Carter knew the Bible very well. And he was able to bring Sadat and Begin into agreement by showing that the Sinai was never promised to Abraham in the Hebrew Scriptures. They could agree on that. He was able to point out things in the Koran that called for peace with the Jews. That whole Camp David Accord was built on Biblical and Quranic teaching. It should be noted that Anwar Sadat had hoped that there might be on Mt. Zion three places of worship: a Jewish place, Islamic place, and a Christian place. My wife sent him a letter saying that is what we need, here's a ten dollar contribution—let it be the first towards the establishment of this new foundation. He wrote back a lovely letter which she has framed.

SC: Community seems to form most naturally during times of struggle. Most of the times I have felt deeply connected to people of other faiths were during times where our survival required interdependence. I remember when our peace team was leaving Iraq, in the middle of the bombing. The car I was in had a bad accident, all of us were injured, planes were still flying over. And the first car of Iraqi civilians stopped. Waving a white sheet at the planes overhead, risking their lives, they drove us into the nearest town called Rutba. The doctors and townspeople gathered. One of the doctors was pleading, "Why, why, why is your country doing this?" He said that they could not take us into the hospital, because three days before the bombs hit their hospital, the children's ward. In the same breath he said, "But we will take care of you. Because here, in Rutba, it does not matter if you are American or Iraqi, Christian or Muslim. We take care of you as our friends." And they did, they set up a little shanty clinic outside the bombed out hospital, and they literally saved my friend's life. These are the times when I think cooperation and community are inevitable.

TC: Peter Arnett used to be with CNN. I know him and I met him in an airport in Chicago, and I said, "Peter so glad to see you, I'm running out of stories. Tell me a story." He said, "I've got one . . . I'm in the West bank, a bomb goes off and bodies are blown through the air. The Israeli troops seal off the whole area. A man comes running up to me with a bloody little girl in his arms, and says, 'You are press, you can get us out of here. If I don't get her into a hospital then immediately she's going to die. You can get us out of here. You are press'. Peter said, "I put them in the back seat and threw a blanket over them."

And I did get through the lines. As I rushed towards Tel Aviv in the car, I could hear him in the back seat, as he rocked this little girl in his arms whispering, "Go faster, oh God help him to go faster. God help him to go faster. Then he starts moaning, I'm losing her! I'm losing her! Oh God I'm losing her, I'm losing her!" Peter said by the time I got to the hospital I was emotionally drained. They took the little girl into the operating room, and the two of us sat down on a bench in the waiting room, exhausted. We must have sat there a half hour, silent, exhausted from the emotion. The doctor came out and said, "I'm sorry. She's dead." This man dissolved in tears. I put my arm around him and said, I'm not married. I don't have any children. I don't know what it's like to lose a daughter. The man snapped his head back and said, "My daughter? That little girl is not my child. I'm an Israeli settler, she's a Muslim girl. But maybe the time has come for us to recognize every child as our child."

What can we learn about that kind of spirituality that can help us find common ground? No theological statements were made, no compromising beliefs, no attempts to come to a common denominator. And yet, a kind of spiritual oneness.

That's the place where we come together, in common need and common suffering, as we reach out to one another in love, leaving judgment in the hands of God, sharing out of our own faith. I mean the last thing we are asking in those times is—is your theology the same as mine?—and vice-versa. All of the sudden in the hour of suffering there is a commonality. And that's where we meet. It's in mystical spirituality and in communal mutuality that's where we come together.

SC: You also note in your book the encounter of Francis of Assisi and the Muslim Sultan during the thirteenth century, again in a moment of crisis, when they came together across major religious divides and had a mystical unity; the Sultan became known for his kindness and Francis used the Muslim horn given him to call the Christian brothers to prayer. These are human encounters that we do not naturally have when we are conditioned to see each other as enemies or outsiders. As you mention in the book, MacDonald says, “Theologians have done more to hide the gospel of Christ than any of its adversaries." Rarely are people converted by force or words, but through intimate encounters. Perhaps one of the best things we can do is stop talking with our mouths and cross the chasm between us with our lives. Maybe we will even find a mystical union of the Spirit as Francis did.

TC: Speaking of Francis, here's a wonderful story. I got to meet the head of the Franciscan order. I met him in Washington. He said let me tell you an interesting story. He told me about one of their gatherings, where they bring the brothers of the Franciscan order together for a time of fellowship. About eight years ago they held it in Thailand and out of courtesy, they really felt they needed to show some graciousness to the Buddhists, because they were in a Buddhist country. So they got Buddhist theologians together and Franciscan theologians together and sent them off for three days to talk and see if they could find common ground. They also took Buddhist and Franciscan monastics and sent them off together to pray with each other. On the fourth day they all reassembled. The theologians were fighting with each other, arguing with each other, contending there was no common ground between them. The monastics that had gone off praying together, came back hugging each other. In a mystical relationship with God, there is a coming together of people where theology is left behind and in this spirituality they found a commonality.

It seems to me that when we listen to the Muslim mystics as they talk about Jesus and their love for Jesus, I must say, it's a lot closer to New Testament Christianity than a lot of the Christians that I hear. In other words if we are looking for common ground, can we find it in mystical spirituality, even if we cannot theologically agree, Can we pray together in such a way that we connect with a God that transcends our theological differences?

So we make sure we don't compromise what we believe. But we also make sure that in mystical spirituality we find a kind of oneness that we leave judgment of who goes to heaven and who goes to hell in the hands of God and just preach the truth as we understand it.

SC: And that is very liberating, to trust that the work of conversion is not up to us but to the Spirit, and not contingent on our own persistence, technological ingenuity, or church growth tactics. It really is liberating to leave that in the hands of the Spirit, and continue to live in a way that magnetizes people to God. Rabbi Michael Lerner says that we not only need to decode some of the violent threads of Christian thought, but we also must re-credit the ancient Jewishness of Jesus. He points to the many places that our faith traditions intersect, namely in calling us to work for justice and peace and reconciliation. Lerner says, "People of all faiths need to shape a political and social movement that reaffirms the most generous, peace-oriented, social justice-committed, and loving truths of the spiritual heritage of the human race. It is only this resurrection of hope that can save us from a new wave of global hatred."

TC: Michael and I got arrested together. A few years back, Jim Wallis organized this demonstration in opposition to the welfare bill that was passed, and forty of us got arrested. Michael Lerner chose to get arrested with us. Were you there?

SC: No, back then I still thought good Christians didn't go to jail. Now I know better.

TC: So we got arrested, and they put us all on a bus and they took us to the police station. We're all on the bus at the police station for quite a while, because they are processing us one by one. We are all giving testimonies of how this works into our Christian faith. Finally John Engel from a missionary organization called Beyond Borders looks over and says, "Michael how do you feel about all this highly evangelical talk?" Michael says, "Oh, I don't like it when I am with liberals who just compromise everything they believe to make me feel good. I think that the way we are going to have peace and brotherhood is if you go to the core of what you believe, and I go to the core of what I believe. And when we get to the core and live it with true love and true peace, there will be a coming together in spite of our differences." That is a very powerful statement. He did not feel the least offended. What offended him was liberals who try to say there are no differences between us.

SC: Mother Teresa used to say, "It is very fashionable to talk about the poor. Unfortunately, it is not so fashionable to talk to the poor." I think the same could be said today of inter-religious cooperation. Many of us talk about Jewish and Muslim folks but few of us talk to them, or have friends that do not share our faith. The fellow who asked us to do this interview is a Muslim whose friendship has been such a gift, to hear how his Muslim faith drives him to love, and to share how my faith has driven me. And I must say, the Muslims I know are very interested in seeing another face of Christianity than that which they have encountered in the popular media. And that makes for a safer world, when we remove the layers that separate us from seeing the sacredness in every person, the image of God in them. We may still want them to experience the love and grace of Jesus, but how else will that happen but from seeing it in our lives? And it makes it harder for us to simply condemn them to Hell.

TC: Rather than making theological statements, we need to tell each other our stories. Jesus would tell stories and then say, "what do you make of this story?" One more story.

In the city of Toledo, right in the middle of Spain in the year 1000, when the Inquisition was in high gear. Jews, Catholics, and Muslims in this little city had learned to live together and respect one another and love one another, and protect one another. And the Catholics would not let the Inquisition come in and hurt their Muslim or Jewish brothers and vice-versa the Muslims would not let the invading Muslim troops do anything to hurt the Catholics and Jews. They had found among each other a commonality and a common spirituality that was really quite remarkable. There is a book written on Toledo holding it up as the fact that here was a place where it happened. So let it never be forgotten that there was once a spot in Toledo.

You might conclude with the that little song we always sang at communion:

Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love; The fellowship of kindred minds Is like to that above. . .

There is a fellowship of kindred minds and you can't deny it. And this is why C.S. Lewis asks the question, "Once I am connected with such a person in love: Could I possible enjoy heaven without him?"

SC: That's a good word. TC: Yes, a real good word.


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Source: Cross Currents, Spring 2005, Vol. 55,  No 1.