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A Warning to British Christians

By Tony Campolo.

I

The survival of Christianity has always been threatened more by cultural seduction than by societal persecution. The perversion of Christianity through accommodation to the cultural milieu has always had more potential for annihilating true faith than have the combined challenges of intellectual scepticism and the spectre of being thrown to the lions. This has been particularly the case when the seducing society has paraded itself as being a Christianised one. When that happens, adopting what is generally accepted as a Christian lifestyle becomes equated with being socialised into the dominant values of the culture.

Soren Kirkegaard, the Danish philosopher, saw all of this, and that was what led him to declare, 'One can only be a Christian in contrast and contrastedly!'. Christianity, so far as he was concerned, is always counter-cultural. He also said, 'In a society where everybody is Christian, nobody is Christian'. He was in what H. Richard Niebuhr would have called the 'Christ against culture' mode. We American Christians would have been a prime target for his accusations. He would have viewed us as having been lulled into an attractive, comfortable and emotionally gratifying form of slavery. He would have had hard words for our susceptibility to the socially prescribed affluent middle class lifestyle that has become normative in our churches, so that we discern little conflict between it and the Christian lifestyle prescribed in the New Testament.

II

The American society will, upon careful reflection, be seen to be able to survive only if its people are socialised into a lifestyle that makes buying things we do not need our ultimate raison d'Etre. If we do not buy what we do not need, we will not buy enough to keep up the industrial production that provides the economic substructure of our societal system. As our industries closed down, unemployment would soar, and America, as we know it, would come to an end. But as we get sucked into the buying mania that is required of us if we are to be 'good citizens', we ought to become aware of the biblical warnings against allowing our lives to consist in the buying of things (1 John 2:15-17). And we ought to remember that a certain rich young ruler was told that he had to choose between gaining eternal life or having the possessions that money can buy (Mark 10). But what has happened to us is that our churches have conspired with the rest of society to convince us that such radical sacrifice for the poor and such disengagement from the culturally prescribed lifestyle is not really necessary for Christian discipleship. We have reduced being Christian to intellectual assent to some doctrinal propositions and have ignored the call to sacrifice radically in the name of Christ for the poor and the oppressed.

The primary agent through which society created its consumerist consciousness in us is through the ingenious ads that come from the gang on Madison Avenue. They have been so effective in creating a hunger in us for things that we do not need, that their artificially created wants take on dimensions of ultimate good. We are so convinced that we have to have them that we are willing to sacrifice to get them, even if we have to neglect our families, sacrifice intimacy and renege on our religious commitments. To satisfy real need takes time, and we have to give all the time we have to earning enough money to buy the things that we don't need so that we can satisfy our artificially created wants. Consequently, the typical American father talks to his children about 4.5 minutes a day. And he talks to his wife about 11.5 minutes a day. This is the result of being enslaved to a culturally prescribed consumerist value system.

III

Over the last few decades, we Christians have also become acquainted with the allurements of power. In the old days we looked on political involvement as something that was, at best, a necessary evil. We were disengaged from the political process and were convinced that those who were committed to using political power to effect social justice were in danger of being led away from their real calling which was the winning of people to Christ.

Today's evangelicals have moved beyond that naivete and have come to see the wisdom of Edward Burke's famous dictum, 'All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people (sic) to do nothing'. We have learned how to organise politically and how to flex our voting muscle. And in the process we have been infected by a triumphalism that parades under the slogan 'Take America Back for God!'. We are increasingly convinced that we are God's chosen instrument for imposing biblical principles as the guidelines for the general population.

What got us started was the abortion issue. When the government seemed bent on legitimising the destruction of the unborn, we became convinced that the government had to be stopped. We had felt pushed around by the 'liberal political establishment' for decades, but the abortion issue pushed us over the edge into political activism. We decided that we had had enough, and we weren't going to take it any more.

Once we got rolling, we showed the old politicos that we weren't as dumb as they had thought we were. In short order we learned all the techniques of the pros. We even learned their manipulative and propaganda devices. We discovered we could sway elections and put into office candidates who espoused our political agenda. And that agenda was becoming more doctrinaire in accord with the conservative values of the Republican Party. And when we found that the media, which we believed was biased with liberalism, was against us, we created an alternative information highway with radio and TV stations of our own. Soon we had our own 'spin doctors' who were giving our own biased slant to the news.

Our successes were amazing. There are many who would argue that we gained the power significantly to influence elections all the way up to the White House. And when we found the oval office occupied by someone who was not of our political stripe, we outdid ourselves in the art of vilification. Once having bought into the world of hard-nosed politics, we resorted to all the worst 'dirty tricks' of the profession. We readily broadcast innuendos and rumours. And the President of the United States came to be seen by many as fair game for any unsubstantiated accusations that we could muster up. We flooded the country with videos and newsletters in which truth was often the first casualty. With every bit of evil gossip about the President or the First Lady, we giggled with glee. Somewhere along the line we forgot the words of scripture which read:

'Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and there be any praise, think on these things.' (Philippians 4:8)

Having tasted the intoxicating effects of political power, we soon became addicted. In fighting the dragon, as one philosopher suggests, we have become the dragon. In our conflict with those whom we believed were twisting the truth and embracing the 'low road' in politics, we have gradually become more and more like them.

In order to fight the evils of the world, we have resorted to the ways of the world. And this may have been the most subtle and successful of all Satan's seducing of us.

IV

But the ways in which we have been most compromised is, strangely enough, in the ways we have adopted the promoting of our own ministries. It takes money to carry out new forms of evangelism. Religion, of necessity, we say, has become big business. Multi-million dollar budgets for Christian organisations have become normative.

What is even more significant and dangerous is that almost every Christian ministry I know about is operating right up to the edge of its financial resources. The loss of five or ten percent of its constituent support for a month or two would prove nothing short of disastrous.

All of this means that it is very difficult for ministries to be prophetic. Anything said or done that offends even a small number of the financial supporters of a ministry can send shock waves from the top offices of the organisation down to the lowliest echelons. Taking stands on controversial social issues has to be evaluated by those who lead such ministries in terms of financial costs. 'The Work of God' ends up being controlled by the opinions of those who give money, rather than being under the control of the Holy Spirit and scripture. In this seduction into the ways of the world, once again, we are almost unaware of what is happening.

V

The church as the Body of Christ is a spiritual community. But the visible church as it manifests itself in society is a social institution. In this latter sense it becomes part of the cultural system, and therefore exercises powerful influences on the behaviour of its members. Furthermore, churches become organisations into which members bring with them a host of political attributes that help to shape their character and values. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that these political attitudes and values often reflect the interests of the social classes of these members, even when such attitudes and values run contrary to the Bible.

Sociologists have long known that the political ideas of the poor and socially disinherited are very different from the ideas of those who have established themselves as solid middle class citizens. They also know that when class values are brought into the church, they are often given theological legitimisation and take on the quality of being divinely ordained. In other words, these members quickly read their values into their understanding of what the Bible says. From that point on, anybody who fails to buy into their particular political values is considered unbiblical and even anti-Christian. Thus the church easily becomes captive to the political ideology of a particular social class. When this happens, the church becomes nothing more than an institution controlled by societal forces, and it can no longer be considered a faithful instrument for declaring the values of the Kingdom of God.

It is not easy to escape this almost normative class conscious conditioning of the Gospel message. In reality, we never will be completely free from it this side of Glory. That may be part of the reason that Paul once wrote that 'we know in part, and we prophesy in part'. Being caught up in the throes of our class identities with all of their diabolical influences, we have a hard time figuring out just what God is trying to say to us. But between now and the eschaton in which 'that which is perfect is come', we must try to break out of this prescribed consciousness and seek to discover 'that good and perfect will of God'. In short, we must find ways of transcending what class consciousness does to our thinking. We must somehow get hold of 'the pure and sincere milk of the Word', as opposed to the diluted baby formula that has become our socially prescribed diet. We must escape the tendencies to societal conformity that exist even within our most crucial spiritual disciplines.

It seems to me that only a strong doctrine of the Holy Spirit offers us any hope of providing the kind of cultural class conscious transcendence that is required for a proper reading of scripture. There has to be something of a miracle involved in true revelatory Bible reading. And the good news is that such a miracle happens. As I read the scriptures, more times than not, I am conscious of a presence of the Spirit. There is revelation, and in it the Spirit applies what I read to my life. I sense a 'breaking out' of culturally controlled modes of interpretation, even as I sense the 'breaking in' of God. The direct reading of the word of God, without the help of commentaries or interpreter's notes becomes a special event for me. There is a theophany in it. Something that transcends the intellect occurs. I experience a truth that not only is uncontrolled by the culture, but gives me a detached perspective on the culture. There is a mystical quality to all of this. It is from this new perspective that I often discern how the culture has gained control over my spiritual life and what I must do to escape its iron grip. As I read the Bible, the Spirit often 'bears witness with my spirit' in ways that the culture cannot control.

The major problem with all of this is that, like all mystical experiences, there is a tendency towards subjectivism. Private interpretations of scripture in which individuals claim to have gotten a word directly from God are always dangerous. From such come heresies and cults. That is why I take the traditions of the Church so seriously. The Church has been around for almost 2000 years, and over the centuries its people have struggled to understand scripture contra culture, even as I have tried to do. The same Spirit has been at work in their lives as has been at work in mine. I read scripture 'in the Spirit'; consequently, I learn to be sensitive to this 'great crowd of witnesses'. When I get something out of scripture that runs contrary to what the saints through the ages have gotten out of God's word, I have to call my own reading into question.

The tradition of the Church stands not only as a counter cultural standard to what the world is about, but also against cultural influences that permeate my personal reading of the Bible. This may sound a bit like Roman Catholic thinking. But I can only say that the Church as an instrument of God that can guard against personal distortions of scripture is an evangelical premise. My only real and important difference from my Roman Catholic friends is how we define the church. But that is the subject of another article.

But even when a counter cultural or transcultural reading of the scripture under the power of the Holy Spirit takes place and obedience by the reader follows, there is still a threatening difficulty. And that is how to keep from being sucked back into culturally prescribed ways of thinking and acting. It is extremely difficult to maintain the counter cultural perspective on social reality that is essential for Christian living. This is especially true when the attempt is made on an individualistic level. That is where the role of 'the support group' comes in. Each week I meet with three friends for the express purpose of revitalising our respective commitments to Christ. We get together to remind each other that it's the world that is crazy and not the values that we find in the word of God.

The sociologist Peter Berger would call such a support group a 'plausibility structure'. He would contend that it is through the regular reinforcing of our commitments through a group like this that we, as individuals, can find the wherewithal to withstand the onslaught of cultural forces. Faith commitments, Berger would say, are almost impossible to hold in aloneness. That is why the Apostle Paul once told us, 'neglect not the assembling of yourselves together'.

Our survival as counter cultural Christians depends on the renewal that comes from such support groups. Support groups are not simply a modern invention of Alcoholics Anonymous. They are an ancient instrument of God by which the reality of God can be maintained in a world that too readily renders his presence unreal. Jesus said, 'Whenever two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them'. Jesus himself belonged to such a support group with Peter, James and John. And when the world most threatened him, he asked them to support him in his calling. When the world would have lured him into setting aside the cup which the Father had prepared for him, he had hoped for the strength that would come in the fellowship of praying with these brothers. They fell asleep on him, but he endured anyway. We are not so strong. And in the battle against societal seduction, we need all the help we can get.

Tony Campolo is Professor of Sociology at Eastern Baptist College in St David's, Pennsylvania. Often seen as a controversial figure in the USA, he has inspired many young people both in North America and in the United Kingdom to engage in holistic mission.

 

Tony Campolo

Evnagelist and Social Campaigner

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You are reading A Warning to British Christians by Tony Campolo, part of Issue 4 of Ministry Today, published in June 1995.

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