10 November 2011

What is "carnal"?

Campolo recounts his "famous line":

Other than giving our lives to Christ, there's nothing more important than responding to the needs of the poor, with all that we are and all that we have. Lovingly sacrifice--that's what the world's looking for. The world's tired of churches that seem to spend most of the money they collect on themselves. I mean you look at the typical church budget and ask how much money is being spent on keeping the church going and how much is really spent on the poor.

I was speaking some years ago at Wheaton College in a line that made me famous. Few lines make people famous but I have been both praised and condemned for this one line. 'Cause I was doing my best, I was really doing my best to sensitize these young people to the suffering of poor people and why they need to respond and give their lives to the needs of the poor.

And you know at Wheaton they have to go to chapel every day--it's required--and they're sitting there, 2500 of them, and you know they have Billy Graham on Monday and Luis Palau on Tuesday, so, who is this guy? And I'm pumping away as best I can, and I'm frustrated, and I'm an Italian from Philadelphia, and when we get frustrated we lose control, and I yelled, "while you were sleeping last night, 40,000 children died of either starvation or diseases related to malnutrition ... 40,000 children die every single day from starvation or diseases related to malnutrition," and everybody just sat there, and I said, "And what's worse is, most of you don't give a shit." I have never seen an audience wake up like that audience woke up. I mean, you should have been there. They were nudging ... "Did you hear?" All over I saw ... [whispering] "He said 'shit'..." and I said, "And what's worse is, you are more upset with the fact that I said 'shit' than that 40,000 kids died last night, and that's what's wrong with our Christianity."

Tony Campolo at Christian Assembly, Forest Falls, California, December 5, 2009
Around 1993 or 1994, my first or second year at Friends United Meeting, we published an article by Vince Stults in Quaker Life reflecting the passion for holistic mission he (we) wished would become infectious among Friends. In the article, he mentioned Tony Campolo's famous line about Christian students who didn't seem not to "give a shit" about 40,000 children dying of preventable causes every day.

Campolo has recounted that incident many times, but back in the early '90's, probably many of our readers had not heard of it. We expected some discomfort with our use of an expletive in our Christian periodical, and we hoped that on balance Tony's urgency would explain our momentary departure from our normal squeaky-clean editorial practice--that, in fact, our readers would experience that same creative discomfort that Tony surely hoped he had produced among the Wheaton College students.

In fact we did receive some unhappy responses from readers, as well as positive responses. One letter came from a rural Friends meeting in Indiana Yearly Meeting. (Maybe someone can get hold of that issue of the magazine and fill in the details.) That letter politely eldered us for our "carnal" spirit.

Although I grew up in an atheist family and had no personal background in conservative or Holiness Christianity, and my favorite music pre- and post-conversion has been blues (about as carnal as music can get, maybe), it seemed to me that I knew quite directly what the writers meant. They were charging us with gratifying a sensation-loving element in ourselves and our readers--neither edifying the readers nor glorifying God. This kind of conduct doesn't become those who have been made new creatures in Christ. I'm sure those Friends knew we had no intention of being uselessly offensive, but they wanted us to know that we had crossed a rhetorical line that was important to them.

This reluctance to gratify worldliness is an element of the culture that formed most members of Indiana Yearly Meeting and most students at Wheaton College. After all, if Campolo's audience had not come from such a culture, the use of that word would not have made any impact. Furthermore, a word used spontaneously in a face-to-face encounter may be more forgivable than a premeditated repetition in a magazine that ends up in the hands of readers of all ages and conditions.

To this day I still believe we were right not to cut that incident from Vince's article. After all, the church is God's provision for keeping God's promises to the world's poor and oppressed people, and Tony's discontent with the church's response was well-founded. You can be as "holy" as you like, but if evangelical Protestantism can go on for year after year after year and still not be a threat to the principalities and powers who grind the faces of the poor--and if we can even get enmeshed with those unholy powers--then clearly all that respect for propriety is neither edifying believers nor glorifying God. An occasional outburst of indignation is not the issue; putting all our energy into suppressing our emotions would be far more costly than cleaning up after ourselves when we slip up. Should anyone be able to think about 40,000 preventable deaths among children every day without losing it?

But ... but ... at the same time our critics were not wrong! The way we conduct ourselves in the Lamb's War does make a difference. The catharsis of rage has an addictive quality of its own, as does the feeling of superiority when we think we're flipping the bird to the "oppressor"--objectifying that human being who happens to be a banker or broker or politician, while avoiding our own complicity, and basking in the glow of our moral superiority. The demonic patterns that dramatically impoverish and enslave some of us also wreak a more subtle havoc on the rest of us; and all of us--rich and poor alike--have the right to hear the Gospel preached with 100% of the love that it contains for every single hearer. How will a Quaker message that connects the dots of passionate Christ-centeredness and economic discipleship be heard if its bearer does not show that love?

So here's a task that calls mystics and prophets, introverts and extroverts to be collaborative and creative. How does the Christian's word in the public arena--say in the Occupy movement--reflect both the unconditional love of God for all those trapped in oppressive systems, and the urgent need for those systems to be questioned, redeemed, pulled down? And who will carry out the ministry of eldership, as that rural meeting did for us at Quaker Life?

These thoughts were stirred up in part by an article in Index on Censorship: "Voina: Russia's Robin Hoods." (Caution--a lot of offensive stuff in this article.) I know personally that for many people here, even in this post-Soviet space, there is a big difference between what people say privately and what they'll say or do in public. So, I'm already predisposed to like someone who believes "that it was his duty as an artist to express openly what other people fear to express...." And I strongly believe that neither the presence nor the absence of a political message invalidates art. For me, the more complicated question is: where is transcendent hope in campaigns like Voina's? Is it possible to be as audacious, as courageous, as whimsical, as over-the-top as these people have been in their passion for freedom, and still testify, as Quakers and indeed all Christians do, to a love that is directly available to the whole audience, including the security services?

And as I'm thinking about this, I'm reading Eric Metaxas's Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. I just read about Dietrich Bonhoeffer's uncompromising "no" to the representatives of the "German Church" as they put the pressure on him and his fellow German clergy in London. He delivered this "no" time and time again--always with unfailing courtesy to Hitler's heretical errand-boys. No doubt there's sometimes power in passion, even in outrage; there's also power in restraint.

Brian McLaren, "Q & A: Exegeting Matthew 25."

Many thanks to Benigno Sanchez-Eppler and Susan Furry of New England Yearly Meeting for their work on Raíces cuáqueras: Heredad de textos, an online library of Spanish-language Quaker materials and related links.

"Quantum Theology: Our Spooky Interconnectedness."

"Media to be controlled with ever more sophisticated technical means." But it doesn't mean censorship.

Delta Moon, "Tilt-a-Whirl":


Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Thanks, Johan. I've written a short blog post on "Letters From The Street", linking to it.


Bill Samuel said...

We do get exercised about certain words. At my church, 2 Sundays ago was our Harvest Festival (we grow food on our land for the poor), and at the end (& this was a family service with all ages & the din by the end was such that it was hard to hear what was said up front) our Sr. Pastor, who is British, mentioned that offerings have been low and expressed the hope to see a "shed load" of money in the offering.

This phrase is a Britishism which most of us Americans have never heard. Many thought he had used a common American expression in which the 3rd & 4th letters of the expression would be different, and which sounds a lot like shed load. Several people asked the pastor if he had said what they thought he did.

Last Sunday, the pastor explained what he said with the help of illustrations on the screen which showed a shed and then that shed packed full with currency. It was a most entertaining exposition.

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

I quite agree, “The way we conduct ourselves in the Lamb's War does make a difference.” Half the task of any act of ministry is (or, at least, should be) to evoke and transmit the pure consciousness that is Christ’s. This is hard to do if our words or deeds evoke something impure.

whatthehellbook said...

It's amazing how many Christians care more about bad language than they do helping the poor...