Campolo asks Baptists, "Which Jesus should we preach?" | Print |

By Jim White and Robert Dilday
Virginia Religious Herald

ATLANTA-Author Tony Campolo challenged Baptists from across North America to examine which Jesus they preach-the one who incarnates American values or the one who incarnates God.

Campolo, professor emeritus at Eastern University near Philadelphia, and children's advocate Marian Wright Edleman headlined a Jan. 31 morning plenary session at the New Baptist Covenant convocation. The session explored the devastating effects of poverty in America and around the world.

"We've got to get our values straightened out," Campolo said.

Drawing on the church's tendency to preach the Jesus that conforms to its priorities, he said: "We're supposed to preach Jesus. There's no question about that. The question is, which Jesus should we preach?"

Referring to a comment attributed to George Bernard Shaw, he said, "God created us in his image and we decided to return the favor."

"It seems to me that all across America people have created a Christ very different from the one in the Bible. He's a cultural deity. … As I go across the country, the Jesus I hear most comes across as a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, middle-class American. And the Jesus of Scripture is different."

Jesus pronounced his priorities in Luke 4, beginning with preaching good news to the poor, Campolo noted.

 "Do you think Jesus meant what he said, or do you think he was kidding?" he asked.

Confronting the sin of materialism and America's consumer culture, Campolo asked, "What kind of car would Jesus drive?"

Jesus would not drive an $80,000 car while 30,000 children a day die in quiet despair and many older people have to choose between medicine and food, he said.

"There is nothing wrong with making a million dollars. I wish you all would make a million dollars. There is nothing wrong with making it, but there is something wrong with keeping it," he said. "My Bible tells me in 1 John 3:17, 'If anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need but shuts off his compassion from him-how can God's love reside in him?' "

Neither did churches escape Campolo's focus. Pointing to the expansive and expensive facilities churches build for themselves, he wondered aloud how church members could be challenged to give sacrificially when their own churches often model self-centered consumerism.

"We've got to challenge young people because we are losing them. We have not lost them because we are making Christianity too difficult for them but because we are making it too easy for them," he said. "They want their lives to count. They want their lives to matter."

Turning his attention to older Baptists, he asked:  "So many of you are retired, so what do you do with your time? Go out and play golf? … You have time and money to spend. You can spend it on something that really counts."

Playing to the enthusiastic response of the crowd, he shouted, "Rise up, you suckers, and go out and do the work of Jesus!"
Edleman, founder of the Children's Defense Fund, said about 13 million children in America live in poverty-5.6 million of them in extreme poverty.

"The great German Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer … believed that the test of the morality of a society is how it treats its children," she said. "Our nation flunks Bonhoeffer's test every hour of every day."

Statistics bear that out, she maintained:

o Every 36 seconds a child is born into poverty.

o Every 41 seconds, a baby is born without health insurance, "though we lead the world in health technology." About 9.4 million children are uninsured and 85 percent of those live in working families, she said.

o Almost eight children a day are killed by a firearm. Since 1979, more than 101,000 children have died of gunfire-twice the American battle casualties in the Vietnam War.

o Every 75 seconds a baby is born to a teen mother. "We could fill up the city of Atlanta every year with children having children," Edleman said.

o Every 19 minutes a baby dies in the first year of life.

o Millions of children start school unprepared for what they are to face and every nine seconds, a child drops out of school. "This, folks, is a disaster."

"We lead the world among industrialized countries in military technology, in military exports, in gross domestic product, in the number of millionaires and billionaires, and in defense expenditures," Edleman said.

"But we stand 20th among our 15-year-old science scores, 24th and last in child poverty rates among industrialized nations, 24th in low birth weight, 22nd in infant mortality, 25th in 15-year-old math scores and last in protecting children against gun violence. What would we be saying today if we thought we came out of the Olympics 20th and 21st and last? Why can't we get our voices and acts together and make sure we are proud to be one in protecting our children?"

Poverty makes an impact on every race and family type in America, Edleman said. But poor minority children are disproportionately at risk, and the results are devastating.

"I want to raise a loud gong of alarm today about America's cradle-to-prison pipeline crisis," she warned. If the cycle is not broken, "we're going to see racial and social progress go backwards, and we cannot do that on our watch. An unlevel playing field from birth contributes to too many poor children of color being sucked into a cradle-to-prison pipeline that you and I must name and change."

The most dangerous place to grow up in America is "at that intersection of poverty and race," she said.

"A black boy born in 2001 has a one in three chance of going to prison during his lifetime, a Latino boy a one in six chance, and one in three 20- to 29-year-olds-our fathers-are under correctional institution supervision or control."

Some 580,000 black males and 250,000 Latino males are serving sentences in state or federal prisons, Edleman said, while fewer than 40,000 black males and 30,000 Latino males earn bachelor's degrees each year.

The impact of poverty has left most 4th graders-86 percent of black ones, 83 of Latino and 58 percent of white-unable to read at grade level.

"Folks, if you can't read in this globalizing economy, you are sentenced to social death," she warned. "I cannot understand how we can break the genetic code and send a spaceship to Mars and a man to the moon and we can't figure out how to teach our children to read by fourth grade. What is wrong with us?"

These statistics add up to a national catastrophe, she warned. "They are not acts of God," said Edleman. "They are our choices as citizens and as a nation. We created them; we can and must change them."

Churches-"which ought to be the locomotive, and not the caboose, in speaking up for children"-can do two things, said Edleman, daughter of a Baptist minister.

First, adults must confront and stop their hypocrisy. "Adults are what is wrong with our children-parents letting children raise themselves or be raised by television or the Internet, children being shaped by peers and gangs instead of responsible parents and grandparents or anchor institutions like the church, children roaming the streets because no one is at home, adults making promises we don't keep and preaching what we don't practice, telling children to be honest while lying and telling children not to be violent while marketing and glorifying violence and tolerating gun-saturated war zones across the land. … Children need the integrity of your lived example of being a Christian."

The sheer number of faith groups in the country could make a dramatic impact, she said. "There are 342,730 houses of worship of all faiths in America," she said. "Of those, 330,000-plus are Christian churches with more than 156 million members. Over 77,000 of those are Baptist with over 34 million members. Imagine the impact on children's wellbeing and on the cradle-to-prison pipeline if each church adopted one at-risk family or got one child a permanent adopted family."

Second, churches need to rediscover their prophetic voices, she said. "Justice is what we're called to provide."

"Dr. [Martin Luther] King said that a nation which continued to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death," she said. Last year American armed forces spent $600 billion a year on arms.

"We've got to figure out how to do a better job of finding a better balance between protecting children from the terrors within and protecting them from the enemies without."

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