Dr. Alvin Sanders is the author of “Bridging The Diversity Gap,” and led the EFCA All People Initiative from 2007-2015.
The Bart Campolo Story
Years ago, when I served as Director of Ethnic Ministries for Cincinnati Christian University, I struck up a friendship with one of the best communicators I have ever encountered. He was a very winsome guy who had a heart for the ‘hood.
Through this relationship, I invited him to preach campus chapels, as well as at my church, and every time he did he knocked it out the park. The preacher’s name: Bart Campolo.
So it saddened me when I found out recently that this good man, who was immersed in ministry aimed at seeking justice for the oppressed, decided he was no longer a Christian after being injured in a bike accident in 2011. I say saddened, but I don’t say surprised.
If you think I am going to condemn Bart, you can stop reading right now. But for the grace of God I could be him. It’s hard to live among injustice day after day for decades. If you’ve never done it, let me tell you it wears on your faith like few other things in the world.
I actually commend him for being open and honest in such a public way. As someone who runs in the same circles that Bart does, I suspect there are more than a few humanists masquerading as Christian social activists who have kept things quiet for fear of losing their public platform and the dollars that come with it.
According to Bart, his journey towards humanism goes like this. The son of popular Christian speaker, Tony Campolo, he became a Christian in high school mainly because of the sense of community and the call to transform the world. However, his faith was traumatized by an incident in inner-city Philadelphia while he served as a minister there.
He encountered a 9-year old girl who had been raped, and instead of condemning the action, the girl’s Sunday school teacher incredulously sanctioned the rape by stating that God could have stopped the act, but allowed it for a reason. Bart could not rectify in his mind what type of God would allow such evil to occur.
Another key experience was when two of Bart’s friends came out as gay while in college. He chose to ignore the biblical verses that spoke negatively of the gay-identified lifestyle. He has been very open over the years about the fact he ignores certain Bible verses.
Once he rejected the sovereignty of God and the authority of the Bible, that left him in the realm of universalism. By his own admission, he was only interested in a God who would save everybody. This sent him into a spiritual tailspin, which eventually led to his present position of serving as the humanist chaplain at the University of Southern California.
There is one more key thing that Bart expresses about his journey towards humanism. He says that when he first became a believer, “the death and resurrection of Jesus stuff was not the attraction.” This indicated, to me, that he was doomed from the start. All ministers who pursue justice for the oppressed need to take heed of this powerful statement.
The Truth About Christian Activism
The lesson learned here that I stress to newbies entering justice ministry, is that the neighborhood doesn’t need more of you – they need the faith you have in Christ. People who are drawn to the ministry of seeking justice of the oppressed typically have what is commonly called a “messiah complex.” Simply put, they think it is their job to fix all the brokenness that they find.
The crisis of belief that messiah complex people eventually run into is that you can’t save the world in just pursuing good. There is not enough good in you to overcome the evil you encounter on a daily basis.
The only route to your faith surviving is to live in the tension of embracing the limits of your human ability and consciousness, and trusting in God to handle the flat out impossible situations that are constantly presented. In other words, you need a strong faith.
When we try to address injustices in our communities by giving out food to the poor, tutoring kids and protesting against police brutality, spiritual tailspins will be the norm if you don’t root your activism in a place of faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
If we don’t pursue justice out of an active, vibrant personal faith, we will be just another run-of-the-mill NGO agent. As great as NGO workers are, Christ didn’t die on the cross for us to be one.
One of my favorite professors in seminary would always discuss the most important part of our ministry. It wasn’t strategy or skill sets, although those things are important. It was the lost art of being with God. We cannot lose sight of this fact In justice work.
I call it a lost art because doing justice ministry, by its very nature, requires that we are change agents. Change agents don’t like to beanything; we do. When you get a group of us in the room, debates are had, plans get written and things get done. It’s all great, but we must be careful to do based on being with God.
A key verse to understanding this concept is found in 1 Peter 1:14-16. It admonishes us to, “Be holy, because I am holy.” Holy is not something that you can do. It is something you have to be. It is the one thing that must happen every single day.
When we think about the skills we use to make the world a better place, if we rely only on those skills, we are not being godly. For instance, when I preach, if I haven’t been spending time with God in prayer and Scripture study my sermon is just another speech. And, unfortunately, you can build successful ministry in our country by being a great speaker. The Holy Spirit is not necessarily required.
If you focused on being holy, then the doing of justice looks like this: It’s a balanced ministry life of guarding your heart from sin by practicing self-care. It’s making sure you have fellow believers hold you accountable for your actions. It’s understanding that you can’t do it on your own and must actively collaborate with others. It’s investing in the people in the ‘hood to bring out the best in them. And it’s trusting God that your small actions will eventually lead to big impact.
I haven’t talked to Bart in years, but every now and then I would pray for him. I’ll continue to do that. The difference now is that I know exactly what to pray for – that he would pay more attention to the death and resurrection of Jesus.