Tony Campolo, a well-known Baptist author says that while the impact of coronavirus may feel like our country is falling apart, Christians have an opportunity to help rebuild a more just system. A professor emeritus Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, a school affiliated with the American Baptist Churches USA, Campolo talked about finding faith in a time like this on the latest episode of the Word&Way podcast “Baptist Without An Adjective.”
In books and sermons, Campolo has compared America to Babylon, noting that whatever socio-political system a Christian lives within is their Babylon. Thus, he said that while he thinks his Babylon is the best one, he also sees “the society at work in a very seductive manner.” After all, he added, the book of Revelation calls Babylon “the great harlot” because she “seduces” those who live there.
“I find myself, as all Americans do, seduced into an affluent, comfortable lifestyle,” he added. “We end up being so in love with the things of our society. The consumeristic society has gotten us into enjoying so many wonderful things that we don’t realize how much of our lives are spent trying to get enough money to buy the stuff that the society says we have to have.”
“We’re ready to sell our souls in order to get the stuff nobody needs. How much stuff do we really need? Most of our income these days is spent on things that did not even exist 100 years ago,” he added. “It’s a frightening thing. And we become enslaved to the products of a consumeristic society.”
Campolo noted that Jesus warned against this consumeristic attitude in the Sermon on the Mount, arguing we shouldn’t “look after these things” but should instead be “seeking first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness.”
Thus, Campolo urged Christians to join Augustine in rejecting our own empire and instead seek the “City of God” as we find ourselves “caught between two worlds.” The first of these two worlds, “the societal system in which we live,” Campolo explained, was for Augustine the Roman Empire and “in our day it’s the American Empire.”
“And it’s very seductive. It’s attractive. It’s comfortable. It’s lovely. Who can help but enjoy living in America?” Campolo said. “We get seduced into it. And it’s so attractive. It’s so enjoyable. And I don’t want to condemn all of this stuff. I am going to say it’s so seductive that it lures us away from what is of ultimate importance.”
Yet, despite how strong and seductive the system seems, Campolo warned it will fall someday — just like Augustine’s Roman Empire fell.
“Sooner or later, everybody’s Babylon falls. Every system collapses. Every societal, political, economic system collapses in the end,” Campolo said. “The Roman Empire fell. Christendom in Europe fell. And now it’s America’s turn. Every system falls.”
Although Campolo said “I hope it doesn’t collapse in the near future,” he also acknowledged that with coronavirus we really don’t know what’s coming or “where we’re going to be six months from now.” He added that we’re already seeing our “economic system is on the verge of collapse.” But regardless of when the system collapses, he said there will be two responses, as recorded in Revelation.
“There are two reactions. There’s that of the merchants. They weep, they wail, they scream, they tear their clothes, they throw sackcloth and ashes on themselves. Because everything they’ve invested in has collapsed when Babylon collapsed,” Campolo explained.
But, he said, “then there’s another reaction” as “the people of God” are saying “Hallelujah, hallelujah, the great whore is no more, the seductive system is no longer there to draw people away from God.”
“The question I always ask,” Campolo added, “When the system falls … are you going to be with the merchants and weep because everything you’ve invested your life in has collapsed with the collapse of Babylon? Or will you be able to sing “hallelujah” because you’ve invested your life in things that will never pass away, that will endure every social and economic collapse and time in history? Have you invested your life in that which is eternal or have you invested your life in the temporal things?”
Campolo also hopes that the present “collapsing of Babylon” will provide “the opportunity to create a new economic system that is about meeting people’s needs” more than just “maximizing profits.” Thus, the thinks a “Red Letter Christian” — one who takes seriously the words of Jesus in the Bible — would question our current economic system, asking “is this what Jesus calls us to?”
And he yearns for churches that aren’t full of “cultural Christians” who have “embraced the American way of life and think it’s Christianity.” Because with that cultural focus, he said, Christians end up seeking not the Kingdom but just trying to “make America great again.”
“Is that what we’re about? Making America great again?” Campolo added. “I thought we were supposed to seek the Kingdom of God!”
NOTE: Hear more about this topic and much more from Campolo in the latest episode of Word&Way’s award-winning podcast “Baptist Without An Adjective.”