A year ago, my son Bart announced that he no longer believed in God. He wanted to, he told me, but he just couldn’t. There were too many things going on, from his point of view, which gave evidence of the absence of God.
Christianity Today suggested on its blog that if I had raised my son correctly, and had not focused as much as I did on social justice, that my son would still be a Christian today. The article then went on to warn other parents not to be like I am.
I am not denying that there is some truth in what Christianity Today said about me. I really could have done a better job of nurturing my son in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord.” I could have spent more time listening to him and answering his questions. Sadly, what is done in time is irrevocable.
Since that Christianity Today article, several of my evangelical friends have quoted Prov. 22:6, contending that scripture validates the claim that if I had taught my son the right values, he would not have departed from the faith at the age of 51. In reality, my son has not departed from the things that I taught him. The values that I impressed on him included a strong commitment to social justice, even as Christianity Today accused me of doing.
Even now, as he has taken up the role of being the humanist chaplain at the University of Southern California (that really is his official position), he is trying to challenge the many secular humanists on that secular university campus to stand up for the oppressed and work for justice for the poor. He is trying to mold the humanist movement on that campus to do the things that the Church has been called to do in letting justice roll down and bringing hope to those who are in need.
I listened to a couple of Bart’s “sermons” to the humanist fellowship, and I have to say that I was impressed. He brings to that humanist community all the zeal, and then some, that I have tried to bring to the preaching of a holistic gospel all the many, many years of my life.
He pointed out that the secular humanists on campus had very little in the way of community, and he hoped that something of the sense of community that he felt as a teenager in an evangelical youth group might be evident among these University of Southern California students. He unashamedly declares that he wants the secular humanists to have something of a sense of mission, which he sees as all too absent among them. He points to the sense of mission that he and those who worked with him in Christian missions had in his days of being a believer.
All the values articulated by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount are values that he espouses, and he has not departed from them now that he has passed that significant 50 years of age mark. What is more, he is trying to teach these values to the humanists to whom he is chaplain.
My wife said to me the other day that in my preaching I had always made a big point out of those who were believers but not disciples. In that, she pointed out, I have declared that giving affirmation to orthodox doctrinal beliefs is not enough to make someone a Christian. I don’t want to minimize affirming the historical doctrines of Christianity as a basis for salvation, but I do want to point out that the Church is filled with people who can say The Apostles’ Creed in a very offhand fashion, but who are not willing to be disciples of Christ.
Jesus said, “You are my disciples if you do whatever I command you.” When I look at the Church, I wonder how many church members who are believers are ready to respond to the poor as Jesus called them to do in Mark 10. I ask how many of those who are in the seats on Sunday morning are ready to sacrificially give to those who are in need; or exercise nonviolence, especially when it comes to responding to those who call themselves our enemies.
Lenny Bruce, one of America’s somewhat obscene comedians, once said, “Whenever I meet a Baptist minister with two coats, I know I am dealing with a hustler.”
I think we all know what he was referring to, because it was Jesus who said, “If anyone has two coats, he should give one away.”
My son and his family have gone way beyond where I and my wife have ever been when it comes to sharing hospitality with those who are in need. Bart always made his home a place where troubled young people could come and live while they got their lives together. This has not happened just on rare occasions, but on more occasions than not. When young people came to him in deep trouble, his house was open, his hospitality was always given. My son, in other words, may not be a believer, but I am convinced that he is more of a disciple of Jesus than most of the people who call themselves Christians.
Red Letter Christianity is by no means ready to deny the importance of sound doctrine, but at the same time, we established our movement to challenge a Church that has forgotten to do the things the Jesus called His followers to do in those red letters that we find in the Bible.
Tony Campolo is professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern University in Philadelphia. He writes at Red Letter Christians, where this blog post originally appeared.
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