The following is a 500-word extract of an interview that Steve Chalke did with Tony Campolo on 22 March 2016. The full feature-length interview will be published on the new High Profiles website later today.
Can you talk a little about your background?
I’m 100-per-cent Italian in lineage. My father came to America from Sicily; my mother actually was born here.
My father couldn’t find a job and they were totally impoverished, and a Baptist mission in South Philadelphia reached out to them, got my father a job, got them a place to stay, put their feet on solid ground and really saved them from despair and destitution. People often ask me: ‘Where did you get your social consciousness? Where did you get your commitment to the poor, before it was ever fashionable?’ My mother and father saw in the way they were treated by a group of Baptists that this is what Christianity is about. It’s not about getting a ticket to heaven, it’s about becoming an instrument of God to transform this world.
You have long been an associate pastor in [Mount Carmel Baptist Church]. Why did you decide to join a black church?
Well, it wasn’t a conscious decision. The white church I had belonged to from my earliest days closed down [in 1954] and so I looked for the nearest Baptist church and I joined that. I didn’t see what being black had to do with it. In fact, I’m the only white guy in this church, which has about 1,500–2,000 on Sunday morning, and I am now its longest-standing member.
When people on your side of the pond talk about ‘the evangelical church’ [in America], what they’re talking about is the white evangelical church. There’s a huge difference between white evangelicals and black evangelicals. The latter are committed to social justice, they’re committed to reaching out to those who are downtrodden. During the Sixties, when most African-American churches were standing behind Martin Luther King, white evangelicals were opposed to him. Christianity Today called him a Communist, a rabble rouser, a disturber of the Christian faith. Now, decades later, everybody pretends that they marched with him in the difficult days; but it was mainline churches and the African-American churches that were with Martin Luther King.
We’ve still got a long way to go. As a matter of fact, we’ve lost ground in the last decade.
Why is that?
Most of [white US] evangelicalism really does not have much to do with what Jesus said any more. They work so hard to prove that the Bible’s inerrant but they’re not going to do what it tells them anyway! The truth is, we say to them, you’re called to give all your money to the poor. Have you done that? You’re called to lift up the oppressed. Are you doing that? No. You’re standing behind Donald Trump.
Question: how seriously do we take the teachings of Jesus? [White US] evangelicals will say: ‘Well, we know what Jesus taught, but’ – here’s the line, you’ll love this! – ‘it’s not for this dispensation.’ They say: ‘When Jesus returns and the kingdom is established upon earth, then we will be able to live according to his teachings. We’ve got to be more realistic today.’
I say: I’m not a realist, I’m a biblical follower of Jesus.