Brad Jersak: The government, the media, and the church tend to try to use fear to manipulate, control, and leverage people. I believe using fear on people is an inappropriate thing to do. I’d like to hear your comments on that.
Tony Campolo: Well, it is inappropriate. It’s very effective though. Take the last election in the United States. It was really won by the fact that one candidate was able to reassure that he could provide more protection than the other candidate. Who can alleviate our fears most effectively was the issue.
I think that the church does it as well. I think that through the proclamation of the gospel, we talk more about the threats that go with not accepting Christ. “You’re going to burn in hell forever. You’re going to go through these different circumstances.” Sigmund Freud once said, “The church is in the business of alleviating people’s fears. But since a lot of people don’t feel fear, it becomes the task of the church to create fear, so that they can alleviate it. The problem is,” said Freud, “that the church does a better job of creating the fears than of alleviating them.” That’s a very scary statement and a very serious indictment. But I think there may be some truth to that.
I think that we have to recognize that there’s another way to do it. And that is to inspire people with possibilities of what can result from becoming committed to Christ, and I don’t mean just on a personal level. I believe that when we become committed to Christ, we begin to understand that through us, Jesus can do incredible things in this world. He can do much through us to eliminate the agonies of our present existential situation: hunger, war, overall poverty.
I think that Christians get so wrapped up with those statements that there will be wars and rumours of wars, that the poor you will have with you always, that there is an ignoring of the fact that Jesus really calls upon us to be peace makers, to be agents of reconciliation. Paul teaches us to be at work in the world to drive back poverty. There are over 2000 verses in Scripture that call upon those who would follow Jesus to respond to the needs of the poor. Whenever I talk to church people, I hear them say, “Didn’t Jesus say, ‘the poor you will have with you always’?” But I think that is a description. That is not a call to give up responsibility. We can do much. I don’t think we can create the perfect world, but I do believe that Jesus will come back and join us and carry us to that kingdom. That’s what the second coming is all about.
So it’s about time that we recognized that the real thing that causes people to move in the right direction are visions and dreams of what could be done as we work together under the direction of the Holy Spirit. The Bible is quite clear as it says, “People will perish.” But they will perish when the young no longer have their visions and the old no longer have their dreams. Without visions and dreams, the people perish and we’re not giving people much of a vision of what they could do. We have not given them much of a vision of what we can achieve. Instead, we have operated on the basis of fear. If you don’t do this, you are going to be punished. So we need to change our modus operandi if we’re going to be biblical, if we’re going to be in accord with what Jesus calls us to be: people who declare good news. And fear is not good news; it’s bad news. Good news.
BJ: I have a premise, and that is that behind fear, there is always a lie. Would you comment on that?
TC: I’m not sure that I would concur with that. There are some things that we ought to be afraid of.
I believe in the evil one. And I believe in the power of the demonic. And if Michael the archangel trembled before Satan, and said, “The Lord rebuke thee,” I don’t think that it’s too far off base for a guy like me to say there is a Satanic force out there that is very, very threatening. I live under the assurance that greater is He that is in me than he who is in the world. But the reality is that there is an evil force.
Second, I would be less than honest to say that I do not have some anxieties about dying. I don’t know that I’m afraid of going to hell anymore. As a matter of fact, I’m pretty sure that’s not in the offing. I am afraid of dying for a variety of other reasons. First of all, I am wondering whether I have done what I should have done. Paul says, “I have run the race. I have completed the task.” I am not sure that I am ready to say that. I wonder whether I’ve blown it in many respects as a follower of Christ and whether I need more time. I’m afraid of dying because there are people that I know and love that I need to witness to in a greater way than I have. I haven’t been the witness that I ought to be. There are a lot of things that have been left undone. As one Rabbi said, “On judgment day, we will not so much be judged for all the evil that we did as we will be judged for all the good we could have done and did not do.” So I am afraid of losing out on the opportunities that this life has afforded me.
I’m afraid of the process of dying. I’m kind of like Woody Allen, who says, “I don’t mind dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Whenever I hear about someone dying in their sleep, I think, “Yeah, that’s the way I want to go.”
I had a stroke two years ago. And the doctor said, “You know, I notice that you don’t seem to be threatened by all this.” I said, “No, I’m not.” He said, “Your problem is that you think you’re going to just keel over on the rostrum while you are lecturing at Harvard. And the headlines will read, “Campolo dies lecturing at Harvard!” That’s not what is going to happen. You are going to be in a wheelchair, drooling out of the side of your mouth. Your wife is going to control your every movement for the next five years, and that’s the way you’re going to die.” I am afraid of that. To say that thought doesn’t occur to me when I am very prone to a stroke—to say that I don’t have any fears—NO. A stroke could hit me and I could be in that condition. The doctor says, “You had better watch it, because that’s where you could be.” So that becomes another factor.
BJ: A final question, but you alluded to it already: the idea that a solution to a lot of our fears is to have an encounter with the living Christ…
TC: Yes. A lot of encounters with Christ alleviate fears. But I mentioned the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew today. “I was hungry—did you feed me? I was naked—did you clothe me? I was sick—did you care for me?” I am sure that Christ will forgive, because I believe in salvation by grace. But I am afraid of the judgment day, when I have to face up to the things that I have failed to do.
I wish that every encounter with Christ could be free of fear. The Christ who loves me, I know, will forgive me, by his grace. And He will not condemn me. I am not afraid of being condemned by Jesus. I am afraid of having disappointed Him. There’s the big word for me: that I will have disappointed Him. “Enter ye into the kingdom, Tony, because on the Cross, I took away your sin. But I had really hoped you would have done better.”
Editor's Note: This interview was conducted with Dr. Campolo on December 4, 2004 in Vancouver, BC. It will appear in Brad Jersak's upcoming book "Fear No Evil: Overcoming the Culture of Fear" (Abbotsford: Fresh Wind Press, 2005).