Basic religious principle urges love over violence or hate, so why is there so much war over religion? According to Tony Campolo, the answer rests in the complex, contemporary inextricability between religion and nationalism.
Speaking from the Hall of Philosophy, Campolo delivered his lecture Tuesday on how religion has become distorted and intertwined with a love of country, a fusion that has led to the “holy wars” of today.
Coming to his conclusion via the work of Émile Durkheim, Campolo said the United States and other nations behave as large tribes that have created a god in their own image, and they use and interpret these gods to their own convenience.
“Religion is nothing more than a collective of a people, who are worshipping a symbolic representation of themselves, which makes them incredibly loyal to the tribe,” Campolo said. “The more you love the tribe, the more you love the god. The tribe and God become indistinguishable. This is crucial.”
Campolo argued that the Jesus of Scripture deviates entirely from many of the actions and ideologies of contemporary Christianity. He said Jesus told his followers to give all their possessions away to the poor to join his movement, but such instruction would never work today. Likewise, he said many Christians — Evangelicals, specifically — lobby for capital punishment, however antithetical it is to Jesus’ words.
“If following Jesus is going to be done with absolute faithfulness, then Christians would be the most counter-cultural people in the entire world,” Campolo said. “They would stand over and against dominant values of the culture.”
Adding to the contradictions of belief, Campolo argued there are two different ideologies that come out from the Bible. In the beginning, God is depicted as violent, but as the narrative continues, he becomes loving and empathetic. This duality gives leeway for certain believers to pick and choose an ideology.
This can happen all too easily with ambiguous concepts. Campolo said politicians then use whichever side of the coin is most convenient to them at the time of their politicking. Thus, religion and national interests dovetail in a dangerous manner.
“Political leaders understand that there are great pragmatic values in religion,” Campolo said. “Religion is a great instrument for developing warriors. As a matter of fact, religion can give warriors a reason to kill. Religion can give warriors a reason to die. … The problem is, when you have made god into a representation of your own traits and values and your army goes off to fight in the name of god that you have created in the place of the biblical God, you’re going to have a viciousness.”
However, just as God matured in the Bible from tremendously violent to unyieldingly loving, Campolo said religions can do, and are on their way to doing, the same.
Despite the growing atheist movement, Campolo pointed to some of the undeniably good deeds religion has done for the world. According to his figures, different religious groups are behind some of the dramatic increases in literacy, access to clean water, and access to food for the hungry.
“The work of religious people cannot be looked away from without giving it its deference,” Campolo said.
Campolo wrapped up his speech with different anecdotes of love trumping hate, from Nelson Mandela to Martin Luther King Jr. He also mentioned a student group that is leading a movement of reverting to the Christianity that Jesus urged and not what it has been reinterpreted as.
“I believe that we are moving, in spite of all the setbacks, to a stage in which religions will affirm universal love,” Campolo said. “I am optimistic about the future.”