JL: Christians have had Jesus’ message of justice, care for the poor, peace and love for 2,000 years. What will it take for us to all start taking it seriously?
TC: There have been, throughout the ages, groups of people who have taken Jesus seriously. St Francis of Assisi, said: I’m going to do what the rich young ruler failed to do.’ When Jesus said: ‘If you want to be my disciples, sell what you have and give it to the poor, take up the cross and follow me,’ Francis did it.
Today, coming out of Eastern University in the United States, where I teach, there’s a whole group of young people – hundreds of them, now—who call themselves the people of the Simple Way, who have embraced this lifestyle. They know what authentic Christianity is. Authentic Christianity is living out your life for the poor and the needy of the world.
Soren Kierkegaard who is one of my intellectual heroes was asked one day: ‘Did you hear they had a dance in the church last week? Isn’t that shocking?’ And he said: ‘Not half as shocking as using the church on Sunday morning to make a fool out of God.’
What do we do on Sunday morning? We sing things like ‘All to Jesus I surrender.’ Are you kidding? We don’t even give a tithe, never mind all. We say things like: ‘How many of you today are willing to surrender your life to Christ today?’ So they come down the aisle and I ask if they will take off a year and work in the slums of American cities. And you can see their faces: I’m willing to give my life to Jesus, but not a whole year. We are making a fool out of God.
JL: Because of your political and theological views, you get a lot of personal criticism, some of which verges on public vilification. Does that hurt?
TC: It used to. You reach a certain age and you really don’t care anymore. When I was younger it bothered me a great deal. Because I was concerned about my ‘career’. Would this cause me to lose speaking engagements? How would this affect the sales of my books? How evil is that! You get beyond that at a certain point.
If I wasn’t getting criticisms, I would have to ask some serious questions. Beware, says Jesus, when they all speak well of you. The thing that bothers me [now] is not when I get criticised. It’s when I read the criticism and there is truth in what they’ve said. And very often my critics and those who condemn me point out things that ought to be condemned. Criticism can be helpful.
JL: Islam has become something of an enemy and a ‘devil’ for many Christians and non-Christians in the UK. Do you have any thoughts on that?
TC: In his book called The True Believer, Eric Hoffer says a movement can exist without a God (many have: Communism, Fascism), but it can never exist without a ‘devil’ to be destroyed. And here in the UK, after 9-11, we are making the Muslim people the devil.
Now, are there Muslims that speak like the Devil? There sure are. The press loves to get hold of these statements: ‘We are going to destroy Christianity, we are going to take over Britain!’ We are shocked when Muslims talk in a triumphalistic manner, but we have no problem going to Spring Harvest and yelling: ‘We’re going to conquer this nation for Jesus!’
Triumphalism has no place in religion. We do not operate from positions of power, but from sacrificial love. And the Muslims will never take over this country as long as they play power games. And that’s what they’ve been doing.
You’re big in this country on Jesus marches. They march through the streets and sing ‘Our God reigns’. It’s our God, not your God. He is the God of all, even those who do not believe in him. He’s their God too, they just don’t acknowledge it. They should be singing ‘Your God reigns!’
I do want to see a kind of triumph of God. I want all of Britain to become followers of Jesus. But that’s not going to come by the use of power and putting down of other people. It will come as we lovingly sacrifice and meet the needs of the poor and the oppressed. And even as we love those that differ from us, that’s how we’ll win this country, how we’ll win the world to Christ. I believe that if we have a humane, Christ-like discussion, that we will win them over.
JL: Your friend Richard Rohr says that one of the most important things for a Christian to accept is we are going to die and before that we are going to suffer. Have Evangelicals failed to understand this?
TC: We have, as certain forms of Pentecostalism have permeated our churches. I think Pentecostalism is one of the most wonderful things to happen to Christianity in the last hundred years, but there are certain forms of Pentecostalism that I hear on Christian radio in this country which preach a prosperity theology. A theology that says: ‘if you’re into Jesus, you’re going to be healed.’ I know of a prominent pastor in Argentina who wouldn’t let his wife come to church after she got cancer. Because if you’re a Christian, you’re never supposed to get sick – Jesus is supposed to heal you. So, as this woman is suffering and dying of cancer, she’s kept away from the church that should be loving her and nurturing her into death. She had to die in aloneness.
If Jesus heals every sickness, the logical conclusion is that nobody ever dies. But, sooner or later, you’re gonna get sick and die. They’re going to drop you in a hole, throw dirt on your face and go back to the church to eat potato-salad.
I remember in my first year at University I was asked to compare Jesus facing death with Socrates facing death. Socrates, when given the cup of poison, insists on drinking it. People are pleading with him not to do it and he explains, with great aplomb and peacefulness, why he is going to. Jesus in the garden says: ‘if it be possible, take this cup from me.’ Jesus knew that when you die you go through the valley of the shadow of darkness. It’s a struggle. It’s a painful struggle, to come to grips with your own death and to endure the sufferings that lead to death. But through Christ we have the strength to be more than conquerors. That’s the good news of the Gospel.