This weekend my brother-in-law brought along some DVDs recorded at a recent conference that a colleague of his attended. The sessions included some popular figures within our happy subculture, including Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo. Both figures are somewhat radical in their respective ways, challenging some of our habits of living as Christians in the United States. For this reason alone, I am inclined to like them
Tony Campolo’s talk was very big picture in some ways. He began with some axioms for interpreting Revelation. This seemed strange for a youth conference, but whatever. He began by interpreting “Babylon” and the “New Jerusalem” as symbolic. Babylon, he said, represented the Roman Empire for the first readers of Revelation—that is, it was the pervading culture of the day. It was then, and is now, the pervading value system by which we live and choose and the pervading object in which we put our trust. New Jerusalem represented Christians in the world—the Church. He argued that the New Jerusalem counters Babylon’s pervasive systems and remains standing after Babylon falls (Rev 11:15). He repeatedly encouraged people to reread Revelation 18-19, indeed the whole book, with this interpretive framework. I plan to do so.
From his premises, he made an immediate jump from Babylon as the Roman Empire to Babylon as the United States. Now Babylon is different, he said, for different people around the world: For the French, Babylon is France; for the Chinese, it’s China; for Brits, Britain. As Revelation asserts, Babylon falls—"all Babylons fall." In the U.S. context then, it is no exception. For we who can’t imagine it, Campolo made this seem like a real possibility. We have, at the moment, an economy that is crumbling before our (mediated) eyes. Whatever the reasons and causes, legitimate or perceived, the financial system that has structured our value systems and in which we have put our trust is crumbling. Campolo himself talked about his own 401k, on which he was relying in his retirement. He began to explain what he thinks it means for the New Jerusalem to stand when Babylon falls.
During a Q&A session after his talk, Campolo’s big-picture ideas were made more applicable through some specific questions. The conversation there seemed to revolve around retirement accounts and medical insurance. One question asked if 401ks weren’t simply good stewardship. This is a legitimate question, and if we were to take Campolo’s challenge seriously, it is one that is of great impact on our own decisions. Should I plan and save for retirement, or does that make me like the rich man who built bigger barns to store his stuff, and to whom God said, “You fool!”?
In regards to medical insurance, Campolo referred to preceding speaker Shane Claiborne and even the Amish. Claiborne is known for radical compassion and the new monasticism he is leading in Philadelphia. There he lives in the ghettos among the poor, the homeless, the weak, and the least. He has pulled together with about a hundred others, committing to help pay for any medical needs that arise among them. Upon reflection, this seemed to me like insurance on a micro scale. It is like an insurance company, except it functions within the context of relationships, not corporations. Everyone knows each other in this context, whereas a typical insurance company is disembodied and impersonal. I think this is a key distinction for Claiborne.
This led, like usual, to some lively discussion in my family (we’ll discuss anything). I attempted to argue for Campolo’s views within the American context, while my sister raised good points about how impractical it is here, “pie in the sky” was her term.
“You’d have to be very committed,” she said, “to making such a thing happen. To pull together a hundred other people committed to the same thing to make it work at all.”
She’s right. You only have so much energy to commit to various causes of life, and you must care about this one area specifically to really make a go of it at all.
“Besides, doing it might take quite a while, and I don’t know where we’ll be five years from now.”
To this I suggested that perhaps staying in one place could be more important than moving to the next location. This sort of stability and longevity is obviously something that has been in my thoughts recently, so it was interesting to arrive there in conversation.
“But we don’t feel God is calling us to do that,” my sister was saying.
It was a trump card I couldn’t beat.
Still I wonder if the whole system we’ve built up around ourselves is a system in conflict with these values, which Campolo was suggesting were biblical, and which Claiborne agrees with by the way he's living. In this U.S. context, the ideas of providing for each other’s medical needs or providing for the elderly indeed seem like “pie in the sky” as my sister said. In fact, I often feel this tension when reading my Bible. I find myself asking, “Is this a nonnegotiable? Should I be doing more of that and less of this? Is Jesus' call, God's will, really that extreme?”
Later in the evening, some friends were over. The young boy determined that we should play UNO. I was amenable to it, and we all ended up playing four rounds. I was sitting next to my dad. Now when we play our usual game, Scrabble, it often goes poorly for him. He becomes somewhat despondent in these games where luck outweighs strategy. He starts to draw bad letters, and things just decline after that. He increasingly rubs his face and gasps, “Gosh!” Sometimes he just becomes a bit belligerent toward fate. It seems that fate dealt him similar afflictions in UNO.
As the game progressed, I was regularly playing cards like “Draw Four,” “Draw Two,” “Skip,” and “Reverse.” The consequences often fell on him. With each blow he alternated between glaring at me and pleading with me. At one point, he’d missed four turns in a row. At another point, he was rifling through at least 20 cards to find a yellow—without luck. I couldn’t help it. What could I do? That’s how the game is played.
Then I was reminded of what Campolo was trying to show us. Just like Babylon, UNO functions on a certain system of principles, a set of values. It has certain cards that you must play to win the game. You can’t play UNO without doing violence to your opponents by adding cards to their hand or preventing them from playing in a given round. In fact, every participant is an “opponent.” There is no community in UNO, only division.
Campolo was saying something like that I think. And I think Jesus is often saying it too, that despite what we’ve been led to believe, we don’t have to play the cards we’re dealt. You have a “Skip” and a “Draw Four” in your hand, but no one's forcing you to play them. Draw again for a card that won’t hurt your opponent. In fact, quit thinking of him as an “opponent” at all.
Of course you will also lose the game. But it begins to sound a bit like words Jesus spoke. Words like, “Love your enemies” and “Whoever wants to be first among you must be your servant.” These are two axioms by which the New Jerusalem will be standing long after Babylon has fallen. All of Jesus words, really, are the foundation of that whole city.
We are not called to quit playing UNO. We are called to quit playing by the rules we’ve been taught. You have the cards to harm your neighbor, but you don’t play them. You don’t skip over them or reverse course to avoid them, even if it may be to your own advantage. Often it will be. You don’t need to pile them with burdens that you yourself could help them bear, even if they burden you unjustly in return. In fact, you don’t just refrain from harming them, you find ways to help them out.