This morning, I’ll speak briefly about the theology of Dr Tony Campolo of Pennsylvania.
Interestingly, I first heard Campolo in Room 200 of the West Block on Parliament Hill about twelve years or so ago, while he was leading a national youth conference. He told a true story in that room, quite full of teenagers sitting on the floor, which was so moving that none of us present is ever likely to forget it.
In summary, a teacher in a very poor neighbourhood somewhere in inner city America encouraged a young student in her junior school class when he really needed it. The boy lost his mother at a young age, had a home life that was not very supportive, but believed his teacher that he could become a medical doctor if he worked hard enough. Contact between them was lost for several years after he and his father moved away from the district, but years later the teacher was invited by letter to his graduation from medical school, which he’d attended on a scholarship. Later, she also attended his wedding. In short, one kind person made a huge difference in one young student’s life and future. Which of us does not aspire to that?
The story brings me right to Campolo’s “I-It” and “I-Thou” theology, which he develops at the end of A Reasonable Faith, which is subtitled A Case for Christianity in a Secular World. He explains Martin Buber’s view that there is something transcendental in every person, and goes on: “Usually we have what Buber calls ‘I-It’ relationships. In ‘I-It’ relationships the other person is nothing more than a thing or an object. We label him and treat him as a type. He is a student, a worker, a Democrat, or a Presbyterian.”
He continues: “In ‘I-It’ relationships, the other person is no longer encountered with reverence, but is reduced to a typical representative of a class of creatures who perform a particular function. The man I meet in the department store is nothing more than a salesman. The man who collects my fare on the bus is simply a bus driver. The woman who handles my legal affairs is only a lawyer. Such persons are known for the roles that they play. Their function is their identity. I confront them as if they were objects. I try to be just and kind to them, and on a good day we smile at each other politely, but our relationships go no deeper than that. A year from now I won’t remember any of them.”
“On the other hand, an ‘I-Thou’ relationship offers me far more. ‘I’ become involved with ‘Thou’ in a way that is not ordinary or mundane. In such a relationship, each of us surrenders to the other, and the two of us become one. It is only after the relationship is over and I reflect upon it objectively that I realize how precious and wonderful it was. When I reflect upon the ‘I-Thou’ encounter, I am no longer experiencing it. It too has become a thing, as part of my past. It has become a part of ‘me’…I know that there was something sublimely special about it…without the other person, ‘I’ cannot know God.”
Campolo continues: “God refuses to be an ‘It’ that can be conceptualized or described. Instead He is known in and through relationships, and without relationships He cannot be known. This is the reason the Bible says that any man who says he loves God and hates his brother is a liar. It is only in loving his brother (and sister) that a man can experience God. Ultimately Jesus can be known only when ‘I-Thou’ happens. Furthermore, it is only in ‘I-Thou’ relationships that a person can be humanized because it is in ‘I-Thou’ relationships that he encounters the Jesus who incarnates the fullness of humanness.”
The author then relates a haunting instance of when Jesus wanted him to encounter someone referred to in the Bible as “the least of the brethren”. While on the border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic in the early 1980s, waiting for an aircraft, a woman approached him with her baby, who was near death from malnutrition, She asked him to save her child, but when the small plane finally came Campolo ran and got in. The woman screamed as it left. Later it struck Campolo that the little baby was Jesus-and he had turned his back on Him.
Back to the text:”…The unsaved person shies away from ‘I-Thou’ encounters. He shies away because he knows that if he acknowledges the other person as one who incarnates the Eternal Thou, he will have to surrender to him in love and become a servant of the other person…He feels more comfortable treating the other person as an ‘It’ whom he can dominate and manipulate to his own ends and purposes…He does not want to see the other person as one who incarnates God because he would then find it difficult to play the games of control and domination.”
Campolo admits that by trusting other persons we can often be hurt. Saved persons, he concludes “know that when they ‘submit to one another in love’ they do not lose their identity or their humanity, but instead discover both…Christians are not dismayed when people take advantage of them, for they have learned to expect such treatment from those who do not understand what God and salvation are all about. Christians have been taught by Jesus that they are servants of One who was Himself rejected, and that ‘the servant is not greater than the master’”
To close on a personal note, not long ago I was waiting for my daughter in the Byward market here in Ottawa in a rainstorm. A tall man came up. We began to talk. As a child, he, his mother, grandmother and other siblings managed as Tutsis to escape the genocide to Tanzania from Rwanda in 1994. He now suffers from a disease. When my daughter came up, he was telling me how prayer had saved his family because the Interhamwe never managed to catch up to them as they moved from village to village. We shook hands and I hope we meet again.