Whether it's two students debating "How would Jesus Vote?" or theologians Tony Campolo and Richard Land duking it out over the war in Iraq, Smackdown is the Century model for public discourse in the US.

Ok, well it's better than dueling. Maybe.

It was disheartening to read Cathleen Falsani's description of the taping of the Campolo vs. Land for a upcoming episode of Lee Strobel's Faith Under Fire.

From the relative shelter of a frenetic control room, I watched a fantastic smackdown unfold between theologian Tony Campolo, my personal favorite liberal evangelical Christian, and President Bush crony Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, over the morality of the war in Iraq.

Campolo is a self-described pacifist. Land is, well, not. There was plenty of yelling (on both sides -- Bill O'Reilly will be envious) and profuse sweating (on Campolo's side -- it's practically his calling card). In the end, Campolo and Land didn't agree. At all.

Now I like a good smackdown as much as anybody else. But is this really what we need more of --a Jesus does Jerry Springer approach to theological and moral debates.

What passes for discussion these days, even among ministers of the Gospel, is two people yelling past each other. A classic example of this was the "discussion of religion and values" between Jim Wallis and Jerry Falwell on the Tavis Smiley Show back in December. There was no common courtesy in this debate--not even a hint of it. And no discussion whatsoever.

John Power's new book Sore Winners may be a completely partisan anti-Bush screed, but he's got one thing right--we are living in a time where black and white, extremist views are king.

  • You are either a winner or a loser
  • a homophobe or a gay marriage advocate
  • for the war in Iraq or a Saddam coddler
  • against the Patriot Act or a right-wing Nazi
  • prolife or a"baby killer
  • for stem cells or a radical theological nutball

The scary part of the Jibjab.com parody of "This land is Your Land" is how true to life it is. There's something wrong with this, that's all I'm saying.

A first step away from the "smackdown culture" would be to make all politicians, preachers, and political advocacy groups follow Brian Mclaren's steps for talking about politics in church would be a good to start.

Especially the first two steps:

1. Show respect for all positions on an issue, and for those who hold opposing opinions. It’s tempting, especially when one is reacting against a polemical, biased, chest-thumping opposition, to respond in kind and opt out of the Lord’s command about doing unto others.

2. Understand the opposing side so well that you can present its arguments as clearly as its proponents do. Each position has its upside and downside, as do opposing views. We tend to know our upside and their downside, but fairness requires we face our downside and their upside as well.

One last thought--I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Campolo is about the gutsiest preacher I'd ever heard. He is the only preacher who dared say that Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson might have been right--that there may have been a theological lesson in September 11.

Here's the lead from a story I did on Campolo's visit to North Park

On a broadcast of Pat Robertson's The 700 Club following the terrorist attacks September 11, evangelical leader Jerry Falwell blamed the attacks on liberal elements in American society. Those elements had angered God, according to Falwell, and so God allowed the terrorist attacks.

Those comments received widespread criticism and within days Falwell apologized. As he listened to Falwell's critics, Tony Campolo says he felt bad for Falwell.

"Not to get Jerry Falwell off the hook," said Campolo, "but many of us have said things that are pretty close to what Jerry Falwell has said. I have said that unless America repents of its affluence, unless it turns from its indifference to the poor and the needy, unless America wakes up to the fact that it cannot allow half of the world to starve to death while it, in fact, lives a spoiled, decadent life - there will be a judgment on this nation.

There's a little more truth in that quote than most of us would like to admit.


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