Q&A: Evangelist Luis Palau

Luis Palau, 73, is an Argentine evangelist who has traveled to more than 70 countries to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ and broadcasts a regular radio program on more than 2,100 stations worldwide. In his new book "Superclass," author David Rothkopf cites Palau as a representative example of modern-day religious leaders who have harnessed information technologies to expand their influence and generate revenues across national borders. Palau spoke by phone with NEWSWEEK's Joseph Contreras last month from his world headquarters in Beaverton, Ore. Excerpts:

CONTRERAS: How do you feel about the fact that you were included in Mr. Rothkopf's list of a global superclass?
PALAU:
Well, I never thought of myself as part of a superclass. Since I was young, I really have had a global vision, and I've been anxious to reach out to as many millions as possible long before the word "globalization" existed. In a way globalization is a contemporary form of ecumenical, which means worldwide, oikoumenos. The church has always thought globally since the command of Christ: "go into all the world and make disciples of all nations." When you're brought up with that mentality you do have a worldwide view, so being included makes me think, "Well yeah, I've always had that kind of a vision."

How do you in your life and your ministry address issues of global scope?
From the beginning, the plight of the poor has affected me. When I was in Argentina, back in the 1950s and 1960s, I was always concerned about the poor, about how we lift up the poor. I studied church history and spiritual awakenings around the world based on Jesus Christ, and I could see where the proclamation of the good news and the reception of Christ into people's lives did begin a movement of lifting them up. There's a little verse that goes over extremely well in Latin America and also in other parts where poverty is prevalent: "The Lord lifts up the poor from the ash heap and makes them sit with princes, with the princes of his people." Since I was a kid, I felt that Jesus Christ doesn't want people to be poor.

What are the fundamental causes of poverty today?
Poverty has its roots in a lot of sources. Some of the basic ones are solved when the message of Christ takes hold among the poor themselves and also among governments, military people and big business. Rather than attack, insult and denigrate successful people like capitalists, I speak to them about the needs of the poor to awaken their conscience. Often they do not see those needs, and I remind them of their duty.

Do you try to impart that message to politicians as well?
With propriety and respect, I have spoken to them and urged them to think of the poor, to do everything possible to lift them up. I am not politically oriented, and I stay away from unnecessary partisan politics because all it does is create heat and very little light.

Are people in this century becoming more globalized in their outlook or more nationalistic? 
I really think that both are running parallel. You have the new nationalism that you notice with [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chávez and Ecuador and in Argentina and Bolivia. That's in Latin America, but it's also true in the Middle East and all over the world where nations are asserting their rights to natural resources. So it seems to me that nationalism is rising up.

Is globalization a positive agent?
I think it's for the good, it's got great potential. The term "new world order" that President George H.W. Bush came up with after the fall of the Berlin Wall sent shivers up the spines of many Christians because it sort of has that one-world view which is prophesied in the Bible. But globalization opens doors that will benefit millions of people, whereas nationalism and the dictatorships that often go with it hoard the resources and withhold from their own people the money that comes from those resources. Globalization also enlightens ordinary folks who felt impotent and forever cursed to inevitable, impossible-to-overcome poverty. Suddenly they see on TV and the Internet a humble person in Bangladesh who becomes a famous Nobel Peace Prize-winning banker, and they begin to think creatively: "I can come out of poverty, I can get out of this hole, there is hope." The worst thing about poverty is the hopelessness, the lack of expectation that you'll ever get out of the hole. You've noticed that the dalits in India are beginning to assert themselves, and leaders are emerging who are challenging the old superclass, which is a bit of a bombastic title.

What is the greatest obstacle in the fight against poverty?
Corruption is the worst enemy of lifting up the poor. It's not that there's a lack of resources, or that there's no potential for education to lift up the poor, it's corruption. But this globalization informational age has great potential to liberate millions of people.

Is the role played by people like yourself and other religious leaders changing in the 21st century?
Yes, and I think the changing role is definitely positive. You don't water down the fundamental belief you have, in our case that Jesus Christ is God the son, that His work on the cross was for the redemption of the whole world and not just the West, that His resurrection gives absolute hope. But the difference I see between now and the past is that there seemed to be an inclination in the past toward confrontation, toward exposing the other man's faults or weaknesses in a downgrading, offensive way. What many of us are doing now is to send the same message, but presenting it in the form of "look, just think of the good that will come to you, to your family, your neighbors and your nation as well as the rest of humanity if you follow these principles." When I was a child I used to hear the preachers confronting the other side, and I always used to think, "this is never going to win people, you don't win a person's heart by punching them in the nose." You show them the way, and if we as religious leaders can turn in that direction there will be less danger of severe, warlike confrontations and more lifting up of the people where it is needed.

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