>those troubling red letters

>There is an interesting religious movement going on in the U.S. today. Maybe “religious” is too strong of a word. Better might be “not-so-religious” movement. Some are calling it Red-Letter Christianity. Simply, it is a reaction to the hijacking of Christianity by right-wing politics and culture. More complex and profound is its focus on the teachings of Jesus as its foundation, which may sound like a strange differentiation among groups calling themselves Christian. This movement stands in sharp contrast to the often less-than-Biblical Christianity of many high-profile Christian leaders today.* Many non-Christians like to point the finger at Christianity and call out how bad it is. My gut response is to say, “you don’t even know the half of it.” I say this as a committed Christian who desperately seeks to follow Jesus in who I am and all that I do.

The focus on “red letters” comes from the fact that in many older bibles the words of Jesus are printed in red ink. Those who are part of this movement are calling themselves Red-Letter Christians.**

We live in a post-Christian world, sociologically and culturally speaking. In recent years (read decades) Christianity has been tagged as anything from intolerant to irrelevant. Many feel that Christians are merely self-righteous demagogues who say they love others as they condemn them. Unfortunately, this is often the case (but it is not always the case, as the Red-Letter Christians are trying to emphasize). The following video, rather pointedly, gets at part of the problem, at least, that Red-Letter Christians are confronting:

One of the problems, of course, is the problematic “need” to be morally superior in place of the more difficult task of truly loving others as oneself. This is a human condition, a result of what we are at our core. So it is part of my condition. Jesus’ harshest words were for the self-righteous religious leaders of his day. Lest we forget, these were the properly behaved and “family values” people of his day. Jesus’ softest words were for those whom the religious leaders condemned. If Jesus is our example then we should try and act as he acted. Somehow many Christian leaders, who have studied those same red letters, do not see the irony staring back at them.

But there is another problem with mainstream evangelical Christianity in America, that is its slavish and embedded relationship to American right-wing politics. Religion and politics have always gone together in this country, but the past twenty years have seen a radical increase in the way evangelical Christianity and the political right have forged a power-focussed agenda. This very interesting report below takes a look at that relationship and some alternatives that are bulbing around the fringes of mainstream Christianity:


In that video there was mention of Shane Claiborne. His book The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical is a very interesting and challenging read, especially if you’ve grown up in a conservative Christian environment. I enjoyed it very much and it has contributed to my current views.

So then, what is Red Letter Christinaity? Here and here (in an interview from 2004) Tony Campolo, sociologist and Christian apologist, explains what Red-Letter Christianity is all about.

Why does this interest me? I have a long history with Christianity. I have wrestled with its truths and its sub-cultures. More than ever I believe in those truths, and more than ever I have issues with its sub-cultures. Red-letter Christianity is not the complete answer (I am wary of any “brand” of Christianity that includes an additional label), but it does call attention to the way Christianity has always tended to deviate from its core truths.

Humans want to be God and call the shots, but Christians know they can’t be God, so they tend to invent a version of God they can believe in, say He’s on their side, say He wants them to establish His kingdom, and say that kingdom looks like an American BBQ with nice people wearing flag pins and hating liberals. (I joke, but it really is worse than that.) But I also find in myself a tendency to excuse a life of selfishness and pragmatic expediency by pushing forward a kind of self-righteousness. In other words, I don’t follow the teachings of Jesus very well and I’m rather good at pointing out how others are failing. Yet, deep in my heart, I want to be challenged and reminded of what is truly important – to love my neighbor as myself, to care for the poor and the suffering, and to not let politics or social norms get in the way.

Of course we are in a political season (in some ways we always are) and we have troops overseas killing and getting killed (which always raises deep issues of faith and morality). There is no wonder that religion is playing a big part in the various debates going on around these topics. In part two of the video above Avi Lewis interviews Tony Campolo about religion and politics, and interviews a military chaplain about the tension between war and the Christian commandment to turn the other cheek:

I cannot unequivocally endorse Red-Letter Christianity, if only because I still need to take a closer look, but I love it just the same. At a minimum it offers a kind of antidote to the radical/worldly tendencies of popular evangelicalism. I say this because, at heart, I am an evangelical and I want to live out those troubling red letters.

Critics*** say that to only focus on the red letters is to miss the totality of the Bible. But this sounds to me like a false criticism, and I suspect it comes from a heart of self-justifications. If the teachings of Jesus say to feed the poor, turn the other cheek, be humble, and love one’s enemies, do we find the rest of the Bible contradicting Jesus? That would seem to be the position of the critics, but I suspect they don’t believe they mean it that way. What the critics of Red-Letter Christianity appear to be doing is trying to shift the argument away from the real implications of Jesus’ teaching because they want to hold on to a position that wants to claim Jesus didn’t mean exactly what he said, that he was speaking metaphorically. The truth is the Gospel (the good news of God become man, etc. etc.) is the most inconvenient of truths. My observations and personal experience tells me that established Christianity (the so-called visible church) often doesn’t really like that truth. Fortunately, the spirit of God works on the heart, and through the hearts of the meek, of the humble, of the kindhearted, of those who thirst, of those who weep. I pray I am such a person.

*Some of the reaction comes from taking a hard look at the way Christianity has been used and abused by those less loving than Jesus yet claiming a high level of personal righteousness. A recent example might be Dr. James Dobson’s criticizing Obama, saying Obama has a “fruitcake interpretation” of the Constitution. I don’t know what Obama’s interpretation of the Constitution is, and I am not endorsing Obama here, but I do know that Dobson is very publicly being unloving towards Obama and his supporters. It is as though Dobson, while claiming a position of righteousness, has written off Obama as the “enemy” and therefore as someone to condemn rather than love. Dobson could have said he disagreed with how Obama was interpreting the Constitution and then given some clear reasons why. Calling anyone’s interpretation of the Constitution “fruitcake” is demeaning. Is this the proper behavior of a Christian leader? Dobson could also have declared that he is neither a Constitutional lawyer or Constitutional scholar and then phrase his comments accordingly. And then Dobson should go feed the hungry, visit the sick, help the needy, and stop being so concerned about playing to his constituency. Of course, I could go do the same, which I do not do as I should. So, when I point the finger, it points back at me as well.

**I am not writing this to promote Red-Letter Christianity so much as to begin the process of examining what it is the red letter Christians have to say. I am curious and seeking.

***I am referring to Christian critics, that is, those who would claim their take on Christianity is fundamentally more correct than that of the red letter Christians. Their focus is on right doctrine, which is very important, but often forget what it says in 1 Corinthians 13:13, “But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

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3 Comments

Filed under American history, Christianity, Politics, religion

3 responses to “>those troubling red letters

  1. >The church destroyed most gnostic texts of the time and all accounts of Jesus that did not fit their agenda. It’s funny that a group of people would think that a literal adherence to that limited view of Jesus is the way to go.

  2. >I think this is always a good conversation to have, but it certainly seems more pressing in this election cycle. It strikes me as somewhat ironic (and more than a little bit tragic) that “running to the right” seems to have generated more dislike for Christians within the culture. Here, too, is a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy: “the reason we’re hated is because we’re Christian,” rather than seeing it as a pretty predictable result of the public policy.Christianity–at least, what I understand to be true Biblical Christianity–has never been popular or well-liked. I see a danger for many self-identified Christians who believe it’s solely their faith that’s the reason for such antipathy, rather than their works.Also, anonymous internet posters are funny!

  3. >anonymous, thanks for your comments. I have to agree that it can be funny (and sometimes tragic) what and why people believe in the things they do – including what typically goes for Christianity these days. For all our cynicism we also live in an age of credulity, which leads to lots of people believing in lots of things without much examination. However, I have to say that I would not use the word funny to describe the believing in, and resonating with, the teachings of Jesus as they a laid down in the traditional, canonical bible. I would use the word miracle. I would also not confuse what we typically call the visible church (what’s on TV, or the steepled building on the street corner) with that believing and resonating. I think they are fundamentally different.Brian, as always, thanks for stopping by. I have to agree. I think it is all too common that too many Christians choose the easy way out by claiming a kind living martyrdom rather than admit they really are jerks. There is no excuse for not being loving, or at least being committing to being loving.

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