‘Red Letter Christians’ and progressive evangelicalism

By Tony Campolo
March 31, 2009

In America, over the last decade-and-a-half, Evangelicalism has become married to the Republican Party. To go on university campuses and declare oneself an Evangelical is to immediately have red flags raised by secularists. Once an individual is defined as Evangelical, it is assumed that he or she is pro-war, anti-feminist, anti-gay, pro-capital punishment, pro-gun, anti-environmentalism and certainly part of the Religious Right.

Many of us have made unsuccessful attempts to stave off such categorisations. A group of one-time Evangelicals, drawn from the Pentecostal to the Roman Catholic communities, eventually got together to come up with a new name. Henceforth, we said, we are no longer going to call ourselves Evangelicals. We are going to call ourselves Red Letter Christians. Our name refers to the red letters in the Bible. In many editions of the Scriptures, the words of Jesus are highlighted in red letters.

While holding to the same orthodox theologies as Evangelicals, those of us who call ourselves Red Letter Christians point out that our lifestyles are, as much as possible, those prescribed by the words of Jesus. We recognize that the ethic of Jesus, especially as set forth in the Sermon on the Mount, is a higher ethic than anything we have found in the Hebrew Bible. The call to love our enemies and to overcome evil with good has turned most of us into advocates of non-violent resistance. Certainly, we are not in favour of capital punishment, given that in the red letters we read that Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”

The primary focus of Red Letter Christians is on what Jesus had to say about the poor. We realize that the only description that he gave of Judgment Day (Matthew 25) was through a parable in which people were evaluated as to whether or not they fed those who were hungry, naked, sick and imprisoned. Many of us take literally the red letters stating that it will be harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.

From this, we have deduced that a simple lifestyle must be embraced by those who call themselves Christians and that money should no longer be spent on unnecessary luxuries, but should be spent wisely and invested carefully on behalf of those in need. Jesus said that if we would be his disciples, we should be ready to sell what we have and give the money to the poor. We take him literally.

It is acknowledged among Red Letter Christians that the ethic of Jesus, if taken at face value, makes his followers into radical, counter-cultural persons who recognise that their American lifestyles have to be abandoned. We recognise that our lifestyles have been largely responsible for depleting the non-renewable resources of the planet, including the oceans and the air and the exploitation of underpaid workers in Third World countries to produce bargains for our American consumption. We must repent for this.

Red Letter Christians recognise that we must not only be be involved on the micro level, living out the teachings of Jesus, but that we also must be intensely politically involved. But we are quick to declare that Jesus is neither Democrat nor Republican and advocate that Red Letter Christians should invade both political parties to be “the leaven” transforming those parties in accord with the teachings of Jesus.

There have been many who have been critical of this new movement. Some have said that we hold the red letters of the Bible as being superior to the black letters and that we have propagated a simple lifestyle as though it is biblically prescribed. Our response is, “You’ve got us right!”

Not only do we believe that the teachings of Jesus are superior to anything else in the Bible, but we also hold that Jesus himself said that his words were superior to tnat which we read in the black letters. In the Sermon on the Mount, he declared repeatedly that the teachings of old have been replaced by new ones. For instance, the Hebrew Bible had been interpreted as saying that in dealing with offences the guiding principle should be “an eye for an eye” and “a tooth for a tooth.” But Jesus said that we are to overcome evil with good.

While the Law of Moses stated that we should not commit adultery, Jesus raised the standard by saying that to be engaged in lustful behaviour (for example, using pornography, engaging in sexually degrading conversations, viewing members of the opposite sex as 'things' to be exploited) is to be judged as seriously as adultery. Referring to the law in the Torah that forbade murder, Jesus raised the ante when he declared that treating another person in such a way as to destroy the dignity and to diminish the humanity of that person should be regarded as though murder had been committed.

Furthermore, we believe that the black letters of the Bible cannot be understood until we first come to grips with Jesus. Unless we understand who Jesus is and what he did through his life, death and resurrection, the rest of the Scriptures will not make much sense. Can we really understand the 53rd chapter of Isaiah or the 22nd Psalm without knowing about Jesus? Is there any way of understanding the allusions to Jesus that are found all through the writings of the prophets unless we understand what was revealed through Christ’s words and deeds?

Because Evangelicals have been steeped in the theology of the Pauline Epistles before they scrutinised the teachings of Jesus in the red letters of the Bible, they have read Jesus through the eyes of Paul. Red Letter Christians do just the opposite: we read Paul through the eyes of Jesus. There is no contradiction between these two perspectives, but there is a difference in emphasis. If we get into the red letters first, we will be committed to a new lifestyle before we grapple with the sophisticated theological concepts set out in the in Pauline teachings. Commitment to Christ and following His teachings takes primacy.

Rather than creating a new legalism, Red Letter Christians are preaching a call to obedience to the radical teachings of Christ. We will not water down the red letters in the Bible in order to create an ethical lifestyle compatible with upper-middle class affluence. We believe that Jesus made perfectly clear what he expects of his disciples.

Across America and in other countries, there is a new church emerging that embraces the Red Letter Christian lifestyle. There is a new generation that no long ascribes to the “easy believism” that reduced Christianity to a mere affirmation of theological propositions. This new generation of Christians calls for obedience to the obvious teachings of Christ concerning wealth and power and what should be done for the poor and oppressed. We are committed to living out those teachings.


© Tony Campolo is a speaker, author, sociologist, pastor, social activist, and professor emeritus at Eastern University, Philadelphia, USA (http://www.eastern.edu/). His show ‘Across the Pond’ can be heard each weekend on Premier Christian Radio in the UK, and his most recent book is Red Letter Christians, A Citizen’s Guide to Faith and Politics (available here http://tinyurl.com/cywwct ). His website is: www.tonycampolo.org

There is more about 'Red Letter Christians' on Sojourners: http://www.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=about_us.redletterchristians

Other books by Tony Campolo from Ekklesia here http://tinyurl.com/dggyqe and here http://tinyurl.com/dbsppg

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