Red letter christians?

red-letter-christians

We are visiting family in the US right now, and the recent Presidential election is on everyone’s minds here.

Reports are coming in that apparent white supremacists have been attacking, verbally or physically, people who belong to minorities such as blacks, Muslims and Latinos. Right wing christians are expressing relief that Hilary Clinton, who they vehemently oppose because she is seen to be pro-abortion, pro gay marriage, pro political correctness, anti freedom of religion, and dishonest, didn’t get elected.

Meanwhile the people I have moved amongst have the opposite reaction. Shocked by Donald Trump’s victory, critical of his many obvious flaws and failures, concerned for the safety and wellbeing of people from minorities, including women, and feeling let down by the right wing christians overwhelmingly voting for Trump.

The nation is divided, and so is the christian church, though Trump appears to have the majority in each case. How should christians who fear the worst react?

What would Jesus do?

As an Aussie, it really isn’t for me to say. Many views have been expressed, but activist christian Shane Claiborne has offered a thoughtful response which I think is worth sharing (if you haven’t seen it already) because it is relevant to christians outside the US too.

Evangelical?

The label “evangelical” comes from the Greek word which means “an announcement of good news”. Originally it was used to describe a form of Protestantism which emphasised the good news of salvation in Jesus, in part as a revival movement in a western christianity that had become too tied to the state (through state churches) and the status quo, and had thus lost its spiritual cutting edge.

That is still more or less the meaning of the word in Australia, but in the US it is identified by many with political and social conservatism – opposed to abortion, gay marriage, climate science, and the equality of women, strongly patriotic, and (sometimes) anti-Muslim. The majority of US protestants are probably evangelicals of this type.

Progressive?

However there is a small but growing number of more “progressive” christians who think pro-life should mean anti war and pro social equality and better social services, who think women and the LGBTIQ community should be treated equally with white straight males, and who are deeply concerned about the environment, especially climate change.

Taking a similar line to the Anabaptists, this progressive form of christianity bases its ideas strongly on the teachings of Jesus and the presumed attitude Jesus would have to all these issues.

Yet another split?

Many of these “progressive” christians have seen themselves as “evangelical”, but the polarisation which has become clear through this election is now making this identification problematic.

And so Shane Claiborne, who I deeply respect, having heard him speak many times when he was in Australia a few years ago, thinks it is time for progressive christians to take a stand.

For a number of years, he and author Tony Campolo have led a loose movement they have called Red Letter Christians, based on the old practice in some Bibles of printing the words of Jesus in red print.

Now Shane is suggesting christians who agree with his approach no longer call themselves evangelicals, for that name has negative, and he believes anti-Jesus connotations for most Americans.

Is Protestantism headed for yet another split?

Red Letter Christianity

The core principle of Red Letter Christianity is:

“Jesus is the lens through which we understand the Bible… and through which we understand the world in which we live.”

From this core comes all the other emphases, on justice, diversity, creation care, equality, simplicity and care for the poor, marginalised and powerless.

Well, what do you think?

It would be obvious to most readers that I have a lot of sympathy with Shane’s approach. I think evangelical christianity has lost touch with the real Jesus and has built its theology on a western religious misrepresentation of Jesus. I believe Jesus calls us to justice, care and simplicity.

I think giving greater emphasis to these things would please Jesus, and would be obedient to the truth. It would show the world what the kingdom of God can be like, and would therefore attract more people into the kingdom than present evangelistic methods do.

But I see some dangers too. I think it is easy for activist christians to be less spiritual – to forget to pray and depend on the Spirit, to undervalue evangelism, and to assume progressive responses to social causes without the prayer and Spirit guidance necessary.

But I gave up calling myself an evangelical a decade ago, so I’m clearly closer to Red Letter Christianity than to the conservatives.

What do you think?

Graphic: Red Letter Christians

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27 thoughts on “Red letter christians?

  1. westofthebluemountains says:

    As a non Christian I have little respect for political Christians, those who publicly support a political party. It’s almost got to the stage of corruption if financial donations are involved.

    ‘Evangelism’ I associate with the TV celebrities pushing their version of Christianity, I’m sure you know who I mean.

    I’m glad to be living in a fairly quiet country like Australia. I think the Americans are pretty mixed up at the moment, but hopefully they will recover their true values of generosity and goodwill to all.

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  2. rwwilson147 says:

    This is what I think:
    The real challenge for all who claim the name of Jesus in their salvation, their redemption, their new call to a higher order of ethics, values, goals, service, and worship is this: do we put our whole life commitment, our laying down of our life, our devotion to following Jesus, above every other earthly purpose and process? Are we devoted to Jesus and the gospel proclaimed by the apostles or are we devoted to the partisan political perspectives we think or more likely feel are consistent with the values of Jesus? More likely than not most of us feel that the agenda of one of the two major USA political parties better represents the purposes of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is an illusion, and I think it is an idolatrous illusion. Most likely our political proclivities are more a reflection of our (possibly fallen genetic) tendency to lean this way or that way on a variety of moral, ethical, and/or political policy issues than they are a leaning into Jesus and his understanding of the will of God. If we are born again by the power of the Holy Spirit into faith in and commitment to following Jesus in all things biblical we will in truth admit that neither political party nor political candidate represents the Jesus we desire to serve. If we are sincerely seeking the higher calling of the kingdom of God then we are bound to find ourselves on a trajectory that really isn’t represented by either (or any!) political party. Red Letter Christians I think will most likely find themselves unsatisfied with the platforms and practices of any political party. We should find our selves utterly submitted to Christ as Lord of all creation and all nations, and unable to see any political party platform or practice as consistent with the teaching of Jesus. Red Letter Xns must inevitably be dissatisfied with any political solution, and hence any candidate for office will inevitably be a participant in an inherently idolatrous office. If you think this is mistaken, you may be right, but suspend your critique until you have exhausted yourselves in submission to those scriptural Red Letters.

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  3. William (Bill) Kinzie says:

    Red letter Christianity appears to provide the answers to many of our thorniest dilemmas on how to live the Christ like life.

    It is more costly than most of us are willing to pay for what it requires. In its place we have constructed a comfortable canned American version of marketable “church”.

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  4. Peter says:

    I really am struggling to put my thoughts into words.
    I was treasurer of an Anglican church in the UK for 8 years in the 1960s before becoming disillusioned with what I saw as a lack of ‘radical’ Christianity. Some years later I became a member of a Sabbath keeping Christian church for nearly 20 years before the leadership of that church in 1995 announced that much of their theology was misguided. The changes were welcomed by the leadership of several member churches of the National Association of Evangelicals in America.

    At no time had I ever accepted the traditional teaching of hell. This and a number of other things caused me to step back and reconsider for the second time just about everything I had been taught. This was the start of a second wilderness journey that in some ways is still going on.

    The majority of my friends on Facebook are in America and I’ve been aware of the stress that this election has generated. Shane’s article seems to be a very good summary of the situation. I wrote a blog post in April 2012 where I tried to share something of my own thinking at that time – especially my doubts about Evangelicalism.

    Over the last couple of years I have been drawn to ‘Progressive Christianity’ both in America and the UK and I’ve provided several links on my blog to material that I have been considering. Prior to that I had spent a lot of time considering the place of Anabaptists – which is where I initially gained my understanding of some of the fundamental differences between the Christian FAITH and CHRISTENDOM (or the Christian RELIGION).

    I understand that Evangelicalism in Australia is very similar to the UK – they may still include a belief in hell in their statement of beliefs, but they seldom preach about it? Shane is suggesting that there may be yet another split. Could it be that as John Shelby Spong is suggesting there may be a need for a reformation of Christianity that is so radical that Christianity as we know it might die in the process?

    This is the article I wrote in 2012
    https://outsidethegoldfishbowl.wordpress.com/christianity-after-religion/

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  5. unkleE says:

    Hi West, I understand much of how you think now. But if christians shouldn’t publicly support a political party, does the same apply to atheists, agnostics, etc?

    Are you actually wanting no-one to support them?? I could probably agree with that! 🙂

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  6. unkleE says:

    Hi RW, how are you going?

    “More likely than not most of us feel that the agenda of one of the two major USA political parties better represents the purposes of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

    I find this a strange view. Isn’t it possible, in fact likely, that one party will be further from Jesus’ teachings than another?

    “Red Letter Xns must inevitably be dissatisfied with any political solution, and hence any candidate for office will inevitably be a participant in an inherently idolatrous office”

    I find this a curious view also. The fact that someone is dissatisfied with a political party doesn’t mean they will be equally dissatisfied with both parties, or all parties. So one party will be “worse” than the other, in their view.

    And why should a political party be more “idolatrous” than a country, a local council, a family, a job, etc?

    Are you suggesting christians should cut off all ties with any secular institution, not vote, etc?

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  7. unkleE says:

    Hi Bill, I think you are correct. A someone once said, christianity hasn’t so much been tried and found wanting, but tried and found too difficult. Thanks for your comment.

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  8. unkleE says:

    Hi Peter, how are you going? I recall that we have conversed before.

    It seems we are agreed on most of these things. However I don’t agree with Bishop Spong. I think what he says has no good historical basis. I would rather stick with what the best historians conclude about the gospels, which means I accept them as at least broadly correct. Therefore I accept Jesus as son of God and that he did miracles. Spong doesn’t really accept any of that.

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  9. westofthebluemountains says:

    “Hi West, I understand much of how you think now. But if christians shouldn’t publicly support a political party, does the same apply to atheists, agnostics, etc?”

    I was thinking more of the church as an institution not supporting political parties.

    It usually involves things like political donations. I don’t believe organisations have a right to decide to give the donations of their members to political parties when those individuals gave those donations for another purpose. Same with unions and businesses. Individuals have the right to give their own money, but not other people’s money.

    Atheists and agnostics do not have an organisational structure to which their members donate, but if they did I would have the same opinion of them.

    Red letter Christians as I understand them stay out of politics altogether. Is that correct ? If so I admire them for sticking to their religious convictions regardless of the political situation.

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  10. westofthebluemountains says:

    Just as a follow up to the above, if church leaders favoured the Conservatives for their opposition to abortion, euthanasia and gay marriage,how would that go down with their members who did not like the Conservative’s attitudes on refugees ?

    ie the Church has no right to assume that it owns it’s member’s minds or their political allegiances.

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  11. rwwilson147 says:

    Thanks for asking; I think I’m going with Jesus as best I can.

    My impression of the political landscape here in the USA is that each of the two major political parties is closer to Jesus on some things and farther away on others. Given the usual disconnect between what is promised (or threatened!) and what is eventually delivered it is extremely hard to know whether one or the other will be more beneficial, more likely to promote biblical values than the other in the long run. What I find surprising, strange, but all too true is that Christians are so vehemently and unreflectively committed to either one or the other of the two main parties as though their choice IS the only faithful Christian party. I attend different churches on both sides of this divide, and find it perplexing.

    Call me naive. I have always been somewhat aloof from common human inclinations since childhood; not really socially or intellectually engaged with things of the world until being called by Christ to follow him at the age of 30. Perhaps being detached from and uninvolved in social norms until trying to come to terms with biblical teaching gives me a different perspective on human proclivities.

    I don’t find it particularly unusual to think of all political power systems as being idolatrous. My theological perspective coalesced around the Anabaptist movements vision as best representing the earlier biblical view regarding worldly powers. You know, the principalities and powers that dominate earthly power structures are considered elements of the rule of Satan by the apostles, right? How to engage with the justice issues present in any human political situation has never been simple, and the ambiguities of speaking truth to power, the uncertainties regarding the outcome of any personal Christian involvement in the power processes of politics, is challenging.

    Having seen some wisdom in the positions adopted by the Anabaptists in their pursuit of biblical faithfulness I found the thinking of John Howard Yoder to be helpful in seeing how a Christian might engage the political processes without compromising biblical principles. In his view, the larger the political context the more likely it is to be idolatrous because of the inherent necessity of the use of force in maintaining order. So the power dynamics of a family can more readily conform to biblical teaching (the NT teaching!) than a national one (which involves violent wielding of the sword to maintain order). His view was that participation in a local council of a small village one could avoid complicity in the use of force, and hence avoid being a tool of idolatrous power.

    If you think one political party is way less idolatrous than another, well , , ,what parts of scripture might you be missing??

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  12. Peter says:

    Hi Unklee
    It’s been some time since we shared thoughts. I’m now 81. In 2012 I sensed that I had a faith that I could hold on to ‘loosely’. In 2013 I started attending some University of The Third Age classes in philosophy, psychology, history of Christianity, history of religion, Buddhism and Islam – all of which were new to me – my formal education ended when I was 17.

    I don’t agree with Spong either but his twelve theses have led to some interesting discussions locally. I’ll update my blog on that shortly.

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  13. rwwilson147 says:

    I don’t synch with a lot of Mike Bird’s theology (ex-military Anglican presuppositions about the content of what it means to follow cross bearing and cross taking up in the teaching of Jesus), but this analysis of the evangelical political matrix in the USA is spot on. Please do check out the link Bird noted to the ethical/theological evangelical voice of the The Southern Baptist Convention, as penned by Russell Moore:

    http://www.russellmoore.com/2016/11/09/president-trump-now-church/

    Amen to that!

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  14. unkleE says:

    Hi RWW, thanks for the outline of your views. It seems you see things more black and white than I do regarding politics and the idolatrous. I don’t think anything, including politics, is necessarily idolatrous, which I take to mean taking the place of God. I guess it can be, just like just about anything in life can be. But it can also be a means of improving the lot of those whose lot needs improving, which is what Jesus calls us to do. So I vote for whichever party I think does that best, and I feel quite strongly it is right for me to do so.

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  15. rwwilson147 says:

    I don’t think anything is necessarily idolatrous and am sure I didn’t say all politics is idolatrous. What I think I implied was that all political activity that directly involves potentially violent coercion is not consistent with the teaching of Jesus. “Wielding the sword” is what ruling authorities do (Rom. 13), but Jesus said it was not to be so among his followers Matt 20:24-26
    According to scripture all the kingdoms of the world are under the domination of Satan–Matt 4: “8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written,
    “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”
    Jesus didn’t dispute Satan’s ability to dispense authority over the kingdoms (and hence presumably all empire-like nation states at least). This implies there is a world wide idolatrous system in play.
    I often vote for the politician (not party) that I think might bring the greatest good to the greatest number of people, especially those in the greatest need. It is not voting that is idolatrous, just using violence to lord it over others to get what you want or think is best. I realize that every governing authority beyond the family at least uses some form of coercion to maintain order and enforce the rule of law, but I don’t think voting for those you think might best help those in need is necessarily idolatrous. Some Anabaptists think paying taxes is idolatrous and sinful because you are thereby contributing to military or police violence–I don’t.

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  16. unkleE says:

    Hi RWW,

    “I don’t think anything is necessarily idolatrous and am sure I didn’t say all politics is idolatrous.”

    I feel more comfortable with this statement. I said what I said in response to your statement: “I don’t find it particularly unusual to think of all political power systems as being idolatrous.”

    “all political activity that directly involves potentially violent coercion is not consistent with the teaching of Jesus.”

    I agree with this.

    “I often vote for the politician (not party) that I think might bring the greatest good to the greatest number of people, especially those in the greatest need. …. Some Anabaptists think paying taxes is idolatrous and sinful because you are thereby contributing to military or police violence–I don’t.”

    We agree here too. I understand their views, and have some sympathy with them, but in the end I don’t agree with those Anabaptists, though I regard myself as an Anabaptist.

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  17. ignorantianescia says:

    The nation is divided, and so is the christian church, though Trump appears to have the majority in each case.

    I agree with many sentiments in your post, but I thought I’d point out that Trump didn’t receive a majority among the American nation as Clinton won more votes.

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  18. unkleE says:

    Yes, you are right. If just votes are counted, Clinton “won”. But Trump has the majority when it comes to electoral college and hence power. So in that sense he “won” the nation.

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  19. westofthebluemountains says:

    Very sad that only 58% of eligible voters turned out. One wonders if the electorate system is rigged as Trump said, but it’s rigged in favour of the Republicans as the vote is held on a working day and poor voters may have trouble getting time off to vote.

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  20. unkleE says:

    Yes, there seem to be a few things that have benefitted the Republicans in this and in previous elections. The “hanging chads” in Florida probably gave us George W Bush when Gore should have won, with disastrous consequences. This time the announcement by the FBI chief (a Republican) that he was investigating more emails cut Clinton’s lead in the polls quite drastically, even though it came to nothing. And there were some voters in a crucial state who were not allowed to vote. Whether all this was “cheating” I don’t know, but we can wonder.

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  21. westofthebluemountains says:


    And there were some voters in a crucial state who were not allowed to vote.

    Could you expand or give some links to that ? I hadn’t heard of that before.

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  22. ignorantianescia says:

    I think he may be referring to North Carolina, where state Republicans purged a lot of black voters from the rolls. I don’t think the purge would have swung the state, because Trump won a wider margin, but it may have depressed turnout among black Americans.

    http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2016/11/3/13511264/north-carolina-voter-purge

    Also, Republicans commonly use a variety of methods to discourage minority groups from voting.

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