Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Are you a Red-Letter Christian?

Have you heard this term? It appears to be basically a term for people self-identifying both as "Christians" and political liberals. There was an excellent article in Christianity Today entitled When Red is Blue, where author Stan Guthrie makes the excellent point that the term "Red-Letter Christian" would better be called "liberal Christian." Well-known "Red Letter Christian" Tony Campolo responded to Guthrie's article - or rather, perhaps I should say he side-stepped Guthrie's article with double-talk saying, is essence, "I agree we'd be better called 'liberal Christians' but we want to pretend it's not true." Where do I get off saying that? Just read Campolo's article on the subject on beliefnet, where he says:
Because being evangelical is usually synonymous with being Republican in the popular mind, and calling ourselves “progressive” might be taken as a value judgment by those who do share our views, we decided not to call ourselves “progressive evangelicals.” We came up with a new name: Red-Letter Christians.
In other words, we're really best called "liberal Christians" but we don't use the term for political reasons. Give me a break.

Anyway, I thought that I would go through Campolo's response to Guthrie's article paragraph-by-paragraph. What I find interesting is that for a really smart guy, Dr. Campolo comes off sounding really dumb. I mean, some of what he says leads me to only one of three conclusions: (1) Dr. Campolo does not know what he's talking about, (2) he's being intentionally deceptive, or (3) his liberal fundamentalism is skewing his thought processes. I don't know which is least flattering. I am well aware that most of Dr. Campolo's audience does not have the theological muscle to understand this; but that makes it no less excusable. Let's look at his response:
I have to say, "You got us right!"
Ok, well at least he admits this.
While we, like you, have a very high view of the inspiration of Scripture and believe the Bible was divinely inspired, you are correct in accusing Red Letter Christians of giving the words of Jesus priority over all other passages of Scripture. What is more, we believe that you really cannot rightly interpret the rest of the Bible without first understanding who Jesus is, what he did, and what he said.
I don't have a problem with giving Jesus's words priority over places where Jesus said He was clarifying. What I have a problem with is your giving your interpretation of Jesus's words a higher priority than the rest of Scripture. Jesus said we should help and serve the poor. Great. I am all for that. Did Jesus say that the government should do it, through stealing money from people under its thumb? No, He told us personally, not the government, that we should take care of the poor.

Now, I understand that your interpretation is that the government, our government, is the one who should take care of the situation. You may feel that government can do it more efficiently than us (although anybody with an understanding of how government normally works would question this, I would think), or some other reason. That may be a valid political position to take, but to claim that Jesus's words force this position is nothing less than a transgression of the third commandment: you are taking your own human interpretation as God's direct command.

In fact, the thing I find especially interesting about this is that this is exactly what these so-called "Red Letter Christians" constantly confuse the rest of us "Black Letter Christians" of doing! Don't they constantly whine that we make God a Republican? What is this other than making God a liberal? (Oops, sorry, I mean, "progressive." :-)
Likewise, we believe the morality in the red letters of Jesus transcends that found in the black letters set down in the Pentateuch, and I'm surprised you don't agree. After all, Stan, didn't Jesus himself make this same point in the Sermon on the Mount, when he said his teachings about marriage and divorce were to replace what Moses taught? Don't you think his red-letter words about loving our enemies and doing good to those who hurt us represent a higher morality than the "eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" kind of justice that we find in the Hebrew Testament? Is it really so hard to accept that, as God incarnate, Jesus set forth the highest law in the Bible, and therefore that law is more important than the Kosher dietary regulations we find in Leviticus and Deuteronomy?
This paragraph is what really makes me wonder about Dr. Campolo's level of either intelligence, clarity, or veracity. He cannot mean what he seems to be saying here. No, Tony (if I may use your first name), Jesus did not say the same thing. In fact, he specifically said that he came not to abolish the Law or the Prophets ... but to fulfill them" and that "until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished." Jesus certainly does not seem to be abolishing the Pentateuch here. He changed a few things, true: but I think it's clear what's going on, and I am surprised that you don't know this. The things Jesus changed were primarily associated either with the ceremonial law or the government of national Israel.

Paul himself said this (see Colossians 2:16). I would think somebody as smart as Dr. Campolo would understand this. Or do Paul's words not count because they are not shown in red?

What's more, Dr. Campolo's "eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" statement shows a shocking lack of understanding of the Mosaic law. Any study Bible will inform us that this statement was actually a limitation on the bounds of response to a crime. In fact, it limits the restitution to a response in kind, not the kind of unlimited vengeance that humans take on their own. We could use this kind of limitation in inner cities today, where (one could argue, largely because of the kind of big-government policies favored by Dr. Campolo) it is not unknown to hear of murders based on nothing more than an insult or a stolen pair of shoes, or among organized criminals. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth would be a great improvement in both of these cases.
You got us RLCs right again when you suggested we were anti-war, pro-environment, and deeply committed to ending poverty primarily because we believe Jesus is anti-war, pro-environment, and deeply committed to ending poverty. The only mistake you made was to imply that thinking this way—or trying to influence our government according to these values—makes us the Religious Left.
Dr. Campolo obviously believes that Jesus was anti-war, pro-environment, and deeply committed to ending poverty. I am not sure which red words exactly tell us the first two, but let's leave that aside. Nobody ever questioned that you are sincere in your beliefs. If fact, I imagine you would give the "Religious Right" you hate the same credit; what you would question is the Right's alleged co-opting of Jesus's words for political ends. And, once again, is this not exactly what you are doing? You say Jesus was anti-war, but don't point out where Jesus's words tell us whether He support this one particular war that you are opposed to so deeply. You assume, without question, that this one war is one that Jesus would oppose. How do you know this? Because it is unwinnable? You'll excuse me if I question your fitness to evaluate this military objective.

You say Jesus is pro-environment; and we would most likely agree. I know of no red words that make this point; but the Pentateuch that you don't give much credence to says that God made the earth, and He made us stewards of it. However, you don't show how Jesus's words support the government taking away our property rights to do it, or how it supports the US government having to give into UN and other international resolutions that are clearly designed to injure the United States as much as to help the environment. You also don't show how Jesus's words support putting specific parts of the environment (say, a threatened forest species) over people's livelihoods.

Finally, you say Jesus was deeply committed to ending poverty. This has two (at least) problems that I would think somebody as smart as Dr. Campolo would understand. First, as pointed out above, why do Jesus's words unequivocally mean that the government should steal from some people and give to others, kind of like a huge, unstoppable, scary Robin Hood? Second, how does he know that we "black letter Christians" do not give our time and resources to helping the poor personally? That seems like a huge guess on Dr. Campolo's part, and one that is uncharitable in the extreme. I give a large part of my income, and a considerable amount of time, helping those who are less materially blessed than I am.

It seems to me that I am the one who is taking Jesus's words truly seriously. Simply allowing the government to do it is using Jesus's words for political gain; letting somebody else take care of the problem (although it's questionable whether the government has in fact ever played a positive part in eradicating poverty) is simply feeling better about yourself by having the government take care of the problem so you don't have to personally. Let's face it, Jesus's words were not spoken (or written down) to governments; they were spoken to us. Yes, we should do what can to help people, to help the environment, to avoid war where possible. But it is a purely political position to state that these things can only be done by government and Jesus had this particular war in mind, and that anybody who opposes your position is setting himself against Jesus's words. You are saying that a transgression against your political position is a transgression against Jesus's words; again, a violation of the third commandment.
That you think asking questions such as, "Do the candidates' budget and tax policies reward the rich or show compassion for poor families?," or "Do the candidates' policies protect the creation or serve corporate interests that damage it?," is partisan saddens us. We believe these are the questions that every Christian should be asking, no matter which political party or candidate has the better answers at a given time in history.
This not only confuses Jesus's words with your interpretation, it is very much along the same lines as political polls that ask questions like "Do you believe the government has the right to steal more of your hard-earned money" instead of a neutral "Do you think the government should raise taxes." The very phrase "reward the rich" is itself a politically loaded statement. It saddens me, Dr. Campolo, that you should be so mired in your political beliefs that you cannot see that. I am well aware, for example, that when I said "the government ... stealing money from people under its thumb" I was using politically charged language. I did that intentionally to counter yours; I would not normally use such biased expressions as these. And I certainly would not use them in an public advertisement such as the Sojourners ad mentioned by Guthrie in his article above.
I'm sorry you don't want to be one of us, Stan. In the struggle to convince our fellow believers to think, act, give, and vote according to the teachings of Jesus, we Red Letter Christians could really use a bright, articulate guy like you.
Sigh. I easily believe that you feel deeply about your struggle to convince your fellow believers that Jesus's words support your chosen political position. How is this not co-opting Jesus's words as you constantly accuse the "Religious Right" of doing?

In summary, Dr. Campolo, I'm sorry you don't want to be one of us Black Letter Christians. (One might simply say "Christians" but that would be unfairly critical; I certainly cannot judge his heart.) In the struggle to convince our fellow believers to take the teachings of Jesus and indeed the rest of the Bible seriously (and not mistake their political positions for the only possible interpretation of Jesus's teachings), we Black Letter Christians could really use a bright, articulate, committed, and energetic guy like you. Won't you join us?

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